First Steps

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On the summit of Wittenberg.

I camped by myself for the first time when I was 23. It was in Phoenicia, NY, nestled in the Catskill Mountains, the closest one can get to New York City and still feel connected to threads of wildness. My plan was this: leave work early, drive three hours, camp, summit three mountains, and then drive back to the Poconos exhausted but content. I had no expectations, no greater hope. I just wanted to be outside, and this is what I had come up with.

I learned a lot in college, including if you want to get outside you don’t need anything fancy. Leaders in my school’s outdoors club always told us that all we needed for food was a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That would last us the entire weekend. Of course that didn’t stop people from getting fancy with their tinfoil meals cooked over a fire, or backpacking with an entire bag of Franzia strapped to their pack. But the essence was clear:  the outdoors is accessible with minimal gear requirements if you’re willing to forgo creature comforts.

Over the years, I’d collected my own stash of stuff–down sleeping bag, insulated sleeping pad, hiking boots–but besides the new acquisitions, I’d pillaged my dad’s inventory and made do with what I already had, including an EMS backpack I’d purchased in middle school that was quite literally falling apart.

So off I went. On my own. To the mountains. For the very first time.

The weekend went smoothly. Better than smoothly. As I was checking in to the campground, two women overheard that I was by myself and invited me to their campfire that evening. And I went, even though I intended not to. They introduced me to their partners, and we spent the night drinking, eating, and exchanging stories by the fire. Two of them had met in the Marines and had married after three months of knowing each other. One was a chef who worked at a five-star restaurant. They told me about their lives in Virginia (interesting). They asked me if I was scared of bears in these parts (no). They were suitably impressed with my itinerary for the next day (nearly 20 miles, and no, they didn’t want to join).

I cannot find a beginning to this wild, meandering, sunlit life of mine. I cannot trace it back to its origins. How I got here. Who specifically inspired me. There is no clear path, and sometimes I think my life would’ve evolved into this organic, pulsing knot no matter what steps I took. But that weekend in the Catskills is a clear pivotal moment, one of countless beginnings.

Being a beginner is a special kind of joy. I recently started playing around with watercolors, picking up the supplies at a craft store on a whim, and it’s been fun albeit challenging. I don’t know what different brushes do, or techniques for using the paints. And it’s hard not to compare my work with others. But I’m trying.

This past year I have been a beginner more than ever before. I’ve lived in five different places, had five different jobs, and have met more people than I can count. And I wonder if my life feels fuller partially because there is so much newness. That the discomfort of beginning becomes the glow of success, and I constantly reap the rewards of struggling, learning, and growing.

A recent goal for myself is to be a beginner more often. To try and do and fail as often as I can. To accept being uncomfortable or scared and to push ahead anyway. Often the first steps are the hardest. The rest is just free fall.

(Want to read about other people I met on my Catskill adventure? Check out a previous blog post here.)

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My campsite in Phoenicia. (My beloved EMS backpack is on the right. RIP.)

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