Three Moments

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Fern Boy and his friend were very proud of their fort, as they deserved to be.

One

I have a group of eight students. It is their first week of school.

We’re going to do some get-to-know-you games, I say. To start, let’s go around the circle and say our name and favorite holiday. You can go first. I gesture to my left. The boy shakes his head as he looks up at me.

You won’t know my favorite holiday, he says.

Try me.

Eid.

I know that one. Why’s it your favorite?

We go around the circle. Several kids say Eid. One says Ramadan. No one but me says Earth Day.

Those three are new to school this year, a teacher tells me as the kids take a water break. They’re refugees from Syria. 

We play another game. The children run back and forth, switching spots on the polydots.

You can leave the polydots on the ground, I tell one of the boys as he picks them up laughing. Just run from one to another. 

You said to steal them.

I pause. I did say that. Steal the dots meaning sneak onto them. It’s a baseball term. 

I never phrase the instructions that way again.


Two

We’re building forts at Red Fox Hollow. I let the kids choose their own groups, or work by themselves, if they prefer. I instruct them to use only dead and downed material, but one boy picks a handful of living ferns anyway to use as insulation. I know he’s been labeled as difficult by his teachers. I take the ferns from him and tell him to find something else.

At the end of the session, all of us tour the forts and the students explain why they built them the way they did.

Fern Boy and his classmate have the most impressive fort by far.

I was inspired by Winnie the Pooh, Fern Boy says. See, there’s this one episode when Eeyore is trying to build his house and it doesn’t work, and eventually all of his friends help him. But I remembered how they used one long stick between trees as the top, and leaned other sticks against them. And then all these leaves are insulation.

I ask all the kids to vote on which shelter they’d prefer to spend the night in. All but one vote for Fern Boy’s.

The kids tear down their forts as we head back to camp, but I let Fern Boy leave his up because I love it so much.

A week later I pass by it on a hike. It is still standing. I think of Eeyore.


Three

Minority high school students from Albany and Schenectady flood camp for the day. I lead seven of them on a hike to Stewart’s Ledges, a short but rewarding trip that offers beautiful views of Lake George. The leaves are bursting with color.

We pass several private residences on our way to the trailhead.

Look at those houses! Ryan remarks. They’re made from wood, actual real wood.

Two girls comment how their houses in Nigeria were made from concrete blocks and how you could never punch those walls.

Ryan is seventeen years old.

We take pictures and admire the view from the top. We have extra time, so I lead the group off the rocks and into the trees. Shelter building time. Only dead and downed material, I tell them.

Why is there grass up here? Ryan asks me.

What do you mean?

Why is it here? There’s no one to mow it…

One of the kids snickers. None of them call him stupid or offer an explanation.

It’s wild, I tell him. It’s probably a different type of grass than grass you’d find in a front yard, grass that you’d mow. Wild grass seeds are brought by animals or the wind and then it grows. It grows more over here because there’s no trail, no one’s walking on it. Animals keep it short so it doesn’t need mowing.

He nods and then wanders back to his shelter. He finds a mushroom and picks it to use as a doorknob for his fort. I don’t tell him that mushrooms aren’t dead and downed material. I let him use it. Ryan is seventeen years old. I want this world, the outdoors, to be as magical and welcoming as possible. I don’t want to tell him no. I let him use the mushroom.

Wild Child(ren)

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      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.

Leaving/Left/Gone

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Bilbo: I’ll be alright. Just let me sit quietly for a moment.

Gandalf: You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long! Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He’d stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would’ve liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do… you will not be the same.

You left. It started with a dream, a fragile wisp as light as a daffodil petal. You sat at your office desk and planned, and schemed, and imagined a world covered in blue pines.

You are always leaving.

They told you that you could have adventures, but they never told you that there was a price. You could have your wildness, but you’d lose the sense of comfort you’d feel when you’d walk down the sidewalks of your old neighborhood, dogs barking, children laughing, garbage men waving as you pass by.

No one ever told you that adventure is accompanied by loss.

People will talk about their jobs behind desks and debate the meaning of business casual, and you will feel alone. They will say, did you know Tory Burch is having a sale, and you will respond, one time I burned a hole in my jacket while making tea in the shadow of Mount Shasta. 

You will sleep in your childhood bed, you will visit the offices of your first job, you will meet up with your ex-boyfriend, and even though your jeans still fit, even though the pantry is still stocked with your favorite cereal, this life is no longer yours. You left, and you changed, and there is no going back.

And that’s OK.

