I wasn't always someone who went camping or hiking. In fact, if you'd asked me ten years ago, I would have raised a quizzical eyebrow at you and suggested a walk at the arboretum, or a city park instead, with a definite destination for coffee and buns and maybe a bookstore in sight.
It wasn't that I didn't love being outdoors, I did; walking endless miles (so long as they were within city limits), exploring forests and rivers, enjoyed foraging for mushrooms an berries in the suburban woods and escaping to the solitude of the Finnish summer isles, but for much of my life, I preferred cities. The glow of lights, the possibilities and excitement of them, the sound of something always happening, even if it was in the distance and I was safely tucked away in my room, most likely reading. I was also definitely not "the outdoorsy-type" and most of my childhood memories with camping, wilderness and hiking have the distinct tinge of hilarious-in-hindsight misery to them.
The idea of being uncomfortable on purpose was completely lost on me in my teens and early twenties. I don't know if it's a common hippie-kid experience, but giving up hot running water and indoor plumbing for a lark seemed fairly stupid to me. Having escaped a life in cold water, unreliable wood heat and outhouses, I was never eager to re-create it for an adventure.
Had I lived somewhere where nature experiences were scarce, I might have sought them out more, no matter the potential discomfort, but in Finland nature is always right there, waiting for you on your stoop, just lurking right in your backyard, trying to push in from the edge of town. If you want to go to the woods, you can do so very easily, because the woods are everywhere. The landscapes have an unassuming beauty, but they're also pretty monotonous; thousands of lakes, endless forests, mostly thick and dark evergreens. It wasn't until my early twenties, when I first laid eyes on a truly primeval forest that I discovered that I'd basically grown up in what's possibly world's largest forestry experiment: an entire country of second -and third-growth forest.
Living in a small town surrounded by an army of trees as far as the eye can see and lakes seemingly blocking every exit, I dreamt only of big cities, of Paris and Hong Kong and Tokyo and Buenos Aires, anywhere with an underground and loud sirens and strangers. The last thing I wanted, was to go somewhere even more backwatered than where I already was. Cities seemed wild to me, unpredictable, mysterious, full of native flora and fauna to observe. The actual wild places, seemed boring by comparison. At sixteen I moved out of home to live in the biggest city Finland had to offer, at nineteen, to the biggest city in Western Europe.
And while I often yarned for wilder places and sought them out in the English countryside, in Scottish highlands, in the Finnish berry patches, I would have described myself as an urban person, someone only interested in nature as a concept, something to conserve, something to look at, something I knew I wanted to exist in the world, but not necessarily spend a lot of time wading through, muddied and mosquito bitten.
So what happened? Well, for one thing, America happened. The moment I set my sights on the mountain vistas, 1000-year-old trees and misty beaches of the Pacific Northwest, the wilderness downtown was never enough again. It was here that I saw my first mountain, my first truly open ocean, experienced real awe over a landscape, instead the mild delight I was used to, looking over a Finnish lake view.
And, more importantly, this guy happened too. Charlie grew up going camping and got into hiking in his twenties. At that time he spent a lot of his time outside and before moving to the country, getting out in the wilder lands was a big escape for him. When I met him, one of the first things we did together was to go on a tip to the North Cascades. A Washington native, he has spent his whole life accumulating knowledge of this bio-region and going out in the mountains and woods with him was really eye-opening for me. He really loved those places. And he really knew them. They were like a part of him, his psyche, something that I had never really considered before.
Up until that point my love of nature was very abstract, the way it often is for us city-dwellers: I knew nature was important, good, beautiful, all these adjectives, but it also made me feel like I didn't exactly belong. Our first real camping trip together, I suddenly understood how it feels to be at home outside. Not just outside of your house, out of the city, but out of your "normal" life. How when we have the opportunity to worry only about fire and food and staying warm, we connect with this part of ourselves that gets pushed back behind all of our modern conveniences and worries. How being hungry and cold and uncomfortable clears your head. How being in nature, makes you a part of it and how this is the perfect introduction and conduit to meditation, because eventually, without distractions beyond the movement of the sun and the tides and the occasional bird, or deer, you stop thinking and just start being.
These days, I'm often the one demanding that we back up our rucksacks with trailmix and beans, our big, impractical sleeping bags, our thinnest notebooks and drudge out somewhere for days and days of unwashed glory and damp socks.
I now think of camping and hiking as going home to ourselves, of recalibrating our compasses to figure out where our true north lies.
What's your take on camping, wilderness and voluntary inconvenience?
ps. If you're on the fence about camping my last installment of this year's Solstice campout will be on Camping Hacks! Or if you're a master hiker-camper-packer-tracker, share your own.