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.