In the spirit of expanding my writing style and audience, I recently wrote this piece for the Summer issue of Mountaineer Magazine. It’s provided in full here, but is also available on their blog at https://www.mountaineers.org/blog/embracing-the-slower-side-of-life.
There’s something truly wonderful about not knowing what lies over the next ridge, or how to get there. If I climb down into the creek bed, will it connect? And if so, will I be able to climb back out? Or is it better to scramble up the talus and hope things aren’t too steep on the other side?
Every Mountaineer knows this process well: evaluate the terrain, make a decision, and hope it works out. The uncertainty drives excitement; the unknown creates the heart of the adventure. Seeking out this unknown used to be the primary way I related to the outdoors, but lately, I’ve discovered that nature has so much more to offer.
As a teenager, I fell in love with the dangerous side of the great outdoors. From tramping through the woods to climbing mountains, the inherent self-reliance I found in the wilderness was addicting. Sometimes brutal but always fair, nature was my challenging ground; a place where I needed to stay fit and sharp if I wanted to make it back home safely. I discovered that adventure starts when things stop going to plan. A good story was my prize and danger my measure – the more terrifying, the better.
I got bigger and bolder. I sought out interesting objectives to carry me through an amazing adventure, then I cracked a beer while sharing rollicking stories once I got back home. The sport itself barely mattered; I was equally happy almost dying on a motorcycle as I was almost dying in a giant wave. It was the adrenaline rush I craved.
I thought I’d always want to chase this rush, but as I grew older, things changed. By my late twenties, the highs weren’t as high. To stay terrified, I needed to things to be higher, steeper, longer. But pushing these dimensions soon became unfulfilling too.
I turned to new activities to keep things fresh. I learned to ski and swim long distances, then I got my pilot’s license. These new pursuits were exciting for a while, but eventually it was the same story: new things were scary until I learned them, at which point they became, well, not. Everything still lacked the raw edge of my starry-eyed youth.
Eventually, I came to recognize this familiarity as a source of joy and wonder in its own right. I started hiking the same trails over and over, paying closer attention to the ever-changing conditions – the snowpack, the trees, the undergrowth. After a big storm, I couldn’t wait to get out and see what happened. Has the leaning tree fallen over yet? How high’s the river? What did the big rain storm do to the snow? The weather, the bugs, and the plants all provided a never-ending source of interest.
I came to realize that for all the time I’d spent outdoors, I didn’t really know it. I’ve been moving too fast, too focused on my own ego to stop and take it all in. But with a new perspective, everywhere I go I feel as though I’m coming home for the first time.
These days, I’m conscious, engaged, and present when I’m out on a walk, no matter how short or un-wild. I’m equally happy car camping on the coast as I am halfway up Rainer. I’m noticing things, remembering them, and building a much, much deeper mental map of the places I go. And with that map comes a marvelous sense of place.
There’s certainly something wonderful about not knowing what lies over the next ridge, but there’s something equally wonderful about knowing exactly what to expect. I don’t have to wonder anymore. Now I can climb down into the gully, follow the creek for three bends, and end up right where I want to be.