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Opinion Camping in the Rockies, with the ghost of covid

A scenic overlook near Creede, Colo., shows the headwaters of the Rio Grande. (SWInsider/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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Maddy Butcher is the author of “Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights” and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit.

No wonder Americans hit the road this summer, setting records for attendance at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. After well over a year of pandemic-induced isolation — with anxiety and depression spiking over the winter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — people had plenty of reasons to seek the pleasure and solace of the outdoors.

I did, too. I live in rural southwest Colorado and I’m outdoors plenty, but the road and the Rockies still called. And I felt a desperate longing to travel with a tangible reminder of childhood trips in Maine with my family, a totem of adventure and security that felt right for the summer of 2021.

In Maine, and maybe elsewhere, it’s called a wanigan. My dad made one in the 1960s. It was bigger than a microwave and smaller than a hay bale, a bulky box for equipment and groceries. Built of quarter-inch plywood, with metal handles and a hinged top that doubled as a small table, it was a beloved possession serving three generations of campers. It carried cups, plates, pots, cans of corned beef hash and cookies.

We took ours on canoes down the St. John, Penobscot and Allagash rivers. Like “Allagash” and “Penobscot,” “wanigan” has Native American origins — in this case, from the Ojibwa term “waanikaan,” a hole or pit excavated for storage. As a girl, I heard “want-again.” Because whatever you put inside, you’d soon want again.

I urgently wanted to find the old wooden beast and put it back into action. But it was gone, my father reported. Must not have survived my parents’ move from country home to in-town condo.

Dad offered to construct another one. Over calls and emails, we worked out the dimensions and materials. Three weeks later, a large, heavy box arrived via U.S. mail, containing the disassembled plywood, old prescription bottles full of screws and a home-printed set of instructions. With celebratory beer and music, I put it together that night, emblazoned it with my initials and varnished it the next day.

I packed the wanigan with one bowl, one pot, one mug, a set of utensils, matches, tea, Oreos, nuts, soup, ramen, boxed milk, Grape-Nuts and bananas. I hefted it across the dirt driveway and placed it in my horse trailer along with my saddles, saddle pads, headstalls, sleeping bag, camp stove and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.”

I loaded up two horses and three dogs, and headed to Creede, Colo., where I would camp and help a friend with his cattle.

Like so many small mountain towns, Creede and its surrounding county lately have been swollen with out-of-towners. It hosts some 4,000 seasonal visitors, who support (and cramp) about 700 permanent residents. Tourists fill the few, narrow streets with expansive RVs and late-model Jeeps.

Other visitors camp quietly, almost invisibly, on the surrounding 1.83 million acres of the Rio Grande National Forest. Many are passing through and just getting by. That’s where I set up.

At first light, not far from Middle Creek, I reached inside the wanigan. Smelling the new varnish, I thought back to a family camping trip on the St. John River. It had started with two days of solid rain, but we didn’t take a lot of vacations together, and my parents weren’t going to cancel because of the weather.

On the first night of that trip, I slept in an old campground outhouse rather than a water-soaked tent. The river rose more than one foot, and the next day, in our wide, old-fashioned canoes — the wanigan planted in the middle of one — we white-knuckled it through rapids made enormous by the rains.

Some 40 years along, I grabbed a pot from the new wanigan and boiled water for tea, then used the same pot for hot cereal. The sun burned off low-lying mist around Bristol Head, elevation 12,713 feet. Later, I rode horseback with my friend and worked with my border collies over 20 miles of high country, urging cattle to new pasture.

The pandemic has me embracing a new normal: The mixing of hard times and good times seems natural, like whatever you find jumbled cozily together when you lift the wanigan lid. Animals I care for get hurt and die. My grandbaby was born to great joy, coupled with worry. Money comes and then goes.

I think about a passage I came across in “East of Eden,” where Steinbeck, writing of the Irish, said they “have a despairing quality of gaiety, but they have also a dour and brooding ghost that rides on their shoulders and peers in on their thoughts.”

Maybe when the dour and brooding ghost of covid has finally been banished, we’ll purge ourselves of the sadness and anxiety that came with it. More likely, I think, we’ll carry them a long time, relics of the pandemic journey, stowed but still with us.

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