I work in a dull office. In the break room we have a TV mounted on the wall that’s constantly displaying one of those screensaver slideshows of mountains and lakes. Lately I’ve been lingering on my water breaks. I find myself receiving much more nourishment from the images on screen than I get from the water cooler.
While reflecting on my most recent adventure struggling through the Rocky Mountains, I began to question: What’s the attraction? As I walked amongst the mountains, I couldn’t figure out why this was so fulfilling. The untamed wilderness used to be a place of peril. An unforgiving environment only to be forced into out of necessity. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that some of us began to flock back to these wild places voluntarily (there is a great book on this subject that I would highly recommend). Whether you are a devout follower of outdoor romanticists the likes of Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir or just an adrenaline junkie looking for something precarious to climb, there exists an undeniable fascination with nature.
After years of on and off adventure, I decided to ask myself: What keeps bringing me back?
I grew up camping. I don’t know where my dad got it from, but thankfully I was exposed to the outdoors from a young age. Learning how to fish in Indian Guides (from what I’ve surmised is sort’ve like diet boy scouts?), pitching a tent in Yosemite, gawking at trees in Big Sur, hiking along the Colorado River, sledding in my local mountains, learning to fish with my bare hands in Thousand Oaks, horseback riding in Sedona (have my mom to thank for that one!), tubing in Zion, taking goofy photos in front of the Grand Canyon, kayaking in Morro Bay. My world was relatively wide from a young age and I have a hunch that’s how it starts for most people.
I was involved with almost every aspect of these adventures. I learned what to expect and how to pack. I learned how to take risks and conquer physical fears. I learned how to make fires, pitch a tent, and live comfortably uncomfortable. I’d like to think that if I never stepped into another forest again, this responsibility and resourcefulness would still serve me well for the rest of my adult life. But like so many others, I’ve found it hard to resist the natural magnetism of the woods.
Once I got to high school, these childhood adventures more or less took a back seat. I traded my hiking boots for skate shoes (I didn’t even skate?) and began trying to kindle a social life instead of camp fires. By the time I reached college, I was firmly swept up in the whirlwind of pre-adulthood. All in all, I took almost 10 years off from getting in touch with my wild side.
I briefly reference this in my bio but I figure it’s a pretty prominent part of this subject, so I’ll include it here. After 5 very long years, I finally graduated college. As a film major who decided he didn’t want to live in LA (really thought that one through), my job prospects were MIA. Add to this the deterioration of a 3.5 year relationship (my first), and you can imagine just how empty one might feel. Needing an excuse to procrastinate my job search, I decided to take a trip to visit my dad where he lived at the time, Washington.
Over the next week, I spent my time exploring the picturesque harbor town my dad lived in as well as letting him show me around the most gorgeous state I’d ever been to. Growing up in California, green was an alien color to me. Don’t get me wrong, California is a beautiful state with so much to see. However, where I grew up in Orange County, the color palette available to me was various shades of brown.
I distinctly remember looking out the window of the plane as it landed, thinking to myself, “Oh my god, I’m landing on Endor.” (ironically, those scenes from Return of the Jedi were shot in Northern California. Go figure). I spent the rest of the week scooping my jaw off the ground, marveling at what Washington had to offer. I couldn’t stop gawking at Mount Rainier, which loomed so large it looked (and in a way, felt) like it had it’s own gravitational pull. I was fascinated at the juxtaposition of the water, trees, and city all sharing one space (what a concept!).
I also noticed people were generally friendlier than what I was accustomed to. In stores, on the street, on the freeway. Everything in Southern California seems to be a race. “I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for you. Get out of my way. I need to do what’s best for me and everyone else can wait”. It was refreshing to be around people that would actually give me the time of day.
Eventually the week was over, but my adventure had just begun. I departed my dad’s, boarded a train by myself, and headed to Oregon.
It is here where I was truly re-exposed to the wild. As I drove past Mt. Hood, traffic gave way to open roads, asphalt turned to dirt, and cell service became a thing of the past. I know the general area of where I was but to this day, could not point it out to you on a map. At this exact point in my life, I had no school, no relationship, no job, and no idea what life had in store for me. In a way, it was fate that circumstances had brought me to this place. I was nowhere. And it was exactly what I needed. There wasn’t a soul for miles in any direction, yet I was the furthest thing from lonely. Camping along that river, exploring those woods, looking up at the visible milky way in the night sky. These images are forever etched into my mind. It was over the course of these 4 days that I fell back in love with nature and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity.
As I huffed and puffed my way through The Rockies last month, it finally began to dawn on me. I felt small. Now, normally that would carry negative connotations. But this was a different kind of small.
When I’m in the woods I feel humbled. Suddenly, my life isn’t the center of my attention. I’m just a speck in this place where things have lived and will continue to live naturally, without human interaction. I suppose escapism is part of it. Even more than that, I find tremendous perspective while traveling. Traveling anywhere will more or less accomplish this, but there’s something about nature that allows me to take a step back and get the big picture. The wilderness is the only truly neutral place. It gives me physical and mental space. It magnifies existing emotions to help me find clarity.
Nature is a challenge. The outdoors can be dangerous. As long as you’re not stupid about it, there is something admittedly attractive about the risk. There is something affirming about being able to survive, camping in the middle of nowhere, hiking into an uninhabited area, or climbing a mountain that gives you assurance. It’s a strength born of struggle, then conquering. It’s a strength that I can carry with me back to the real world. Perhaps “civilized” is a better moniker than “real”, now that I think about it.
The hardest thing to put into words is the sense of peace. Not just, “Oh wow that’s a big waterfall, how beautiful!”. Most of the time I’ve noticed it’s not even something that compels you to speak. In fact, the opposite. It shuts you up. There is a rhythm to nature. You have to be in the right place at the right time, in the right state of mind, but it’s there. And it’s the most satisfying and balanced thing I’ve ever experienced.
Navigating the outdoors means freedom. It’s up to you where to go and how to get there. It’s up to you when to turn back or push forward. It’s a real life choose-your-own-adventure game with unlimited side-quests.
Exploring the outdoors is like crack for the curious mind. It’s hard not to become giddy when surrounded by unfiltered possibility. What would I see if I climbed that rock? Will that river be too cold or fun-cold? How is it possible that there are so many stars, what else is up there? In a life full of predictability and routine, nature has the tremendous power to reduce you to a kid. To quote Dan White, the author of the aforementioned book I’m reading (specifically in regards to the Adirondacks in upstate New York),
“…can make a man feel, paradoxically, strong yet childlike, a kindergartner trapped in the body of a lumberjack.”
I thought this was the perfect way to describe the feeling I get while camping.
Maybe it’s bred into us. Like a dog shaking a toy, maybe this is our way of tapping into that little bit of wild left in us from long ago. Maybe our camping forefathers were right about the curse of a stagnant life in the city. Maybe it’s just dumb fun. Believing it’s a combination of all three, I am happy to embrace the lifestyle. I’m even happier to see more and more people doing the same.
It is my wish to not only continue expanding my horizons, but to eventually spread this love to others. I want my kids to have the same connection to and appreciation for the wild. They deserve to experience the candid adventure that I did. I want them to see the world for what it is, not just what it appears to be. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s waiting.