It’s hard to pinpoint the genesis of my love of the outdoors because, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been outside. Whether running around the five-acre farmstead where I grew up, family camping trips to Turtle Mountain State Park, playing in the pastures at my uncle’s farm, or the dozens of camping trips, canoe trips, and hikes I participated in as a Boy Scout — the great outdoors was a constant part of my life.
In fact, the majority of my memories of the house I grew up in don’t involve the house so much as our yard, the woods behind the house, and the farmland that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction around it. Regardless of the season, that was where I spent my time, that was where I felt most comfortable.
I remember spending hours in the woods around our house, either alone or with my poor little sister in tow as I constructed forts from discarded wood, pretending to be Robin Hood, or any number of odd little games that only make perfect sense when you’re a kid.
It hardly mattered if it was an endless summer day or a harsh December afternoon, I was outside doing something. Those elaborate snow forts aren’t going to dig themselves, you know.
I can count so many milestones in my life on the outdoors —
- My first experience leading others was on a Boy Scout canoe trip through Quetico Provincial Park in Manitoba. We spent an entire week canoeing over 80 miles, setting up camp from scratch every night, completely isolated from the outside world. The silence and the peace in that place is beyond words.
- Or our family trip to Glacier National Park. I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Rockies. For a flatlander from the Great Plains, seeing those snow-capped peaks fill the horizon brought 10 year-old me to tears. I was bawling and laughing at the same time, I was so happy.
- Going for long drives in the countryside with Sara when we were dating in college. The way that we experienced the rolling grassland of North Dakota and the Minnesota lake country together made me certain we were a good match.
- An impromptu Christmas hike up to Mirror Lake in Mount Hood Wilderness outside of Portland, just six months after we’d gotten married and sprinted to the west coast. Our new puppy, Marley, revelled in the powder. And we tromped past snowshoers and hardcore hikers in hooded sweatshirts and tennis shoes.
There are scores more. Most of them just brief, fleeting moments of peace and tranquility, usually sparked by something seemingly small and insignificant. Like a slight hesitation at a fork in the path or a leaf falling from a tree that catches the corner of your eye. Delicate, pristine instances where I am reminded of how essential and primal our connection with nature is, and how easy it is in a world increasingly detached from that connection to forget how important being a part of nature can be to our well-being.
Despite all of this, I’m no naturalist. I can’t really recognize bird calls, identify or tell you what wild plants are edible or anything like that. Those sorts of pursuits were never as important to me as just being present in wilderness. That’s not to say that I’m helpless out there. I can still start a fire off a single match and put together a makeshift shelter if I have to. I have a relatively good sense of direction and know enough to be able to enjoy myself and stay safe. In the end, I try to adhere to two basic things when I’m in the outdoors-know my limits and do no harm. Stick to those and 99% of the time, you’re golden.
Some people feel like being in nature brings them closer to god. I’m not religious, but I certainly hold nothing against those who do. It’s just not for me. But the outdoors? I need it like I need food and water. If I spend too much time cooped up in buildings and cars, I get irritable and depressed. Even if it’s just a quick walk in the park or riding my bike to work, I need to get out. The outdoors is my church, my sanctuary.
Yet, by some twist of fate, I’ve always been drawn to the city. Don’t get me wrong, I think my rural upbringing was absolutely essential in making me who I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Regardless, I was always drawn to population centers. Be it the 350 person village of Alvarado, the bustling metropolis straddling the Red River, Fargo/Moorhead, or my current home of Portland.
Too often I think we equate “the outdoors” with big, grandiose places like Yellowstone or the Boundary Waters. But it’s really only a few steps and a change in mindset away. There are few things as sublime as cycling down tree-lined city streets on a lovely autumn day or walking in the park in high summer, the buzz of the city muted and dusty in the background.
As it gets harder and harder to “stop and smell the roses,” we need be more mindful of striking a balance between our created world and the actual world we live in. Look up — really look up — at trees as you walk under them. Track a bird as it swoops down in front of you. Let yourself smile when you see a squirrel circle a tree trunk and dive around a branch.
I don’t mean this in some hippy-dippy, a ‘get in touch with nature, maaaan’-sort of way. It’s really two just messages that I personally mash into one — take some time for your own mental well-being and appreciate the beauty of nature. I do this unconsciously because, going for hikes, biking to work, sitting at the foot of a waterfall, strolling on the beach, walking in the park — any of that stuff, is how I can disconnect, if only for a minute or two, from the everyday. And that’s something we all need every now and then.