As a one year old, I fell asleep in an inflatable canoe and was almost lost on the Eel River. True story.
Our family dog, a chocolate Lab (the most loyal of all Labrador varieties), saved me by pulling the line back to shore. Perhaps this is where my fearless trust of nature stems. It has never betrayed me. And since then, little has changed. When there were no hearts to break or be broken by, nothing worth mentioning when my life hit its Doldrums, the outdoors could always give me something worth writing.
We were a camping family and we each had our styles of camping. As children, we had weeks-long voyages to the Redwoods where we drank hot chocolate and swallowed river water and rolled around the rocky banks with marshmallow goo in between our fingers and underneath our nails. Wild cousins jumped off of rocks that scraped heaven, at least by my juvenile standards. We hid in the backs of careening pickup trucks, sneaking by underneath the Park Rangers’ noses on our way to pick wild blackberries from some cliffside unknown to any map. At night we listened to stories told from the mouths of exaggerating aunts and perhaps stoned uncles. The years since have proven how few of these tales were ever true, but none of that is relevant. Tradition trumps truth. And we kept forging it until it looked as strange and stupendous as we liked.
Since those younger days, I have become a girl who likes the finer things in life to be sure. But held at gunpoint I swear to you I would rather wake up in a tent. Sticky dew on the rain flap, on my eyelids, condensation on my sleeping bag.
I never realized how marked my life is by the outdoors until I try to strum up memories without them present. In short, I can’t. Every year, every experience is colored by the delicate frame of a Yosemite Dogwood, the hunching beauty of a Point Reyes Cyprus, and the often offensively cold waters of the Pacific. The outdoors are a metric by which I measure everything else. Even while traveling abroad, it isn’t the cities I gravitate towards. It is the lakes, the alpine country, the blistering heat of secluded beaches, countryside littered with nothing but cows and craggy limestone. The ability of wilderness to at once be entirely unique and absolutely universal is astounding to me. It is both domineering and submissive. It astonishes and brings peace. It asks so much of us, yet it gives back a hundred fold, whatever bits of ourselves we manage to dole out.
Something else I have learned as we spend time together, the outdoors are ethereal and exquisite, yes, but they have a biting sense of humor as well. Pure comedy stems from nature. Windstorms while camping that blow tents over into neighboring sites. Catching no fish all day, only to hook a steelhead at the end of your fly rod in the last hour of sunlight. A stack of waves spitting you out onto the shoreline with your bikini bottoms clinging for dear life. Falling off of ski lifts, taking on the bunny slopes after a cool fifteen year hiatus only to find that skiing is freaking difficult and snow is slippery, and there is literally nothing I wouldn’t do to deserve the right to après with the best of them come last chair. All of it can be funny, if you submit to it. Funny, if it is kind enough to drop you not too roughly on your feet.
The lessons that are gleaned from not just acquainting ourselves with the outdoors, but also wholeheartedly loving them, are useful in a multitude of life’s circumstances. The patience we adopt when navigating unpredictable weather is not unlike the patience used when maneuvering a friend’s testy moods. The challenges posed by extreme wilderness prompt us to rise to occasions we normally would not dare face. The land teaches us to rely on each other and rely on ourselves in ways modern technology no longer asks us to. There was a time it was us and the wilderness and not a damn thing else. And we survived. We thrived. We can still do this; we should still try.
Last summer, my cousins and I relived our camping excursions together for the first time in over a decade. There were fewer marshmallows, a significantly greater amount of beer. Instead of the Redwoods, it was the Point Reyes Seashore and we hiked seven miles with fifty pounds of shit attached to our bodies rather than driving up to the campsite in car seats, plopped gracefully into slingback camper chairs by our parents. The hike was so strenuous and the weather so gorgeously hot that we nearly ditched the tent several times before proper reasoning found its way back into the driver’s seat. We compromised by drinking half the beer instead, all in the name of “lightening our load.” I was not almost lost on the Eel River, but found again in the expanse of nature that hums steadily no matter how lost you get, no matter how many people you’ve become and undone in the spaces of time spent apart.
// Photo courtesy of Isabel Baer; keep reading the Big Outdoor Guide here.
Isabella Welch is a graduate of UCLA with a degree in history. Her writing has been featured in history journals, travel blogs, arts & culture magazines, and more. Director of Editorial & Creative Development at Bob Cut Mag, lover of stories and tinto de verano, she’s usually found wandering the Headlands.