JoshuaPaulGreene

Strange ramblings and inquisitive whimsy

Category: Outdoors

The Call of the Wilderness

These last three days I’ve had the rare – unfortunately rare, in fact – opportunity to take a few days removed from the confines of society; utterly unreachable by anyone not in my immediate vicinity; free of the so-called responsibilities demanded in order to remain a ‘contributing member of the community.’  This escape, though not difficult, is a feat accomplished less often than I’m proud of and can be found so simply by transporting the crucial pieces of ones life to the wilderness – food, water, shelter.

It’s a strange and beautiful thing how removal from the ‘daily grind’ can so quickly manifest within the soul a yearning to remain outside of the modern world we’ve so carelessly deemed as ‘better’ than the days of old.  After mere hours of extra-societal existence I found myself drawn to start walking and not stop until I was presented with a reason.  And not any reason, but a reason good enough to halt me in my tracks – to jerk me out of my childish wanderings and pull me back into something meaningful and in one foul swoop, pacify my eagerness to roam.

I’ve been half-heartedly exploring the possibility of a cross-country bike trip followed by months of trekking down one of America’s trails – whether it be the Pacific Coast Trail, the Appalachian Trail or even the small-in-comparison Colorado Trail.  I’m certain at least a modicum of my faith in the ‘journey’ comes from Hollywood’s glorification of the life-changing adventure, but I’m not so sure that it’s complete mumbojumbo.  Being a Buddhist, a massive percentage of my search in life relates to a better understanding of my true self and a search for the compassion necessary to change the world.  Maybe it’s the thought that the search throughout the world for the glory and the wonder it has to offer will help trigger something – get the ball rolling, so to speak.

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone has been a well-accepted method of self-discovery and growth and what better way to do that than leave the only life you’ve ever known to seek an alternate life full of unforeseen circumstances and mystery?  Any marginally practiced buddhist will tell you that life itself is more than enough to lead you to enlightenment – that no search is necessary, only openness to what life brings you – but they will also tell you that you should follow your heart’s path, no matter what.

In the years that have seen the distance between the ‘outdoors’ and ‘society’ grow to previously untouched proportions, so has the debate between natural existence and manufactured quality of life gained potency.  Both sides of the argument offer strong claims, of course.  Naturalists and wilderness enthusiasts will point to the clarity of the skies – skies devoid of airwaves transporting our many facets of technological communication (not to mention audible noise) – as a major contributor to the freedom brought only by the mountains, deserts and oceans.  Conversely, our businesspeople and other city-dwellers will rattle off a list of the many creature comforts that undeniably enable a more leisurely lifestyle (though any true outdoors(wo)man will valiantly defend the position that time spent outside is nothing short of leisure at its finest and that a life lived purely outside – ‘off the land’ as it were – would be altogether leisurely thanks to a greatly-reduced percentage of our daily stresses induced by ‘modern’ living.)

Untouched by either side’s relevancies, the battle between natural life and city life will rage until one of them ceases to exist, but one point will forever stand true regardless of what any flamingly passionate activist spits out:  A lot could be gained if each person dedicated as much effort to catching the sunset each evening as they did to checking their email before hitting the sack.

And this isn’t  just some dreamy notion thought up by a cooky outdoorsman.  In an article from the November 2010 issue of the Mountain Gazette, contributing writer, M. Michael Brady offered the sentiment (based on a 2005 study initiated by Nordic countries to measure the benefits of the outdoors,) “even in small amounts, natural environments are beneficial. Post-operative patients recover quicker if they can see a bit of green nature through the windows of their hospital rooms. Even short walks in natural surrounds have measurable psychological effects. In urban environments, ready access to green spaces helps improve health, lower mortality and reduce social problems.”  You get the point.

As we hiked out of the canyon on our last day of climbing, heading towards camp to break down and drive back into civilization, we all stopped as we stepped from the riverbed underbrush and into the subsequent meadow.  The sun was setting far beyond the mountain ranges to our west casting each range in different shades of blues and purples.  Perfectly complimenting these illustrious hues, the orange-green of the sky cast long and meticulous shadows over the dry, red earth sprawling for miles before us.   The moment required no words, no explanations, no thought.

I believe that’s the bliss found in nature from which countless millions of people have derived their solace:  a simple existence reducing the complexities of humanity to the primal and natural essence of life – just life.  The tools and technologies we’ve developed address the immediate difficulties of our day-to-day lives, but they fail to satisfy or even acknowledge the deep, underlying quest for meaning.  Even the largest of projects taken on for the sake of ‘leaving something behind’ cast a shadow of ever-so-subtle malcontent upon completion.  I don’t wish to imply that the only way to live a fulfilling life is to sacrifice our society’s conveniences for the rough-around-the-edges subsistence offered by our natural surroundings, but rather to urge a more serious investigation on the part of each individual into the benefits of a wilderness-friendly existence.

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Nature Is Your Teacher If You Want It

I spent the week at 8,600 feet in Lake City, Colorado – for those unfamiliar, it’s a sleepy little mountain town nestled in the heart of the San Juan’s – and being far removed from what most would call ‘civilization’ I found it easy to get sucked into a simpler way of life dictated more by the hours of daylight and less by the hours of the bar. So in staying with the theme of getting out of my normal city routine, I decided to wake before sunrise and head out on Lake San Cristobal by kayak to watch that big rock of fire peek its head up over the mountains.

