In Defense of the Outdoors


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We crest the rim of the canyon after the last climb of the day feeling satisfied and triumphant, just as the full moon begins its rise on the eastern horizon, a moody yellow orb growing in size and dominance through the sky. My friend Sarah and I have just linked up all six walls in the Linville Gorge of North Carolina—over a dozen miles of hiking and a dozen steep pitches of climbing in just as many hours—an enchainment locally known as the Linville Crusher.

climber at linville gorge, north carolina

Photo by Bryan Miller.

Hours of thought and large chunks of our hearts went into dreaming, planning and completing the challenge. And yet, as we draw to a finish, the moon dwarfs us and overpowers our LED headlamps, spotlighting our tiny statures in this grand landscape. Our effort drawing to a close, and our minds drifting back to the world we departed that morning, we can’t help but think: We are so small, so inconsequential, and really, our accomplishments mean very little.

At the time of this writing, politics deeply divide our country. Many–from both sides–feels as though their basic needs are not being met. Our nation’s wild areas are under threat. And all this in just in our little corner of the planet. I don’t know if our world’s issues are deepening or if I am just growing more aware, attempting to be a responsible and informed citizen. Perhaps it is a little of both. Regardless, I have started to question how much time and energy I spend thinking about and fulfilling my dreams of rock faces and far-off mountains, road trips and self-inflicted sufferfests when deeper issues seem to be at stake.

It occurs to me that, as we move past the national election, we have a nation that needs to heal. And as extra-curricular and recreational our time in the outdoors often feels, I believe that it plays a vital role in this healing. The wilderness is where we are our best selves, it’s where we experience life at its fullest. And it’s when we go outdoors with others that I think we break down barriers and have deeper relationships.

This may be an essential time to be people of action in our world, but the wilderness remains one of our healthiest and most grounding springboards. On one hand, escaping to the great wide open might be an excuse from participating in the realities of our world; on the other hand, it might be exactly what we need to be people of positive influence. Consider these three reasons why our outdoor recreational pursuits still matter:

1. Outdoor recreation teaches us to dream big.

female climber leading at Linnville Gorge, NC.

Photo by Bryan Miller.

How many of us have considered a 50K race, a solo trip to Thailand, or summiting a sheer rock face, and thought I could never, ever do that. How many of us have then—a few months later, maybe many years later— accomplished the impossible? Outdoor pursuits teach us to push past a great deal of personal fear and believe in the power of our bodies and minds. This self-confidence and boldness of belief is vital in the world now more than ever.

2. The wilderness offers perspective and connection.

climber resting on a rock in the alpine

Photo by Forest Woodward.

The car motors away from work demands and phone chimes and the bustling city onto single-lane highways, out of cell service; gravel roads now lead to trailheads, to high mountain passes and sore and satisfied muscles with only the possessions carried on one’s back. A night spent under a black canopy littered with stars, in the company only of each other, offers conversation, reflection, perspective, clarity. Even millennia ago, some of our world’s best thinkers ventured to the wilderness for periods of reflection. The wilderness helps us be patient with ourselves and others—stripped of worldly stimulation and responsibilities, we can be totally present.

3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I once had a friend tell me, “To be a long-distance freedom fighter you’ve got to step back and take care of yourself every now and then.” There will always be pain in our world that requires our awareness and engagement. We may think that attention diverted from troubling events in our world is wasted, but we all need rest, time to attend to our needs, and time to participate in activities that bring us joy and lightness. Consider it a simple water break on your race: It is absolutely essential to stop in order to continue forward. 

rock climber silhouette on a rock face

So, here’s a challenge to all of us. Let’s get out into wild places, push ourselves, stay active and healthy and strong. Climb a dozen pitches while hiking a dozen miles in that many hours, ski the couloirs, kayak the fjords. Keep living life well and creating positive energy, so we know intimately what we’re aiming for as a human race. Fight our own tiny revolutions with our own tiny lives. And then, allowing the moon to at once light our way and keep us humble, let’s take this personal growth, belief in the impossible, connection and perspective, and rest and recovery that we have gained and get out into the world. Because, well, there sure is some work to do.