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.)

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.

A Year

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One year ago, I was sitting at a desk. It was a nice desk. The chair was padded and it swiveled; I had an entire drawer dedicated to colored paper, glue sticks, and craft foam; a painted alligator made of egg cartons and cardboard boxes watched me work. It was a lovely desk.

Fifty-two weeks ago, the end of my desk life was in sight. I was leaving my job at the end of June and embarking on a new adventure. I was ditching my office desk for a collapsible one my dad and I made that fit snugly into the back of my car. Farewell to my padded chair and hello to a bright red camping chair that had a single cup holder in the right arm. Spontaneity was swapped with security. AC was abandoned for smoke-stained Western air.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days ago, I thought I was taking a break from the 9-5 lifestyle. Just a couple months of wildness, I told myself. Then I’ll be ready to start again.

But those couple months stretched and stretched, until here I am, one year later, with no foreseeable end in sight.

The past 525,600 minutes feel heavier than those that came before them, weighed down by the places I’ve visited,  the trails my shoes have pressed against, the people I still daydream about. Time passes without significance in the cogs of routine, but adventure forces you to be present every moment.

3.154e+7 seconds ago, I was a different person. I loved fewer people. The world felt more hostile. In this narrow space of becoming, I shed my skin and ran, growing with the world instead of against it.

One year ago, I left my lovely desk job. I haven’t looked back since.

 

 

To Disappear

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Last summer I thru-hiked the Northville Placid Trail with my father. It was 133 miles of mud and mosquitoes, storm-ravaged bridges and swollen lakes. The trail only crossed four major roads (except for a several mile road walk at the end), and my dad and I could walk an entire day without seeing another soul. It was isolated wilderness at a local, accessible level, some of the loneliest forests you could experience on the carved up East Coast.

A 2016 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society predicted that there will be no globally significant wilderness in the next 50 years, and, in a separate study conducted by Peter Potapov, 20 countries will lose their large forests entirely within the next 60 years. The disappearance of wilderness has been happening for a while, debatably ever since industrialization and large-scale agriculture emerged. In the last 25 years alone, though, the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial wilderness had vanished, which is the equivalent of half of Australia disappearing.

The Adirondacks doesn’t count as “globally significant wilderness,” but when I read statistics and articles like the ones mentioned above, I have to find a way to relate to it personally, otherwise it feels too distant, too big, too easy to dismiss. It’s overwhelming to think that over 250 million people live in these vanishing forests, but when I remember my own time spent in the dappled sunlight, a beaver swimming in front of us as we lit up our backpacking stove for dinner, the crisis feels pertinent.

What does it mean for places to disappear?

I don’t remember when the woods I grew up in were thinned, trees torn down to make room for office buildings. One autumn the forest was thick, and then I left for college and the next time I looked out my best friend’s window I could see screaming light for the very first time. My friend said her mother cried when the trees were cut down.

I don’t look out that window anymore.

Vanishing places destroy our sense of permanence. Natural places encompass a type of forever that we don’t ascribe to humans. But they too can leave us. They too can break our hearts. And unlike fickle lovers, destroyed wilderness will never return. What is gone is gone and will not come again. The creek beds will stay dry despite our tears.

We often go into the wild to be lost and alone, to find something within ourselves that cowers in crowds and fluorescent lighting. And there’s a shapeless irony that we are losing places where we want to be lost, places we want to disappear inside of, as if moss and mud could swallow us whole.

What would it feel like to always be known, to never be able to vanish when your body cries for solitude?
What parts of humanity are we losing when we lose these vast and lonely places?
What are we really leaving behind?

 

 

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.

Women of the Wild

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I didn’t get a picture of the actual grizzly because I was busy getting the hell out of there. So here’s a sign.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” a man asked me on the summit of Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. It’d been a bad week, so I’d left work early that Friday and escaped to the mountains, my go-to move when the world’s feeling extra heavy. This was my third summit of the day, and I was still feeling great.

