“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.” ~John Muir.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I love the outdoors. As long as I can remember I have been drawn to, and moved by, the deserts and mountains. I used to think that perhaps I had been born in the wrong era, that I should have lived as a Navajo or a Ute in the 1700s, before the Europeans came west. I imagine that today we have greatly exaggerated and exalted that lifestyle, turned it into something far more glamorous than it ever was. Life in the mountains without the technological tools we enjoy today must have been remarkably difficult, uncertain, and laborious. Nonetheless, it was a life that fascinated me. Still fascinates me. And I am left wondering if we are not hopelessly and permanently removed from it.
Of course we are.
Which isn’t entirely bad. We live longer, healthier lives. Our wilderness exploration is optional and recreational, rather than a necessary component of survival. However, despite our rooted cultural urban-ness, and despite growing up in an age of electronic wonder, I have always been in love with the outdoors.
Nature? Nurture? A little bit of both?
Hunting, hiking, and camping defined much of my childhood. I played ball sports. I loved baseball—still do. But weaved throughout the traditional recreational sports, were hunting trips to Tropic, campouts in the Uinta Mountains, and summer hikes on Timpanogos, Nebo, King’s Peak, and eventually Whitney and Fuji. As I grew older, and the reality set in that I would not be spending my adult life being paid millions of dollars to hit line drives at Wrigley Field, I started to embrace the outdoors more completely. The mountains, as dangerous and intimidating as they look, are rather democratic. That is, there is something for everyone.
Not everyone has to climb to the summit of Fuji. But everyone can look up at it from nearby cities. Everyone can appreciate its beauty and abrupt verticality. Incidentally, nearly everyone does climb Fuji. The number of elderly Japanese men and women clamoring up the hill in traditional shoes and clothing was inspiring and overwhelming. While I huffed and puffed in my designer boots and wicking clothing, they did likewise in wooden sandals. It was the act of ascension that moved these people, rather then the notion of conquering the mountain, as if standing on its summit could do any such thing.
Since then, I have stood on the fringes of the Empty Quarter, where nothing but sand and sky fill the entirety of the world, waded in the Gulf of Arabia and the Red Sea, hiked through the dense forests of British Columbia and Alaska, walked and ridden over countless passes and trails in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin. I have learned, or tried to learn, what Thoreau called the “art of Walking.” I have come to understand, at least superficially, the reasons that 85 year-old men climb Fuji in sandals.
Sometimes those ethereal, spiritual, motivations and aspects to outdoor recreation and activity are clouded in the din of competition. I love to race. I love to compete. But training can crowd out adventure. Intervals replace exploration. It’s a trade-off I am willing to make because I am driven and motivated to challenge myself against my friends and my own limitations. But there are times that I long to leave behind bikes, race numbers, and entry fees and simply disappear for a time. To wander. To walk, aimlessly, and to look for new and empty quarters.
Maybe I have always loved the outdoors because it has only been there that I have ever felt complete or whole. It is only among the open, free, and untamed landscape that I have understood anything about human nature, that is, Nature itself.
Mormonism claims that God created the mountains, deserts, plains, and oceans to beautify and add variety to the earth. Certainly the doctrinal goals of Mormon salvation could be carried out in a drab, empty environment; indeed one only need to attend church in one of our modern meetinghouses to wonder if that is not already the case. But is topography mere decoration? Or is there is more than aesthetic beauty and geographic variety to justify the existence of wilderness? Mountains, in every major religious tradition, are holy places. Christ himself escaped into the wilderness to commune with God. The symbolism is tangible; like the pilgrims on Fuji, wilderness requires ascension. Wilderness requires humility. Wilderness causes men to look heavenward, and to acknowledge that he is insignificant, small, and dependent. That self-basing act is, paradoxically, empowering.
We may not seek out high places for the same reasons, or to the same ends that prophets have, but there is a common thread—separation.
Even in our highly urbanized and connected world, the wilds still provide separation from modernity, glass and concrete, deadlines, traffic, and skyscrapers. Separation is essential to our well-being. We need the perspective and the rejuvenating qualities of clean, thin, open air. But even separation has been institutionalized, corporatized. We call it a “vacation”, and it centers around the official, self-imposed gridlock of commerce and bosses. Could we not all benefit from the collective rejection of traditional office hours? Are they not outdated and meaningless?
Jesus, Moses, Muhammed, Joseph Smith, and others, separated themselves from society by seeking higher, holier ground. We ought to follow their lead. At least from time to time. Abbey wrote, “the only thing better than solitude, is society.” But either are meaningless without the other. Society itself cannot thrive without the notion of solitude. And so, we must separate ourselves in order to “taste the freedom of the mountaineer”, as John Muir wrote.
Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
Wilderness, more than anything else, provides understanding, solitude, and freedom. Or, again in Muir’s words, “going to the mountains is going home.”