Nature and I used to be acquaintances. We would interact on an occasional basis, exchanging pleasantries and sticking to surface-level subjects. I’ll admit that I was closed-minded when it came to the great outdoors; I rarely noticed nor cared to explore anything that didn’t suit my immediate purposes.
And then I went to Zion National Park in the fall of 2015.
For the first time in my life I was 100% completely and utterly overwhelmed by my outdoor environment. I felt as if the sky was soaking me up with its vivid colors of blue and its lazy clouds that wandered contentedly across the sky. The air felt almost juicy – thick with possibilities and awareness. But it was the mountains that called me. I had been to my fair share of highlands and had a pretty deep appreciation for areas of great elevation. Zion, however, was in a whole other league. John Muir’s much-recited quote about the mountains calling him came to mind as I simply stared at the world around me. My eyes worked hard to take it all in, and my brain worked harder still to keep up with what my senses were discovering. The colors of the rock, the shapes of the fissures, the form of the cliffs – the whole scene left me awe struck. Moving ever so slowly, I turned around, engaged in the landscape. This fantastic place was one big playground that I would spend the next couple of hours exploring. It didn’t matter that it was below freezing – this was an opportunity to connect with nature and I was resolved to seize it.
This is the moment when nature and I became friends.
It required a shift in thinking on my part. I wasn’t looking to receive or get something from being outside. I had come to the realization, standing by the Weeping Wall in Zion, that being outside is about discovery. It’s about enjoying all of the living and nonliving aspects of an ecosystem. It’s about investing time to find the beauty in the great outdoors.
Returning home to my suburban lifestyle was difficult. Traffic was suddenly more annoying and the concrete felt like a disease that ate away at my outdoor world. This is why, in January of 2016, I decided to quit my job and visit all of the national parks in the continental U.S. Surprisingly my friends and family didn’t think I was crazy, yet I questioned my own sanity countless times. Purchasing a teardrop trailer and downsizing my living situation were some of the final steps I took before embarking on my epic road trip. I wanted to find that bond I had experienced in Zion a couple months prior. I wanted to develop that friendship I had forged with nature while standing surrounded by the sandstone cliffs.
I’m at the halfway point in my trip, gearing up for another trek westward. Each park I have visited so far has allowed me to view another fascinating characteristic of nature. In Dry Tortugas I marveled at the spread of blue that blanketed the horizon. In the Smokies, I came face to face with the attractiveness of running water, the backdrop of the Appalachians adding to the magic. In Great Sand Dunes, I fell back into the role of a child, tromping up the piles of sand and playing under the steady heat of the sun. The national parks are unique. They each have something special to offer, yet it can only be found with an unpretentious humility. I know that I can’t afford to make the mistake again of assuming that nature is at my disposal. During Part II of my journey, I want to be more than simply familiar with America’s outdoor landscape. I want to connect, relate, commune, empathize, cooperate, and converse with nature.
I want to be best friends.