That was the point, wasn’t it? To change, to become, to tap into this life you knew existed if only you tried a little harder, drove a little further, followed more stars. You started drinking seltzer water as an excuse to leave your desk at work, and you knew that if you didn’t run, your lungs would always feel this tight.

So you left.

You are always leaving.

One time in Idaho, you sat with your feet propped up on your back tire, coloring in an adult coloring book. A guy approached you and asked about your journey, gesturing to your New York license plates. You told him. He was impressed. Not many people actually do it, he said, and you thought that was the greatest compliment you’d ever heard.

Because you did it. You left, and it was worth it.

Home doesn’t mean what it used to. You’re not sure what it means these days. A place, a person, a feeling you get when you’ve hiked all day and the wooded valley ripples outward below you, like you were the single tossed stone that set everything in motion. You think it’s OK that home is nameless and undefined, a specter instead of a solid presence. You think it’s OK that your skin is restless. You think it’s OK.

A man at Mount Rainier stopped you as you passed him on your descent and told you that you looked strong. You smiled. He was right.

You are gone.

 

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

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I met a guy in Moab, and I can’t remember his name. He told me about how he was airlifted off Mount Whitney  along with the body of a dead girl, a girl who went hiking with her fiancé and came down with AMS, but instead of following her down, her fiancé chased the summit and she wandered back alone. They found her in a frozen waterfall, crashed through the ice.

I can’t remember his name. The guy who told me that. I can’t remember his name.

He had a dog, and a Subaru, and worked at a bike shop on the main strip in Moab. He’d moved from Vegas two weeks earlier, leaving behind a wife and a pile of debt. Her pile of debt. I didn’t know about her loans, he told me as we sat in the desert, his voice whisky strong. I didn’t know.

I can’t remember his name.

I can’t remember the name of the guy from Québec I met at the Grand Canyon whom I talked with for two hours in the parking lot. He showed me his renovated van, and we discussed Trump, and California gas prices, and where the hell the closest showers were.

I also can’t remember the name of the woman I met at Lake Tahoe. It was the only time on that trip that I got lost while hiking, and we stumbled our way back to the correct trail together. She was mid-50s with a sparkly blue nose ring and a daughter about my age. How do I become like you, I thought as she talked about rowing on Lake Tahoe in the early, sun-bitten mornings. Her nose ring caught all the light. How do I become like you?

Maybe it’s OK that I can’t remember. After all, names only mean so much. Words too have shortcomings. Because when I say, I loved every minute of it, what I mean is, I’m a different person. And when I say, I’d do it all again, what I’m actually telling you is, None of that’s behind me. 

I think about that guy from Moab often. Is he back with his wife yet? Is he still sleeping in his car? How hung over was he after his night of confessions? I think about him, and everyone I met, and how even the bad days were amazing, and how my skin and muscles felt like home.

This is just the beginning. The adventure continues. I’m chasechasechasing the life I want, and I hope you are, too.

Farewell, Pennsylvania

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Scenery from Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary in White Mills, Pennsylvania, where I’d go walking and trail running.

I never wanted to live in Pennsylvania. The cities weren’t big enough and the land wasn’t wild enough. To me, Pennsylvania was the Liberty Bell on one end and the Steelers’ stadium on the other, with the strange groundhog that rivets the nation for one lone day in February somewhere in between. Everything about it felt unremarkable in scope, which is saying something since I hail from Suburbia, NY.

But I did call it home for five and a half years. And when you call a place home, a strange thing happens: the place begins to unfold. A bakery here. A quiet park bench there. Things you took for granted and overlooked suddenly glow. The place needed you to love it first and then, only then, would it show you all it had to offer.

The Great Outdoors probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Pennsylvania, but I always had great access to parks when I lived there. I never lived more than a mile from a public green space, under seven miles to the closest park bigger than 400 acres. Pennsylvania taught me the importance of accessible green spaces. Yes, we need National Parks, but we need smaller, local parks too, parks people can visit on their way home from work or early on a Saturday morning with their kids.

When I started this blog, I wanted to focus primarily on the National Parks and Monuments since those were some of the most visibly at risk. But so much of the important ground work happens at the local level. We don’t need geysers and moose to appreciate and experience nature, although, hey, I’ll take a good geyser and moose sighting any day. So much happens right outside your window, down the block, in the square you pass every single day. Pennsylvania opened my eyes to all that, and it’s something I want to continue to explore in this blog.

For now, the road and my 2012 Ford Escape with hit-or-miss AC are home. Farewell, Pennsylvania. Thanks for everything. It was a lovely five and a half years.