Going Wild Again

I just returned home from my 30-year high school reunion in Minnesota. One of the highlights was reminiscing with my old girlfriends about our good times and outrageous antics as adolescents in the wild – hiking, camping, canoeing, running, tennis, snowshoeing, and skiing. What fun we had!

As we talked for hours and reconnected, our stories built on one another. Each of us remembered different portions, providing our own unique embellishments and observations. Pieced together, our combined memories created a patchwork collage of humor, personal development, and exploration … experiences that helped shape us into who we are today.

I had scarcely spoken with some of these friends for years. But, almost magically, as we delved into our recollections of our shared teen outdoor adventures … it was as if we had never parted. This was amazing considering the decades we spent apart, during which time we had all gotten married, had careers, and raised children.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the many psychological benefits of time spent in nature, and ways to avoid “nature deficit disorder.” My reunion trip helped me recapture some wonderful wilderness memories shared with old friends (five in particular) and what they have meant to each of us over the years. We 48-year old girlfriends have each faced various challenges in the years since. However, the time we spent together in nature strengthened our sense of selves and our friendship bonds, helping prepare us for life’s unexpected curve balls. Somehow, we have all survived and thrived. And I believe our friendship bonds and shared wilderness experiences provided a firm foundation to face up to and conquer life’s travails.

Our memories included a ski club trip to Thunder Bay Canada. We got our ski passes suspended for staying up too late – talking to the bell-bottom wearing Canadian boys who sprinkled vinegar on their French fries! We re-told brave tales of our canoe trips, late-night bonfires, camp outs in the Northern woods, and the boyfriends that seemed to generously pass between us through those times. As girlfriends, we grew up together and grew strong together. Now as an adult, it feels wonderful to have friends that go back so many years. The sense of connection is hard to define, but is truly one to be cherished.

My 19 year-old daughter, Grace, also has a profound love for her friends, and she treasures the escapades they share together. She was eager to see every picture from my reunion, hear about my old friends, and all the “classic 80’s experiences” we had.

“That’s how I want it to be when I’m your age, Mom. My best friends will still be my best friends; don’t you think?” Although it may not play out as she envisions, her commitment to staying connected with the friends she loves will likely make it a reality. And I don’t expect her bold spirit of adventure to ever be fully tamed. This is something I admire about her.

During this reunion trip I happened to be reading a memoir by Cheryl Strayed called Wild: From Lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is the story of a Minnesota woman whose life unravels in her early 20’s after her mother’s death from cancer, the resulting diaspora of her family, and the eventual demise of her marriage amidst infidelity and drug abuse. She seeks a re-awakening by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She forges ahead more through blind will than skillful preparedness, and writes about it with an earthy spirit and a poetic gift of description. I thoroughly enjoyed her story, and found it to be a wonderful testimony to the transformative power of a wilderness trek. Despite the fact that she suffered terribly on the trail, and at a few points, was lucky to have survived, the beauty and self-transformation made it worth the pain and sacrifice. It made me want to get out on that trail myself.

She writes of the Pacific Crest Trail’s history and its profound meaning to the hikers courageous enough to endure it:

“What mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.  It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadow, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”

The Pacific Crest Trail will be there if I ever choose to take it on. But even the smaller scale adventures that are available any weekend would be worth my while to make happen.

After the reunion, my old girlfriends and I agreed that we need more time with friends and more adventures. We promised each other we would plan one. They agreed to come and stay with me for a “SoCal Ladies Adventure.” Brainstorming the itinerary was exciting in itself. Just considering the possibilities made me feel young and alive – almost like I was 16 again! That’s what “going wild” can do.

Many of you have stayed in contact with old friends; those with whom you have shared “going wild” experiences of old. If you have lost touch, what is keeping you from making that small effort to reach out to someone who was important to you years ago?

