Friday, October 14, 2016

The great outdoors

Being wanderlust and all, I fantasize about being outside and on the go constantly. I spend 40 hours/week strapped to a desk, and though I love (adore, actually) my job and the people I work with, I still find myself dreaming of being out in the world as much as possible. It fuels me. I work to travel. Travel fuels my motivation at work. As soon as I get back from one adventure, I brainstorm my next. It's a cycle that I hope I never outgrow.

My entire childhood, we camped and hiked and played in creeks and roughed it in the great outdoors. Those were our vacations. (We even camped at Disney World!) It was overkill for me because I felt like I didn't have a say in those decisions--I was outdoorsy by birth and not by my own choice. I compensated by shunning the outdoors for many years of my young adult life and even tried to convince myself that I was a city girl.

These past few years that I've spent in deep introspection, though? I had an epiphany and found a gaping hole in my life: outside, fresh air, mountains, patches of earth few humans have ever trod, nature sounds, endless skies of stars and clouds. I would rather be away and separate from than included in any day of the week, any week of the year. I'm a mountain momma through and through. It's in my blood, deep down in the very cells of my being.

There is just something so thrilling and cathartic about conquering a trail, a mountain. For me, it's like I'm climbing over all the gunk in my brain to a place of serene mental clarity. Like when I'm so small--this teeny tiny cog in the great wheel of the planet--that I somehow become immense in power and assuredness. Flashy and grandiose? Nah, keep it. I am a speck out there in nature, but I am sure and steady and totally content.

The blisters, the screaming muscle groups, the sweat, the cool/sharp/humid/dry/hot air hitting my lungs, the soreness, the dull drone of too much uphill/downhill trekking all at once, the fact that I'm fairly certain I'm going to lose my left big toenail--none of it matters because what I'm chasing on that trail is so intrinsically worthwhile that it supercedes all the setbacks.

This summer I hiked to Rainbow Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's a relatively simple hike, though physically taxing. 2.7 miles up a mountain; 2.7 miles back down--about 3.5 hours in all. I hiked it all by myself at a time when I was desperate for some time to soul-search. My daughter was visiting her family in Pennsylvania, and I was all alone with a mess of thoughts to contend with and make sense of. I spent a handful of hours on the trail, but I took home heaping buckets of insight into myself, my life, where I want to go, what I want to see, the person I want to be. I stopped to take a swig of water from my Nalgene at one of several creek crossings, and I was so overwhelmed by my clarity against the sounds of birds in the trees, rustling leaves, and the trickling creek that I burst into tears. It's a feeling I can't even begin to describe. It may even sound stupid to anyone reading this, but I don't even care. It was so meaningful to me that I've thought of this hike--this exact moment--every time I've felt down in the dumps since then.

4 days ago, my dad and I hiked Rainbow Falls all the way up to the top of the mountain (Mt. LeConte), where we saw the sights from LeConte Lodge. Though it had only been 3 months since I was last on the trail, I felt like I was an entirely new person. The same path that was covered in fallen pinky-white rhododendron blooms just months before was now coated in a vibrant splay of purple, crimson, green, orange, and golden autumn leaves. The same change that I could feel within myself was literally visible on the ground beneath me...a blossoming to a prounounced deepening and maturation. It's amazing to me how nature mirrors the phases of our lives.

On this hike, I knew I would be tested. I recently made a vow to myself to always hike with the Ten Essentials, even on day hikes, so I had a pack of at least 10 lbs on the way up and 15 on the way down (I had some t-shirts and snacks we purchased at the top and newly refilled water bottle/bladder). I knew we would have at least a 13-mile day. I knew it would be unrelentingly uphill to the summit and just as steadily downhill on our return. I knew we would have a very full day and would be physically and mentally tired. Despite knowing what I was in for, there were still surprises and adrenaline rushes. That's something else deeply beautiful about being outdoors: you can be as prepared as all get out, and nature will still have unexpected fortunes in store for you.

All that being said, I reached my actual physical limit on this hike. I think better-quality boots would make a slight difference for me, but I can confidently say that for now, 16.5 miles is my limit. I think that's a pretty cool thing to know about myself. Maybe the AT is in my future as a section hike series, and I'll gladly accept that challenge if/when the time comes. But for now, I'll keep seeking out these day-hike mini adventures; they are enough.

Adventuring outside is no longer an option for me, but an absolute necessity to my being. Life, time, thought, perception, emotion, and expectation all take on completely different meaning when you're in an environment over which you have no control. And all the creature comforts like hot coffee, ice cold beer, cars, steamy showers, lotion, deodorant, mascara, warm socks, and dry clothes all take on different comfort when you return to them from the great unknown. This will never not be worth it.

Until next time, Mother Nature.