The man wasn’t alone. Both him and his male friend were in their late 40s and donned expensive hiking gear. They went on trips together as frequently as they could. The Presidential Traverse, Devil’s Path, most of their hiking was in the East, but they hiked out West and abroad when they could.

“Who do you hike with normally?” one asked as we hiked down the mountain together.

Sometimes my dad, I answered. Occasionally friends. Mostly myself.

“Someday you’ll find a boy who can keep up with you. Shame you live so far away. We’d invite you to hike with us once and a while. Take you under our wing, you know.”

Men and women approach my outdoors aloneness differently. Women are instantly supportive. Even if they don’t understand why I want to forgo showers and porcelain toilets for several months, they are excited and proud that I’m doing it. Good for you! cheer the older women with a nostalgic gleam in their eyes, thinking, perhaps, how this reality wasn’t available to them 40 years ago.

Men approach me with questions. Why are you here? Why are you alone? They see my aloneness as an aberration, a question in need of an answer. They look for explanations when I don’t offer one. Maybe I’m a slow hiker. Maybe I’m really fussy and no one wants to put up with me. Maybe I’m running away.

I’m not sure why women alone in the wild makes men uncomfortable. But I have a few guesses.

Flash forward a year from my encounter with the two men in the Catskills and I’m hiking alone in Glacier National Park. Copious signs warn about bear activity in the area. Hiking alone is something they strongly advise against, but besides that, I’ve taken every other precaution. I carry bear spray in the side of my backpack. I clang my poles together. I sing the new Harry Styles’ song as I walk. Noise, the signs and videos and brochures tell me. Make noise.

So I do.
And then something stirs on the path ahead of me.
It’s small and brown. But then it moves and it gets bigger and bigger.

A grizzly!

It had been sleeping with its head on the trail and its body in a copse of bushes. I know it’s a grizzly because of the distinctive hump between its shoulders. I also know it’s a grizzly because I’ve seen black bears before and ohmygod this is not one of them.

It’s massive.

I keep making noise and backing away slowly, not taking my eyes off it as it continues moving. My entire body has gone cold and my heart races. Slowly, slowly, I creep back the way I came. Not running. Never running. I walk ten minutes until I encounter the family of four I’d passed earlier. I tell them about the grizzly. We decide to approach it together and see where it has moved to. We’re only three miles into an 18 mile hike, and neither of us wants to turn around and call it a day. Between the five of us we have two cans of bear spray. Just in case.

The bear has moved off into the bushes, but we can still see it from the trail as we approach. The little boy in the family threatens tears. We make noise and can hear it moving through the undergrowth. Toward us or away from us, it’s hard to tell. All of us keep our eyes peeled for cubs. No sign.

Eventually it disappears completely.
We hike onward.

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a half now and my encounter with the grizzly was the scariest moment I’ve had so far. But it’s also the one that makes me feel the most pride.

There are countless valuable lessons for girls and women to learn from the wild, but there’s something unique to be learned by being alone. To feel empowered by your own mind and within your own body. To believe you can survive no matter what the world throws at you. To taste, even if only briefly, what the world is like with no fear, only strength.

There is no shortage of things to be fearful about—spiders, darkness, creepy campsite dudes—but we can’t let that stop us from exploring and getting our hands dirty. It’s OK to be scared, and there’s a fine line between actions that are bold and actions that are stupid, but instead of teaching girls to be afraid, we need to teach them to be brave. To face the darkness, the grizzly, the guy who tells her she shouldn’t be here alone.

Toward the end of my hike in Glacier, I meet a park ranger who is guiding a private backpacking trip for a family of three. The girl isn’t older than five. Her parents carry all of her things.

“You did the whole loop by yourself?” the ranger asks me as we make small talk.

“I did.”

“I’m very impressed,” he says.

As I turn to finish the last three miles, I hear the ranger say behind me, “See that, Mariana? You’ll be just like her someday.”

I beam.

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)

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.