Maybe now is the time to make that phone call, search on Facebook, or write that letter. You may find some real joy in re-connecting with an old friend. Perhaps remembering those times together will help you seek out some opportunities to explore like you did when you were young. It may seem a little unlike the current you, but it’s not against the rules!  You can go wild again.

 

 

 

Going Wild: A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

American culture has moved indoors. There is such comfort and entertainment available within the finely accorded walls of our homes and offices that time spent in nature is becoming increasingly rare.

With the advent of the computer, video games, and television, children have more and more enticements to stay inside. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media. The numbers are even worse for adults, who spend more of their lives than ever indoors.1 Adults report spending an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings plus about 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles.2 That means a minuscule 7% of time is spent outdoors!

The results of this phenomena have been described as “nature deficit disorder.”What is the solution for this disturbing over-domestication of our species?

Going wild.

By this I don’t mean approaching life with a hedonistic devil may care, remove the shackles of morality, “girls gone wild,” YOLO abandon.

I am talking about getting into nature. Simply. Deeply. Truly. Real nature … in any of its forms. Wilderness, community parks, groomed suburban trails, or even a vacant urban lot. Anywhere that natural life exists. You probably don’t have to go very far. Certainly, a National Park can provide a climactic nature experience, but that level of intensity is not needed to obtain the benefits of what lies in the created order.

A substantial body of research indicates that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development. A wide range of encounters with nature have been shown to produce such benefits, including extended wilderness excursions, hiking in open space, strolling through a city park, gardening, or tending a small plot of urban grass.

Dr. John Davis4 compiled a summary of extensive research indicating a broad array of physical, social, and psychological benefits of nature experiences. His findings are cross-cultural and universal. He cites the following: Nature experiences reduce burnout and increase a sense of relaxation. It helps people recover from surgery and improves their performance on many tasks. It increases one’s sense of fascination, intrinsic interest, and enjoyment. Nature experiences strengthen “hardiness,” which is a combination of an internal locus of control, an appreciation of challenge as opportunity, and a commitment to self. Additionally, it provides a sense of connectedness, wholeness, meaningfulness and is related to better mental health and less stress. In nature, people typically experience a sense of “flow” (absorption into the activity, present-centeredness, healthy loss of ego, and self-transcendence). Natural surroundings provide an enhanced opportunity for transpersonal and peak experiences.

On this subject, my stories are too numerous to tell … but here are a few:

◊ Kevin, my high school church youth director in Minnesota, had a side business as a BWCA (Boundary Water’s Canoe Area) wilderness guide. He took our youth group on an annual outdoor adventure in BWCA. Every year he transported thirty of us in vans, carrying trailers with 15 canoes, up to the Canadian border to this million acres of pristine wilderness – teeming with thousands of lakes connected by trails or “portages.” There were no bathrooms, no showers, no electricity, no roads, no cars, and no motorized vehicles. Diet Coke existed only in my fantasies.

Going wild in BWCA was a blessed adventure for me as a teen. The trip was grueling, beautiful, and spiritually uplifting. I went three times. We paddled all day every day, portaging from lake to lake, carrying our supplies on our backs: our food, tents, first aid equipment, sleeping bags, and canoes. Yes. I carried a canoe on my back. This was surely a “hardiness” building experience. Because it required grit and perseverance, I gained strength and confidence. In the midst of the vast outdoors I felt entirely enchanted and connected with nature – as loons made haunting calls across the water, the campfire crackled, and the warm morning sun woke us to another day of rugged exploration. We shared stories, prayed, perfected our paddling technique, gave backrubs, caught fish, and slapped mosquitoes. I came home with a heightened awareness of my place in the larger world, the mystery therein, and a feeling of connectedness with nature and my peer group.

