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On Outdoor Re-creation

red rock trail

I’ve always enjoyed exploring the wilderness. I have never understood why more people don’t do it, though perhaps deep down I’m grateful not to have hordes of other humans out there.  It’s like this ridiculously well-kept secret. Why? This piece on the death of backpacking asks the same question.

The author believes backpacking in particular is not popular “because younger people are leery of the unglamorous labor required for stepping off pavement, and too occupied with the easiness of TV, Play Stations, X-Boxes, Facebook, smartphones.” Certainly these days we’re all programmed to seek stimulation through electronic screens, not just the young. And I don’t agree that it’s a matter of the physical effort required. Indeed, the article also decries the popularity of adrenaline-fueled pursuits like mountain biking, base-jumping, and kayaking. Kids do seem to be drawn to flashier, more glamorous, look-at-me activities. But what about people in their 30s and 40s, like me and the writer?

I see the same pattern across all of these age groups – what the author describes as “the adrenalized relationship with the natural world… an experience of human conquest – the peak-bagger’s pathology.” There’s a lot of that here in Colorado. It doesn’t seem enough for folks to head out into the forest for the pure joy of being baptized by wildness. The ego needs a goal. Some tangible justification. And this isn’t only for so-called extreme sports. Conquest fuels the thru-hiker – that group of backpackers that take on months-long, bucket-list odysseys along the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and others, mostly so they can say that they did it. Some activities do lend themselves more to chest-thumping, but ultimately it’s intention that determines the type of experience we have.

I don’t see anything particularly wrong with the desire to test and prove oneself. Or even to show off a little. Humans have always done this in all manner of domains — including backpacking and wilderness survival, where minimalism is glorified and the goal becomes matching your wits against whatever nature throws at you. But I do agree that there’s something amiss when this is the only way that we’re able to relate to nature: As a backdrop for our bravado.

I also agree that there’s something wrong when enjoying nature becomes exclusively a technologically-mediated consumer experience. Like the author, I am uneasy with “people who see the outdoors as an arena for deploying the latest technological toys, such as mountain bikes that ride for you, or carabiners that talk, or apps for both.” I too am troubled by the endless “caressing, naming, oiling, sleeping and playing with inanimate objects.”

It reminds me of a story my husband told me. He’s an archaeologist and his work requires mapping sites with the help of a GPS. Once, a well-meaning tech aficionado effusively demonstrated a fancy, new gadget saying, “Look how the display shows the satellite image in real-time. You can watch a satellite image of yourself walking through the woods while you’re actually doing it!” My husband replied, “But why would I want to do that?”

Nature used to mean something different to us. Something more.

Now, the way of making a living as a flesh-and-blood creature has faded. We imagine we’ve transcended this inconvenience. That animal wakefulness that once infused every breath is forgotten. The bone-deep knowing of our tribe and our land is gone. The giving of thanks, humility, and our awareness of our place in the whole is forgotten. Those wild encounters that transform our souls, the alchemy of remembering how we are shaped and how we belong… such uniquely human ways the Earth plays with aliveness have been all but abandoned… This is a grievous loss.

I like backpacking. Camping. Day hiking. Canoeing. Skiing. Whatever. I enjoy myself immensely when I’m out there. But I also want more than just a place to play, or to rest and recharge. I want to know nature in all those other ways as well.

Because nature used to mean something different to us. Something more. Everything.


  1. There’s a man called Ian McCallum, who lives in Cape Town, and he thinks that people have an ecological intelligence, or an awareness that we and nature are one, but that it has become buried deep within us. He explains the importance of looking and seeing animals and the natural world in order to re-connect.

    I’ve been thinking about how children naturally connect, fascinated by light patterns, leaves and tadpoles, and I wonder where it gets lost and how?

    Your post reminds me of the importance of that question.

    • Yes. That’s basically the premise of ecopsychology, isn’t it? And this faculty has been lost in our indoor postmodern society. But what’s amazing to me is how readily it comes back. Regular nature immersion awakens that ancient part of us and it’s so profoundly healing. I’m not saying we’ll ever be like the San people of your country, whose connection to the more-than-human world is utterly seamless. But some of it does come back and it’s an astounding redemption. I can’t get enough of it!

  2. A lovely post, Ruth. It reminds me of the ten years I lived in the northwoods of Wisconsin, off the grid. In the winter and spring (mud season), I would have to hike a mile from my house to my car and back lugging whatever I needed for my work as a consultant. I remember the insights that came to me from the earth and the wind in the tress. I miss the beaver, bear, loons, and eagles, but not so much the coyotes that howled on cold winter nights. Thank you for brining those memories to mind.

    • What a wonderful memory. Insights of wind and trees and walking. Beautiful. And you’ve returned the favour and shaken one of my own memories loose. I grew up north of Lake Ontario. Here in Colorado we have all the critters you mention except for loons. Your comment stirs up delicious memories of lying in my tent in the inky dark listening to the loons call. I thank you.

  3. Your husband’s response was perfect, why indeed? My limited mobility means I plan any outing with great care. Thus, choosing not only my time of day but my time of year is paramount to avoiding others and their devices. Every once in a while, I get lucky. Yet, I am old enough to savor memories of hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountain West and not seeing or hearing humans for days at a time. I’ve never forgotten those days.

    Great post, Ruth.

    • Thanks Karen. I feel mixed about running into other people in the wild. Some of them I try to avoid like the plague (e.g. the ATVers that sound like caravans of chainsaws), but I enjoy bumping into others that feel more like my tribe and comparing notes about critters we’ve seen or trails we’ve walked. I agree that it is a precious thing to go days with no sign of any other humans. Not because I don’t like them per se, but because for the most part they are appallingly loud and insensitive.

      • Thank you, Ruth, for expressing my sentiments much more precisely. These days, I seem far too dismay regarding the noise of devices yet moments of thoughtful exchange also come to mind for they, too, are cherished. Again, much appreciated.

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