Camping, Wild Horses, and the Search for Balance

By Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM

“Wake up!” my beloved spouse shakes me in a panicked state. “Horses!” he yells madly. I am suddenly wide awake and feel my breathing becoming more rapid as I recall my earlier conversation with a camp ranger: “Stay at least 10 feet away from all wild horses because they become aggressive. They kick, they bite…” he told us. Bottom line: wild horses = danger. A message that I clearly took to heart given how much it was racing. But what about when moving 10 feet away is not an option because a horse is breaking into your now-very-apparently-insecure abode?! 

Through the sheet-like walls, we see the silhouette of a large horse tripping towards us while we simultaneously hear the loud snap of our tent string. I sense the tarp falling as the horse catches its balance and pushes into our tent walls, the silhouette growing ever larger, louder, and closer. Feeling under attack and fully conscious of my lack of invincibility, I try to cease my mind from contributing meaning into this wild and terrifying intrusion, only for more shadows to appear.  

We mutually realize there are many more of them surrounding us. I long for the day’s earlier feelings of safety, recapping in my mind when my spouse showed off his new tan lines after sleeping on the beach (including a brand-new white line down his torso from where the chord of his headphones blocked the sun) and us falling asleep to the sound of the waves and the chirping symphony of nocturnal insects. But now, our tent shakes, almost as if dancing, and my eyes feel as wide and open as the full moon above us.  

I am sweating profusely, and not at all from the summer heat. My mind immediately reverts back to the events leading me to this panic-stricken moment, and I flashback to our conversation not but a day prior when my spouse was giving me grief. 

“Wait, we are here for only one night? How can you really relax with only one night?” (But what he means is, how can he?)   

“You always do this!” He snapped at me. “You just book only ONE night and then try to fit everything in. You never just sit and relax. Can’t you just chill?” Words I’d hear time, time, and time again.  

For context, while he and I both seem to have a little workaholic in our bloodstreams, we definitely do not share the same idea of “just chill” in our hours outside of work. Sitting quietly is his version of relaxation, while for me, there is nothing more draining than the boredom of nothingness. What he finds rejuvenating, I find painful. Under stimulating. A waste of precious and limited time.  What I find energizing, he finds exhausting. Draining. Sucking the last of his already depleted, sweet, sweet energy reserves. 

Over the years we have tried to compromise by alternating weekends: first spending time “sitting quietly,” sleeping (a.k.a. consisting entirely of his cherished downtime), the next socializing with friends or going to the zoo (a.k.a. comprised entirely of activities and my need to work hard, play hard.) Unfortunately, said compromises always left one of us feeling chronically fatigued (or stated more accurately, with the desire to claw out our eyes from the constant plunging through a chore lasting an entire never-ending weekend), hardly conducive to the relaxation we both craved after throwing our all into our jobs. Our individual searches for personal work-life balance naturally found us spending most of our free time apart – doing the above opposing things which left us each feeling recharged… but separate. 

Was this balance? Energy balance perhaps, but at what cost? Love? Marriage? Independence in lieu of “other half”? We were determined to find a way to focus on connection without compromise, to engage in something which could recharge both of us simultaneously and together. It was this search for balance, connection, and unclawed eyes that led us to camping at the wild pony-filled land of Assateague Island. 

Our campsite, conveniently situated directly between the woods and the beach, offered us a place that met both of our needs: my need for activity (I could hike, photograph wildlife, nerd out on birds, and fully experience the many noises from wind against plants to the singing of cicadas), and Dom’s needs for quiet stillness (he could sunbathe, sleep on the sand, throw on headphones to tune out the world and not have to listen to, or experience, anything or anyone. I get stimulation, he gets tranquility, yet we can both feel like we are sharing the moment together.  

The loud and crushing sound of “neigh, snort, whinny, tap, squeal, sneeze, knicker…. ” swiftly brings me back to the present moment. The tent continues to move as one of the wild horses hits its head against our tent wall repeatedly. Another one lets out a large grunt so loud that it startles my spouse to the point of almost falling over. He gets down on the floor of the tent with me. The looks on our faces seem to beg an unspoken but mutual plea to the animals: “Don’t hurt us!” We wait. In terror. Hoping the horses’ aggression stays on the outside of our tent and that they leave us alone. We are both too scared to exit to move to our car and too clueless to know if that would even be a good idea. He squeezes my hand and brings me close.

“Shh. Just wait,” he whispers. “It looks like now they are just after the grass.” He bobs his head to mimic the horse eating the grass. “Chomping,” he says out loud as if I didn’t get what he was doing. Knowing the ridiculousness of the situation, and his little fear induced horse role play, we both let out a quiet, yet still nervous, laughter. Thankfully, it was that moment the horses moved on to the next unsuspecting campers, leaving our tent still fully intact. We mutually breathe a large sigh, and our nervous giggle evolves into full-fledged, uncontrollable cackling. As we gasp for air and clutch our bellies with full bodied laughter, he looks at me with overwhelming relief, and says, “Thank you for booking only one night. 

A calmness permeates the tent, and we are happy to return home in the morning. Did we achieve balance? Perhaps not, but even with needing different things, we certainly experienced a renowned sense of togetherness. And when we packed up our tent the next day and trekked back home, I, for once, felt grateful for the end of an adventure… at least until next weekend. 

Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM is the Director of Mental Health at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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