Somehow – and I’m not sure how I pulled this off – I managed to peel my brother out of bed to come along with me. We were out the door by 5:20 a.m. hoping to unload the boats and be on the water for the supposed 5:47 sunrise. Being in such a hurry, our minds admittedly clouded by the haze of waking earlier than usual, we underestimated the chill in the air and by the time we made it out on the water wearing little more than jackets, jeans and sandals we were both cursing each other for not having learned after 20 years of living in the Colorado Rockies that the weather is almost always colder than it looks.

Colorado is a land where snow can come over the hills in the middle of July on a day with a forecast of clear skies and a high of 80 degrees. Wind can creep up and drop the temperature from 75 to 32 in a matter of minutes and regardless of what the weatherman says, it can – and usually will – get cold. That’s not to say that it’s not my favorite place in the world – I love Colorado – but you’d think that after years of learning these lessons the hard way we’d at least be able to figure out that in the wee hours of the morning the air outside might be a bit chilly.

So with nearly numb digits we somehow managed to paddle out, our extremities more closely resembling sausages attached to stumps than actual hands and feet. It would be another hour or so before the sun made it up past the 11,000-foot peaks surrounding the lake, so in the interest of maintaining activity and some semblance of body heat we started paddling around. The quiet was spectacular, severe even, and despite being more than 100 feet from each other, only whispers were needed to communicate; the sounds bounced off the water, off the trees, off the mountains surrounding and eventually found their way to our ears as crystal clear as when they had left our mouths.

All around us we could see the sun caress the tips of the higher peaks in the distance and slowly meander down the groves of aspens and pines towards the lake. From the water we waited for what felt like an eternity for a taste of that warm light slowly and cautiously drawing closer, inch-by-inch. With no wind the lake was clearer than any mirror I’ve ever seen; it bent the light in a way that exaggerated the colors of the sky against the mountains and the mountains against the sky and made them seem more like a vivid dream than real life.

It had been nearly an hour since we first paddled out and realizing it would probably be another 30 minutes before the sun found us, we started searching for the point on the lake where the sun would first make contact. Heading from our end down to the other we paddled quickly enough to warm our bodies and chill our naked hands, now lifelessly gripping the paddles. After a few minutes of investigative toil we realized there was probably no better place than where we had come from, so back we went, each stroke pulling us closer towards the reflection of the mountains in the water.

I made a personal goal to paddle just long enough to reach the reflection of the mountains rather than the reflection of the sky. Of course, if you’ve ever been in a kayak you know that’s impossible; the reflection of the sky will always meet the reflection of the mountains just in front of your vessel. Realizing this shortly thereafter I settled for ‘close enough.’ Looking a few feet across the water at my brother I saw that he had found a spot into the mountains’ reflection in the water and in that moment I realized I was being taught one of Mother Nature’s precious and silent life lessons.

Life is more like that water than we think. Everyone seems to be headed towards some goal that they can see, either clearly or with mild distortions. We see others who have achieved what we hoped to accomplish and wonder how they got there; wonder what we’re doing wrong when in actuality it’s all just a reflection in the water. We’ve already come further than we realize, at least in others’ eyes, but we don’t see it because we’re not looking from the right angle.

Believing that lesson was over I took the moment to breathe in the cool summer air, feeling proud of myself for being open enough at 6:30 in the morning to listen to Her advice.

The sun had finally grown close enough to illuminate the treetops cresting the ridge of the mountains to the east. With each passing second it grew brighter and brighter, evolving towards inexplicable splendor and within a matter of minutes it was hitting us with directly in the face, bringing with it some much-needed warmth to our fingers and toes. Both blinded by the reflection of the giant star in the water my brother and I took a few minutes to soak in the glory before heading back to shore. My brother looked across the water and laughingly told me I had it easy. When a puzzled expression provided my reply, he elaborated, saying the reflection of the sun was hitting him square in the face; I guess he didn’t realize it was hitting me the same way. I realized Nature wasn’t finished speaking.

Everyone in the world has pretty much the same problems manifested in slightly different forms. Some worry about money, some about health, some about life and some about death. Whatever our individual obstacles, they can seem to blind us from time to time; it’s certainly no secret that worries can make it difficult to see where we’re going. And though everyone has things they’re trying to overcome, we all seem to think that our situation is unique to us alone – that no one else will understand. In reality, those problems are hitting everyone else just as hard and in exactly the same way they’re hitting us; and in exactly the same way that sun was hitting my brother and I. And just like that star in the water, each obstacle has its share of benefits; we couldn’t see a darned thing but we were quite a bit warmer.

I guess it just depends how you chose to view things; sometimes the world looks starkly different depending on which perspective you adopt and other times it looks exactly the same. We shouldn’t be afraid to let a few ripples distort our image of success because those ripples indicate life; they illuminate the ever-changing dance of existence. I don’t believe we should ever believe another is better off nor should we believe ourselves more fortunate than they, whether it appears that way or not. Water may be deceptive in many ways, but then again, it never claimed to be truth. It’s our human consciousness – our human reasoning – that interprets those reflections as truth when really, the only place we can reasonably expect to find honesty is in the mountains, the sky and the trees that make those reflections on the water. Just because a person has an ugly reflection doesn’t mean they’re ugly and just because a person’s image is beautiful doesn’t mean their soul reciprocates. What we see on the surface is most likely a distortion of the truth, whether that distortion is born out of omission, manipulation or a simple case of perceptive inaccuracy. Next time you’re about judge someone, look up from the reflection in the water and try to see what he or she actually is – see who he or she actually is. I think you’ll be surprised what you find.