Throughout my travels, both national and abroad, I have always made a point to look up. Depending on weather patterns, the time of day, and other factors that I might pretend to understand, the sky can be pretty darn fascinating. It remains an adjusting constant that gently pulls my attention from the goings-on at ground-level. Whether city or country, mountains or beach, day or night, I have always enjoyed the limitlessness that the atmosphere has to offer, unhindered by grids or grounds.
Lately, the winter weather has put a damper on my spirits, weighing me down with an in-between grogginess. A white blanket of snow would be fantastic! Or perhaps a warm, balmy day? Instead, it seems that the chilly rain and foggy haze is intent on putting a pause on outdoor adventures. Yet even on the “worst” of days, I can go outside, in the middle of suburbia, and spot a big, round, full moon that seems to smile back at me. I can spot a sunrise orb peeking out in between buildings, ready to warm up my earth for a little that day. I can watch cirrus clouds wisp through the air, waving as they cascade across my viewpoint.
Yes, the sky is quite phenomenal, a pleasant reminder of the beautiful and ever-changing world.
I was in the checkout line at REI, waiting to purchase some (much-needed?) gear when I spotted the most recent Outsidemagazine.
The title alone captured my interest, so I grabbed a copy and began reading it at stop lights on the ride home. The aforementioned article – a collection of thought-provoking essays – was not necessarily new information for me, but I found it both timely and challenging. The more I read, the more I was encouraged that an exceptional magazine would dedicate so many pages to this growing problem of indoor kids. And while I have been well-acquainted with this situation for quite some time, it has only recently begun to be addressed by the general American public.
The bottom line? Kids need to get outside more. Kids need the freedom to roam, to play, to get messy, to sometimes fall, and to fall in love with nature. As a teacher, outdoor education is near and dear to my heart; I consider myself blessed to work at a school that promotes outside learning as well as unstructured play. In a country where the average kid spends 4-7 minutes a day engaged in outdoor free-choice leisure, it’s time that all adults begin considering how to address this growing widespread problem.
And it is a problem. Research shows that being out-of-doors has many positive impacts on both or physical and mental health. Conversely, being inside all of the time has been linked to greater stress, anxiety, obesity, and shorter attention spans.
It’s part of our nature to be in a natural environment, and it’s up to us (the adults) to show the next generation what a healthy connection to the outside world looks like. Yes, there are many programs and non-profits that are doing an excellent job getting kids in nature, but for this big chance to happen, it’ll take a shift within our Western culture and a conscious effort from all of us. As Outside magazine so eloquently writes: “It’s time to make childhood an adventure again.” Let’s make it happen!
“Kids deserve the chance to explore nature without an agenda or chaperone, to take risks and learn to get themselves out of trouble, to fall in love with nature so they become stewards of the earth.” – Outside September 2018
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.
Choosing to leave my job, my stuff, my home, and my community was not an easy decision. By far the biggest fear I had going into this national park adventure, however, was that Iwouldn’t like it. Yep. I was extremely apprehensive that I would be one week into my travels and absolutely hate being on the road. Or that I would be miserable, stuck with the same sense of listlessness I had while residing in Northern Virginia.
I’ve never been happier!
Getting out of my comfort zone was just the remedy for a healthy life “reset”. Completely flipping my daily routine was a perfect treatment for that sense of monotony I had felt. Yet it took courage and grit to move forward into the unknown; I had no guarantees that contentment would follow.
Sure, I miss my loved ones like crazy, but each day I am filled with gratitude that I decided to take this risk and travel around the U.S.
Life is too short to live squished into our bubbles of complacency.
It’s been a little over a month since I said goodbye to “normal” civilization, packed up a lifetime supply of Clif Bars, and moved permanently into a home that is 30 square feet. I can’t help but reflect back on how I’ve adapted to a completely different lifestyle. Has it been as fun as a barrel of monkeys? You bet! Have I had moments of wondering whether or not I was crazy for attempting such an endeavor? Yes – though they’ve been few and far between.
Every day is different. I’ve put in my fair share of “touristy” investments. Dollywood was by far the cleanest and prettiest amusement park I’ve ever been to. Ruby Falls made me wish that I was part of the original team that explored the cavern and found a 145 foot underground waterfall. What I find truly exciting, however, is the genuine honest-to-goodness outdoor, full immersion nature moments. This is why I decided to take my trip. This is when my happiness levels peak through the roof. This is what I wish all of my dear friends and readers could experience in real-time with me.
To those of you rooting me on at home: thanks for the packages, love, and well-wishes.
To those of you whom I’ve encountered along the way: thank you for the good conversation breaking up the long periods of solitude.
And to those of you whom I’ve never met: I appreciate your interest and attention.
For 5 days in a row, I spent most of my waking moments in the great outdoors. After averaging about 6 miles of hiking a day, it’s incredible how accustomed I became to being in nature. I appreciated the solitude that comes from hours of meandering and exploring through the woods.
And so it felt odd to remain indoors for a couple of days. My legs felt listless and time seemed to move at a slightly different pace. While the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, I have come to learn that I function best when I can traipse along trails or sit quietly in a meadow observing what’s going on around me. I have a theory that most people would be much more centered if they simply let themselves be outside more frequently.
As my buddy John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”