The smell of a roaring campfire on a cold night, as you sit around it with friends tracing your breath in the air and sharing old stories. The sound of spring rain falling against your tent, rhythmically lulling you into a deep, dream-less sleep. The feeling of kicking boots off swollen feet after a long summer hike and smiling as you count the miles of the day in your head.
In these moments I have found new sensations of joy, feelings of being alive and blessed, and humbled in the presence of natural beauty.
The Joy of Learning
Three years ago, shortly after we got married, my husband and I decided to reshape our urban lives and experience the joy of the outdoors more frequently through camping and hiking. Being fairly new to the outdoors and not having cultural or social resources to rely on for expertise, we had a long road ahead of us of learning through failure. I am talking the basics: learning the hard way how important it is to set up camp before sunset, how it’s much easier on your body to drive in tent stakes with a rubber mallet rather than a metal hammer, how to study a trail map before hiking because your sense of distance in the wilderness is truly exaggerated, how to dress properly because 30 degrees feels so much colder when you’re sleeping in it, and how hard it is to cook on an open fire.
It brings me so much joy remembering the frustration and exacerbation I felt in those moments, struggling with the most basic needs in life. And I am not embarrassed to share those experiences with you. In fact, I am grateful for the ability to do so. I tried something, I failed, and that failure caused me physical discomfort so I tried again and again till it worked.
The outdoors is a great teacher in that way; she punishes arrogance, she rewards creativity, and most important of all, she enables you to find pride in your failures.
The Joy of the Journey
And so, we have been on a journey to learn new skills, discover new lands, and through constant trial-and-error and revaluation, find our own authentic space in the outdoors.
As we’ve camped in deserts and by oceans, in rainstorms and heat waves, we’ve come face-to-face with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And through it all, I have found this to be true: There is a sensation of joy out there in the wilderness that is unlike anything else you’ve experienced in your life.
This is the kind of joy you have to earn, by hiking countless switchbacks up mountains or trekking through icy river water. I did so by pushing beyond physical limits I hadn’t considered before and experiencing challenges I didn’t know existed. The joy I found out there while learning about myself and the land wasn’t waiting for me at the end of the trail or at the top of the mountain. The joy was the journey: the self-doubt of whether I’d reach my destination, the pain in my muscles and joints, the frustration of my body being weaker than my ambitions, the embarrassment of being slower than others on the trail, the fear of the unknown.
The joy was the journey: of pushing past my excuses with every step, of looking back and seeing my progress measurable in distance and elevation, of appreciating the final quench of a thirst and the warmth of a well-built fire, and finally, of coming out on the other side of fear and self-doubt and celebrating victories I never imagined I could.
The Joy of Simplicity
But it’s not always about being extreme in the outdoors. Your relationship with nature is unique and personal: You can find joy while on an afternoon walk or during a family cookout.
For me, the joy I find outdoors is simple. It is the result of acknowledging the privileges of my civilized life—of how, unlike so many others in this world, I don’t have to struggle on a daily basis for water, food, shelter and warmth. I honor those privileges by pushing myself to earn them in the outdoors through my own labor.
When I am out there in the great beyond, I am reminded of my own fragility. I fully realize how truly ill-equipped I am to survive outside my civilized life. I go outdoors to embrace that humility in the grandeur of natural beauty and to experience joy in the wilderness.