A few days ago, I got home from a vacation on the coast of Maine. We spent much of the week sleeping in a tent, dirty and sweaty, exhausted from hiking and biking, rushing through 4-minute showers in public facilities that charged by the minute. We had hardly five spare minutes a day between climbing mountains, pitching the tent, making the fire, icing the cooler and all the other chores of camping. And I can say without reservation, it was one of the best vacations of my life.
I have spent a lot of time wondering why I love outdoors vacations. Why I am willing to spend my precious time off work carrying a heavy pack on my back through the woods or sleeping in a scrubby state park campground, using “rustic” public bathhouses or even, sometimes, pit toilets. Why I am willing to spend part of each day searching for ice for the cooler, cooking dinner on a junk-strewn picnic table, or waiting in line for a weak shower. I remember one trip when my family, woefully unprepared for rain on our first night out, ended up squatting for nearly an hour in the cramped vestibule of our tent while a thunderstorm pummeled the campground. We watched helplessly as our tent site turned into a puddle. I can still see the dog sitting next to me, shivering and muddy, submerged in 3 inches of water. “Is this my idea of fun?” I raged at myself. “Why do I do this?”
I think I have finally come up with the answer. Because more than I want my travels to be relaxing or even fun, I want them to be transformational. I want them to remind my family of the wonders of the world and of our place on this big, magnificent planet. And the only way to get that is to go outside and stay there.
During my nights in the tent, I devoured the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, one of the most perfect and amazing memoirs I have ever read. She chronicles her own transformation, from heroin- and grief-addled to fierce and wise, during an 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. For three months, she hiked, mostly alone, through searing heat, deep snow, terrible pain, intense boredom and constant deprivation. Almost anyone facing the obstacles she did would have quit. Most people would have considered it unsafe, even stupid, to continue. I know I would have. And yet, through that trial, she learned the most important lessons of life: that we can trust, on a fundamental level, that we are safe in this world; that it takes guts to allow yourself to feel fear; that it’s never too late for redemption; that the universe is huge and amazing and far bigger than our personal dramas; that you don’t have to figure it all out, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
My tiny adventure in Maine was nowhere near as brave or harrowing as her journey. We spent our nights camped a few feet from our rental car, sleeping on a comfy queen-sized air mattress. We ate lobster dinners in restaurants and spent our last night in a motel, swimming in the heated pool. But we also climbed to the top of the tallest mountain in Acadia National Park, a four-and-a-half hour journey that left our almost 7-year-old daughter glowing with pride. We discovered a rock-strewn cove at low tide, its beach teeming with life — millions upon millions of barnacles and mussels and snails and undulating starfish. We scrambled around on piles of volcanic rock, tossed into a heap by forces so violent, so ancient, so much bigger than ourselves, that it’s impossible to imagine. For one week, we left behind our computers and our phones, the television and the news, and we remembered what a huge and marvelous world we inhabit. We remembered to look closely. We felt both the beauty and the indifference of our environment.
So I guess that’s why I put up with the stress and annoyance of sleeping outside. Because, every once in a while, I want to stop seeing the world through the lens of my own comfort and safety. I want to stop walling myself off from the world and be out in it.