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.)

Of Mice and Mountaintops

 

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Bernard and I breakfasted together the morning after our introduction. Honestly I would’ve kept him around longer, but he had boundary issues and tried to run up my leg while I was driving, a major no-no.

I am writing this at 10:09 PM on a Thursday night in a WalMart parking lot. My car smells overwhelmingly of curry. My car doesn’t normally smell of curry.

When I committed myself to a solo road trip—a mini foray into the shallows of vanlife—I was ready for the Big Stuff. Mountaintop vistas. Sunsets on beaches. Sitting in the woods with my feet propped up, beer in one hand, book of Rilke’s poetry in the other. I thought everything I Instagrammed would also be the most profound, enjoyable moments, as if the physical grandeur of the landscapes around me would reverberate at the same internal frequency of awe.

And they do.
Sometimes.

But sometimes I hike 10 miles, look around, shrug my shoulders, and head back down. Sometimes I don’t leave my car to take a picture and it remains only that—a photograph with no backing behind the veneer. Empty.

What I didn’t prepare myself for was the Small Moments. Like when I forgot my garbage outside my car for a couple of hours and then discovered at four in the morning when I felt something scurrying across my sleeping bag that I’d accidentally brought a mouse in along with my empty Pringles’ cans. It wouldn’t leave, despite me opening all the doors and asking nicely and waving a spatula about. My tent smelled of onions and peanut butter the next night as I curled up in the woods with all of my groceries, hoping the mouse traps in my car worked. (RIP Bernard. In the words of Fall Out Boy, thanks for memories even though they weren’t so great.)

Similarly, I was under prepared for the curry disaster of September 21, 2017. Knowing the tupperware was prone to leaks, I’d wrapped my flannel around it and stabilized it with my pillow. And then, because I’m an idiot, I forgot about it, only to suddenly remember it when I came back to my car after brushing my teeth in WalMart and wondering why my car smelled so weird.

It wasn’t even good curry, mind you. I’d made it myself on the bank of the Sol Duc River in the Olympics with coconut milk, spices, and WalMart-purchased vegetables. So it was very mediocre curry. And it smelled not great.

It had seeped into my flannel, drenched my pillow, and pooled onto my air mattress. It had been a long day of driving, and all I wanted to do was sleep. My body tightened in frustration at the mess before me.

But I had soap and a sponge. I had a towel. I cleaned up the mess, rolled down the windows, and ate an entire bag of gummies in the driver’s seat to make myself feel better.

My car regained its normal smell about three days later.

When you go out into the world things will happen to you. Yes, there will be beautiful mountaintops and sunsets, but there will also be field mice and mediocre curry in your sleeping area. And the mountaintops will give you better pictures, but the mice will give you better stories. And that feeling of overcoming an unexpected crisis—even if it’s mouse-sized, even if it’s in the WalMart parking lot—may feel more rewarding than that 10 mile slog.

So say yes, go out into the world, see what’s there, cry a little, feel inspired, feel proud, wash your hair in rivers, sleep in your car, say hi to strangers, see what the world hands you when your eyes are closed.

Curry-tinged dreams are better than no dreams at all. Even if they involve mice.