People often say that they go outdoors to get away from it all. Recently I’ve been wondering if we are approaching our outdoor endeavors with a skewed perspective. When you ask someone who goes outdoors to recreate why they do it, they may reply with the classic cliche of escapism, but when pressed to describe their outdoor experience, they seldom describe the getting away from it all, and instead excitedly pontificate on everything that they get from and enjoy about the outdoors.
A “sense of connection” “feeling alive” “learning to communicate and deal with other people” “wonderment” “overcoming challenge”. These are a few of the phrases that I hear in conversations with folks venturing outdoors. To me, none of these sounds like an escape, but rather a deep and perhaps essential engagement.
In his timeless essay Briefing for Entry Into a More Harsh Environment, Morgan Hite lists eleven things that you learn or experience in the wilderness that apply profoundly to our front country lives, if we remember that they should. None of them talk about getting away from that life we sometimes call “real life” but they are rather a call to action to engage in our front country lives with the same mindfulness that we engage in the wilderness.
I have to wonder, what if we looked at our forays into the wilderness for what they are, what they do have vs. what they get us away from? Would we then be closer to understanding the transformative potential of the outdoors? If we approach our outdoor endeavors as a reminder of the engagement we hope to have with the world on a daily basis instead of as an escape from that world, would it bring us closer to self actualization and fulfillment?
In asking these questions I must start with my own reflections on time spent outdoors, here are some of the things that I realize more fully outside, and hope to carry with me throughout life:
There is beauty to be found everywhere. In the majesty of a grand vista or simply a cool and unexpected bug crawling in the grass nearby.
In crumbling buildings and illuminated cities. Sometimes that beauty challenges our perceptions of what beauty is, and this is a good thing, because seeing beauty in the little, everyday things helps us to appreciate the amazing world we live in.
We should take care of ourselves and each other. In popular culture, going outdoors is often viewed as survival, and if things go badly, it can turn into that, but most of my experience outdoors has been thriving and feeling alive and healthy. Why should we only find ourselves outdoors to survive some calamity? Certainly I don’t feel that each day in the front country is survival, yet I find it harder to take care of myself and others amidst the stimulus of the “real world.” I value going into the wilderness to remind me to try harder at taking care of myself and others. Recently it has been a harsh reminder that I am not doing this as well as I should.
Value the things you have and let go of those things you don’t. The wilderness encourages us to take care of our gear, yet so many of my outdoor professional friends never change the oil in their trucks, or just buy a new piece of gear when they could repair something they have. With the constant evolution of outdoor gear and the onslaught of advertising in the front country, it is easy to think you always need the newest flashy gear. I can certainly say that I consistently forget that I don’t need new things to enjoy my life. Maybe it’s time to go run around outdoors to remind myself of this again.
Life can be hard, get over it. Sometimes it storms on your outdoor trip, and sometimes your “real life” can be stormy. In the wilderness you either deal with it or do something about it, I reckon we should do the same in the front country.
As I write this, I realize I may be paraphrasing Hite’s piece too much. In the backcountry it can be easier to follow a well established trail, but often we are most engaged when we venture off on our own path. There is no reason that this shouldn’t be true in everyday life as well. Find those things that inspire and motivate you that don’t require being outdoors. There are hundreds of outdoor activities and yet in the front country we often follow the path laid out by our cultures, communities and the mass media. Choose your own path through life and enjoy the encounters with others you see along the way. When you do find yourself on the path of “norms” be sure that they lead in a direction you want to go.
The wilderness can force you to be engaged in the world around you. I go outdoors to seek that engagement and to be reminded that I should seek it in my life in general. I can’t really escape from the front country. I have to go back eventually. Wouldn’t my life be more fulfilling in general if instead I found a way to be as engaged in the front country as the backcountry? Would yours?