◊ My dad loves motorcycles. He has collected, built, restored, swapped, and tended them for his entire adult life: BMW’s, Motoguzzies, Hondas, Yamahas, Indians, Suzuki’s, Kowasaki’s, and Harley Davidson’s. At any time he had twelve motorcycles in varying states of repair in our 3-car garage. Taking a sidecar ride along backwoods roads with him was a childhood delight of mine. Exploring remote country on his motorcycle has been a lifelong fascination, the wind in his hair – at one with his aromatic surroundings. One of his great pleasures has been traveling by motorcycle 500 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Sturgis, North Dakota for the annual motorcycle convention. He has attended this event for 40 years, and camps outdoors every time. Sturgis provides him with a natural adventure, even as he turned 79 years old.

I said to my brother Bob, “Don’t you think Dad is getting too old to bike to Sturgis? He’s having a hard time walking.” My brother quipped, “Well, he seems to ride better than he walks these days.” It was his last year at Sturgis. Being out in the wild, sleeping in the open air, free as a bird … he was still having the time of his life. As he sold his last motorcycle and moved into the retirement home on Lake Johanna with my mom, this was an important peak experience. His wild-hearted hobby has afforded him a lifetime of restoration, affiliation, and enjoyment.

◊ My husband and our two children traveled 6 years ago to Zion National Park for a four-day, back-country hiking trip. We carried everything in backpacks high into the jagged mountains. It was intensely physical due to steep elevation gain and harsh weather conditions. On the challenging hike down, I was exhausted and singularly focused on getting to our car. However, my then 15 year-old son, Johnny wanted to hike a particularly difficult side-trip out on an elevated precipice called “Angels Landing”. Having done it previously, my husband encouraged me to accompany him. I agreed, unknowingly.

Only while out on the steep rock face did I discover what a death defying feat it was. I could not look down, as the towering height was mind-boggling and anxiety provoking. I had to look ahead and focus intently to cast out the rising fear of the long descent to earth. Johnny plodded on with the casual confidence of a billy-goat. Reaching our destination on the outermost “landing”, we marveled at the astonishing view, and the feeling of being part of something vast and larger than ourselves. We shared a mysterious flow … something sacred. When we finally returned to the trail I collapsed in relief for having safely finished. I only realized the magnitude of what this meant to Johnny when he later said proudly to his friends, “I knew I had a baad-ass mom when she hiked Angel’s Landing with me.” It seems this trek was a rite of passage and a compatibility experience for us both.

I could share dozens of wilderness experiences, and I imagine you have many of your own to tell. The question is, why don’t we get out there more? Sure, I enjoy running my dog Winston almost daily on nearby neighborhood trails. But, exploring nature more deeply and more regularly would further nourish my body, mind, and soul. It is largely a matter of determination and planning. What about you?

Although our homes may be safe and comfortable, by retreating into them we risk contracting nature deficit disorder. The evidence is clear: Partaking of nature will make us happier, healthier, and more in touch with ourselves and our world. Let’s go wild.

 

1The New York Times, “Who Americans Are and What They Do,” in Census Data, by Sam Roberts, December 15, 2006.

2“National Human Pattern Activity Survey,” Neil Klepeis, University of California Berkeley and Wayne Ott, Stanford University

3Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

4John Davis, “Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory,” Naropa University and School of Lost Borders, July 2004.*

*Davis compiled research on the psychological benefits of nature experiences and summarized the following benefits:

Relaxation, stress reduction, and mindfulness

-Environmental Preference: coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery

-Recovery from surgery, physical health and healing improved performance

-Increased sensory awareness and felt-sense

-Hardiness, locus of control, challenge, flow, and compatibility

-Challenge of wilderness experiences leading to self-confidence and improved self-esteem

-Coherence (defined as perceptions of connectedness, wholeness and meaningfulness) is related to better mental health and reduced negative stress

-Flow – involving high-stakes outcomes, high intensity, intrinsic motivations, absorption into the activity, and self-transcendence

-Compatibility – a fit between one’s need, one’s capacities, and what the environment offers.

-Extensive benefits for child development

-Social gains through nature experiences

-Exercise and physical fitness, leading to improved mental health