Who doesn’t love the grand tour—the big road trip, the long hike, the epic climb, the extended cruise, the multi-day paddle? More and more however, my wife and I find ourselves going to some out-of-the-way spot in the wilds (or semi-wilds) and just hanging out.
Secretly I’ve always liked doing that, just getting out there, with no obvious agenda, at least not one that can be observed by the casual passer-by. Not that I don’t genuinely love trips that could more properly be called traveling or adventure. I did, and I still do. However, it took me years to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes I prefer just going somewhere, even a pretty dramatic and remote locale, and not doing anything that would appear to others as noteworthy. Perhaps I was overly influenced by that element of the outdoor media that forever makes it seem like for any virtuous person, outdoor experiences are about suffering and danger, with a dash of majestic scenery on the side.
Finally I came to realize that there is a third way, involving neither a constant ride on the adrenaline roller coaster, nor hauling most of the comforts and toys of home. It is hardly a unique discovery. From what I can tell there have always been outdoorsy types who tuned into it much earlier in life than I did.
As with so many third ways, however, it’s not as easy as it seems. If it is approached from the standpoint of what it’s not about, it can easily become a worst-of-both-worlds kind of experience, combining the spartan aspects of true adventure travel with the humdrum aspects of a more domestic camping experience. In other words, without a positive value to fill the void it can be both uncomfortable and boring, even if we are in a beautiful spot and outside the daily grind.
So what is this positive? I am loath to put it into words, since words carry so much baggage, and because I suspect that many readers already have a sense of it. On the other hand, if I describe it poetically, it will sound to some like something “mystical” and thereby trite or fictitious. If I put it in more formal terms, it will come off as yet another goal for yet another project in good psychological hygiene. It’s not like I really know exactly what it is anyway, even though I find great satisfaction in it and I feel I’ve gotten better at attaining it. hat said, it needs a temporary label and I’ll just describe it as a deeply satisfying sense of connection.
Of course a deep sense of connection can happen anywhere. Surely we can all agree, however, that it’s easier in some places than in others, and that for many of us it is particularly easy in unspoiled natural settings. In the context of a trip that is, after all, intended as a getaway, the more easily and naturally that connection comes the better. Not that I haven’t wasted a significant amount of time turning it into something of a project anyway. There I’d be, tucked away in some remote and magnificent setting, trying my diligent best to connect. Not always, thank goodness, but enough to get a good taste of the futility of it.
What I finally realized was that once I’d been out long enough for the inner buzz of modern life to settle down a bit, making that connection was the most spontaneous and natural thing in the world. I didn’t need to look over my own shoulder like some well-meaning but overzealous Environmental Ed teacher. The brown bear following the lakeshore, sniffing as she ambles lazily along, effortlessly draws my focus. The wild lambs careening about the rock faces, the ewes keeping them under (mostly) inconspicuous scrutiny, rivet my attention without any admonition from my superego. Who can listen with even a modicum of attention to the call of a loon on a nearby lake without feeling something well up deep within? And when we stick around for a while, for several days or several weeks, patterns start showing up on their own. We become aware that the pair of loons on the lake are frequently making their haunting calls in order to check on each other when they are separated and out of sight of one another. They seem to get agitated and call more frequently if the other doesn’t respond soon enough. We notice that the songbirds around camp become very vocal and then suddenly silent right before a harrier passes low overhead, peering downward. Pretty soon pattern is layered on pattern, story upon story, and depth and connection walk in unannounced.
Eventually I learned that as long as I was present, mentally and physically, there wasn’t much else I needed to do. Nature just has a way of making cool things happen. Better yet, the more those cool things happen as we patiently watch, the more stories and patterns emerge. I just need to be there, and better yet be there for a while. I need just enough gear and supplies to get me there and allow me to be free from distracting discomfort, and from boredom when conditions don’t allow me to be outside. Nothing more. I found out that with making those connections, as with so many other things, Woody Allen’s dictum is correct. While the other 20% is essential, success really is 80% just showing up.
Carl Ramm is an artist/naturalist who has spent most of his life in Alaska, following a childhood in south Alabama. He and his wife Susan currently live far from the contiguous road system in the village of King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula. He writes about their experiences on his blog King Salmon Chronicle.
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The old village site of Kanatak, with the Pacific Ocean beyond. Becharof National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
The tracks of a female brown bear and her cub, along with those of a sandhill crane, on the shore of Upper Ugashik Lake, Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge.
Being there, after an hour or so of wading. Overflow National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas.
Mountain flowers near Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Nature just has a way of making cool things happen. A curious elephant, Pafuri Triangle, South Africa.