OUTSIDE IN THE WMNF
I was one of the approximately six hundred and twenty-five thousand visitors forecast to visit New Hampshire over the holiday weekend. I went to climb North and South Hancock, two of New Hampshire’s high peaks.
We drove about two and a half hours to reach the parking lot at the Hancock Trailhead, which was filled to capacity; we had to park along the shoulder of the road. All the parking lots we’d passed were overfull.
This is recreational life in the White Mountain National Forest, one of the most heavily used in the country. This heavy use is due both to the natural beauty of the White Mountains and their proximity to the densely populated northeast.
The WMNF is just two hours from Boston, three hours from Montreal, and six from New York City. It’s the backyard for a huge population of urban dwellers who want to get outside. But it’s hardly wild.
The Cedar Creek Trail to the Hancock Loop Trail was not crowded, but it was unmistakably trodden. We met other hikers along the trail and at each summit. Nevertheless, there were moments of solitude in nature, and moments of sustained exertion to reach the summit followed by careful foot placement for a safe descent.
There were also lovely moments beside streams, great views, and solitude in nature for good stretches of the hike.
HAMSTER ON A WHEEL
Except for yoga, I like to exercise outside. I’ve tried swimming indoors, gym circuits, rowing machines, elliptical trainers and treadmills. I confess: I lack the inner resources to find the Zen in these activities. I just feel like a hamster on a wheel. I need to be outdoors. So it was good to see people out on the trail. Most, like me, were out for the day.
And yet, there’s something that saddens me about all of us driving hours and hours to be outdoors. I understand that city dwellers have no choice. Even a resident of rural Vermont, like myself, has to drive forty minutes to reach the nearest mountain in the Green Mountain National Forest. I hike there often, but I head to the Whites for steeper terrain and longer views. I’m also a laconic peak-bagger. Over the past thirty-odd year’s I’ve climbed thirty-two of New Hampshire’s forty-eight mountains over four thousand feet.
But even peak-bagging is a form of commoditizing nature, which sometimes seems more like a museum we visit rather than a place that’s part of our lives for longer than it takes to get from the house to the car or the car to another indoor destination.
OUTDOORS IS NOT THE SAME AS OUTSIDE
Talking about “outdoors” this way makes it seem that indoors is the norm. With that point of view, the outdoors becomes threatening: a place of bad air, dangerous sun, menacing insects, and vicious wildlife. But the natural world is not more dangerous than the built environment.
And for reasons I can’t yet explain, I think it’s healthy for humans to walk in the forest and sail on the ocean, and grow something in the land, to smell the air and feel the wind and recognize where our food comes from, and maybe – at least for some of us – where our spiritual lives arise.
So this is what I’m thinking about this week, as I’ve been hiking in the mountains and planting more onions and parsley at home. I’ve also weeded the spinach, carrots and parsnips, purchased zinnia and cosmos starts, and stuck sunflower seeds into the ground. This is me, living in place.
TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK
I’m curious to know what your relationship is to the natural world. I invite you to let me know in the comment section below.