It’s a brisk afternoon in the woods of Maine and I’m hiking with a friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve trekked in a wilderness area and I’m marveling at how far I’m able to go without needing to stop. My friend kindly acknowledges this but I get the feeling she thinks I’m off on one of my weird obsessions. That’s okay. She’s on the lookout for a moose, we’re moose-spotting, and to our primitive cave ancestors that would seem like a weird obsession. You want to find a great antlered hoof beast, they might grunt, and just look at it? We’d probably get thrown out of the cave. That’s okay too. I prefer a nice hovel over a damp hole in the ground.
After a tenth of a mile down the trail, my friend sees a discarded beer bottle and picks it up. She’s a good person like that.
My ability to walk is not in the top ten of my best skills. Probably not even in the top fifty. Add in rough terrain, limited seating (sitting on flat ground is my 504th ranked skill) and the overall remote nature of, well, nature, and you may begin to understand why hiking is something I don’t do often. My obsession with how far I’m walking in the woods is born from a surge in my good health, probably brought on by my move from the coal soot air of Appalachia to the smog clouds of Southern California. I try not to question these things. Whatever the cause, in recent years I’ve been able to do more than I have in a long spell. This afternoon is one of the few times I’ve been hiking since my near fatal bout with pneumonia in high school. The friend I’m sharing the woods with was one of the people who helped bring me back from that and I may never thank her or the others enough for returning me to the world. In some ways, this hike is the last of many steps for me, a defiant gesture towards nature. The same Nature who has had it out for me since birth. I try not to take it personally.
The discarded bottle my friend picked up is beginning to smell. I suggest putting it back. She declines.
I think it’s accurate to say most of us view time outdoors as a wholesome activity. Nobody ever tells us we should spend more time indoors. And yet, I’m often puzzled as to what the hell I’m supposed to be feeling when I’m outside. How do I quantify the experience in order to calculate when I’ve had enough nature and can go back inside? In school, recess has a start and stop time, but when you’re an adult it’s up to you and I’m good after five minutes. It’s not that I don’t love the great outdoors, I do enjoy it. From a young age I was subscribed to such periodicals as My Big Backyard and Ranger Rick. I was in Cub Scouts. For most of my formative years our home had a substantial yard and I have fond memories traipsing about on various imagined adventures. An only child, the woods were never a place I felt alone.
The trail we’re hiking in Maine is not far from the road, so the serene sounds of nature (bugs) are broken up by the occasional car. Like sunlight zapping the vitamin D out of milk, I worry if being this close to the road somehow negates the nature I’m trying to absorb. I’m supposed to be searching for some Earthy truth to salve my aching indoor soul, yet all I can think about is how far I can walk.
Further along the trail, maybe a fifth of a mile, the bottle’s odor has become one of Lovecraft’s favorite words. Fetid. Like dead fish to me.
Fishing is probably my father’s sixteenth ranked skill. This is not a slight on his ability to land a catch, it’s just he’s got a lot of skills (making weird noises with his hand #26) and fishing takes a backseat to things like sketching (#7) and bearding (#5). We went fishing often when I was younger, usually in our canoe. In the course of our time on the water, we canoed past plenty of dead, floating fish or carcasses rotting away on the bank. Sometimes we wouldn’t see anything at all, only sniff the whiff of some poor stiff (the silly rhyme, skill one-oh-nine). Thinking back, I wonder if we were ever unknowingly near a dead person. Watching television will make you think dead people are just everywhere. In a way, I suppose they are. Cemeteries are sacred places. When it snowed heavily, we would go sledding in the one near my Grandma’s house. After I kick the bucket, I am confident my spirit will fly free of this handsome cage, but the rest of me, the gross decaying bit, will stay on this Earth. In that sense, I’ll be spending hundreds of years outdoors in the dirt, so why should I worry about it now? I’ll get plenty of nature time when my bones become part of it. Kids, you’re welcome to sled over me.
My friend gives up on the stinky bottle. With great ceremony, she empties it and a dead mouse slips out. It’s gross.
Perhaps finding dead things isn’t the point of nature. Maybe we go out in the wilderness to prove something to ourselves. That no matter how large we build ourselves up with civilization, we still yearn for the smallness that the wild provides. Falling trees don’t care about our social media. Crushing boulders won’t accept Visa. A hungry predator can’t be stopped by your civil rights. Nature is scary! Why would we ever subject ourselves to its mercy? It’s possible what we really seek isn’t to connect with nature but to tempt it with devouring us. When we go camping or backpacking or rafting or any of the other recreational surviving activities, we intentionally deprive ourselves of the tools, like fast emergency services, we use to make our lives safer. The more deprived the better! Don’t we celebrate those who go the farthest, to the most remote reaches of the planet? Don’t we Like the resulting photo on Facebook because it’s there?
When in nature, surrounded by the evidence of death, what life-changing experience are we truly after?
In the harsh winter of my junior year in college, a bad cold turns on me and flares up my asthma. The combination of gunk in the lungs and inflamed air passageways should have sent me to the doctor immediately, but I have stuff to do, so I don’t go. It gets worse until I realize I can’t breathe well enough to walk out of the apartment. One ambulance ride to the ER later, I’m on a gurney and I can see the machine that tells me my heart rate is over 150. I feel my pulse in my toe, but I can’t get the shoe off. The toe painfully throbs anyway. The fact that I’m connected to medical devices and being watched over by nurses and doctors doesn’t matter to me. I’m not thinking clearly. No one can hear me scream. Convinced I am alone, I prepare for death. I decide my heart isn’t going to stop, it’s going to explode. Desperate to survive, I manage to kick my non-hurting shoe off and, in the same motion, aim it at the doorway. My thinking is someone will notice the shoe and come rescue me. They don’t. My shoe isn’t that big. When a nurse finally comes in to check on me, I am unkind, but feeling stranded with a blood oxygen level equivalent to one a person might have atop Everest can make the best of us turn sour. After she leaves and I know I’m not going to die, I get hit with an epiphany. I decide I don’t want to be a Computer Science guy anymore. If this is going to be my life, one filled with hospitalizations and gunk, I need my work, income or not, to be something I feel is worth the struggle of staying alive. Two years later, I’m in film school.
Back in Maine, my friend and I make it to the end of the trail, about a quarter of a mile. There’s a small boardwalk leading to a big stream. It might have been a river. The swift water looks treacherous but a canoe could handle it. Lacking a canoe, we turn around and head back. On the way home, I wonder if we’ve been successful in nature. I don’t feel particularly enlightened. We didn’t see a moose (moose-spotting, skill #997). Our cave ancestors wouldn’t have accepted the dead mouse we found in the bottle, but at least we have a decent hovel waiting for us.
I’m not saying I’ve figured everything out for everyone, yet. Nature means something different to all of us, although that feels like a cop out. If this story has to have a moral, here’s one I know is true. No matter how wild the commercials may seem, even rodents can’t stand the taste of Bud Lite. Not good enough? Take a hike.