I have long thought of myself as an inside person. When looking back on my childhood, I only remember reading in a carpeted nook, stirring applesauce over the stove, knitting on the couch. As a veritable bug magnet, being outdoors has always incited a whisper of anxiety in me. Going outside felt like taking a risk— I somehow always ended up scraping myself or getting muddy or slapping at a bug that had started sucking me dry. Since these events led to reprimand or regret, I began associating the outdoors with unpredictability and unpleasant consequences, and as I got older, I spent less and less time outside.
But now, endless months into lockdown, everyone has started to realize that the outdoors are one of the only options for activity. I approached this concept reluctantly, telling myself that I didn’t need to go out and that my hobbies were perfect for staying at home. About twenty embroidery projects later, I started getting an itch to leave the house.
In September, a few friends and I took a week to visit Acadia National Park in Maine. Now, I’ve never been one for pre-trip jitters, but the thought of only doing nature activities for a week straight made me a little nervous. What if I got bored? Or annoyed at looking for fish? What if the bugs smelled me and attacked in a swarm? We picked up some bug spray with 30% deet and ventured in.
Maine is known for Stephen King and being beautiful. I didn’t meet Steve, but it certainly was stunning. The day we drove up, we immediately went to a little trail since we couldn’t check in until later that afternoon. Getting out of a car after a four-plus hour drive and jumping straight onto a trail in the middle of nowhere shocked me at first, so much that I couldn’t soak in the beauty of my surroundings. Of course, I saw the aesthetic appeal of the stream and the woods, but my heart still hammered dully on.
Once we got to our cabin, the first thing I noticed was the lack of full-length mirrors anywhere in the house. Before I sound entirely self-centered, I’ll have you know that my apartment is full of mirrors and mirrored objects, all of which I inherited from previous tenants or friends and did not purchase. Regardless, I’ve become used to being surrounded by reflected images of myself, and although I don’t tend to actively notice this, it takes a toll on my self-image. Only when I was unable to look at myself from every angle at any moment of the day did I begin to notice how that made me feel. As banal as it may seem, I felt cleansed, not having to see myself and my body all the time.
Like every female-identifying person on the planet, I think about how my body looks several times a day, which is already hundreds of times less than I did as a teenager. But once I was removed from the looking glass that is my apartment and placed on trails where I had to push and trust my body, I found myself thinking instead about what it could do. I try to move my body every day, but very rarely do I appreciate it for its ability to transport, support, and recover. In Acadia, we did several challenging hikes, including the famous Precipice Trail, where rocky scrambles and cliffside ladders comprise most of the route. I’ve always enjoyed a precarious adventure, but most of my experience before Precipice was with ropes courses and harnesses. Without a harness or spotters, there was no choice but to rely on my body like I never have before.
In a rocky scramble trail, there’s no strict path or route. Sure, there are a few markers to guide hikers, but none of the rocks are marked with “left hand here” or “foothold”. I spend so much of my inside time with my brain divided— I’ll be watching television and scrolling through email and eating dinner and texting at the same time. Hiking in Acadia shut it all off. The stakes of losing focus were too high to think beyond where I would put my hands and feet next. I haven’t felt so clear in a long time.
During my time in Maine, I also began to think about our relationship with the earth. It’s hard not to, when seeing rays of sunlight speckle through trees onto the soil feels somehow divine. As we walked through the woods, I thought about my plants at home, how they need my help so often, with watering and repotting and placement. The wild outdoors exists beyond our understanding or care. It’s built to feed itself, to grow and nurture and care. But as humans, we take from it. We’ve poached the land, claimed it as our own, even while it has lived long before us. Because of what we’ve done, it is struggling to live past us. And it continues to give.
So much of our lockdown in America has been filled with insecurity and fear. We are surrounded by the shortcomings and failures of the systems we inhabit, and now that those flaws have been forced to light, it feels impossible to push them back out of our consciousness. One of these issues is our suffering earth. It’s an easy one to ignore or dismiss— when we’re not the ones evacuating our homes, we can blame those events on freak accident or regional mistake. Staying indoors separated me from facing the facts, that we share this earth, the only one we have, and it needs our help beyond recycling or flying less or eating organic. The institutions we have established are rotting our earth and endangering our lives. When I began to love being outdoors, the urgency of this threat amplified.
At the vista of one hike, I sat on a crag overlooking the park, listening to the trees rustle and the birds sing. The sweat on my neck and back began to cool. The rock beneath me lay still. The sound of my breath melted away. And right as I wondered if the earth could feel me in it as much as I could feel it around me, a soft breath of air brushed past my face, and I knew it could.