I’d really like to go to Patagonia, and I can’t really explain why.
I was never much for the outdoors growing up. My uncle had a deer lease that we’d go to on occasion, and he mostly invited me when hunting wasn’t really the point of the trip. I did a bang-up job of disrupting the rhythm of the experience. I refused to be up early to make it to a deer blind and I definitely wasn’t going to walk in the freezing cold through the woods at four in the morning covered in doe piss. Plus I couldn’t bring an mp3 player because apparently deer can hear the faintest whisper of a murmur of barely audible sound.
I mostly went to ride four wheelers, pretend to like fishing, and play pasture golf with an old set of clubs that was waiting out its rusty demise in the cold of the remote cabin. Every now and again I’d shoot the guns, trying my damnedest to hit a can just a few feet away. The anticipation of the recoil to come was always enough to cause me to prematurely flinch, missing the old can by a sizable and growing distance with each shot.
I didn’t like being dirty. I didn’t like the lack of television. But despite all the things I didn’t look forward too, there was plenty to enjoy. My uncle and my dad would always cook good food and we’d all play dominoes late into at night. That old cabin was where I had my first taste of alcohol, where I chewed my first cigar, and where I learned those subtle mannerisms shared by men in manly situations. There was also the time my cousin and I found an old Playboy from the seventies at a nearby cabin we had sneaked into, and I’m sure that was the first time I saw a naked woman. I remember walking away confused, wondering where the woman I had just seen got the added details that were missing from my friend’s sister’s Barbie dolls we had undressed once. We never did tell our dads what we had happened upon that day.
I grew up a lot in those woods, even though I never loved them. I much preferred organized sports to the more rugged outpouring of testosterone that happened on those hunts, and it continued like that for some time.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I got the outdoor itch. It was during the second half of a road trip my senior year in college. I was with four of my closest friends and we had just traveled to Phoenix for a football game after which we decided, somewhat impulsively, to head north to the Grand Canyon, each of us feeling it was too near to pass up. We drove north through the mid-winter cold, the roadsides getting steeper and more snow covered as we made our way to that magnificent testimony to relentless beauty.
I remember getting there and not knowing what to expect. People always describe it as a religious experience, and so I’m sure I was expecting some type of epiphany. I closed my eyes and had a friend guide me to the edge. I guess I wanted it to be a huge surprise and I probably hoped that seeing is suddenly would induce that breath-taking feeling some people say they get.
And like most things you build up, it was anti-climactic. Initially. It was what it was. A big hole in the ground. I remember thinking the pictures of it I’d seen are more beautiful, each one artfully framed by light and manipulated for best color. It was cold and the Canyon was covered in snow, and despite that absence of an out of body experience, I remember not wanting to leave.
I kept thinking about how old the Canyon was, and how it was formed. I thought about the history of the area and the native people, and the great explorers who had stumbled upon the marvel and the shock that would have been. I really wanted to hike down. I was in sandals and I didn’t have hiking shoes. I was broke and even though I would’ve spent my last dime on a pair of shoes at the gift shop, we had to get back for class and that money had to go to gas.
It wasn’t long after that when I went on my first ski trip, and the mountains were overwhelming and beautiful. I was with another great group of friends on that trip who patiently taught me how to ski and who would drink in the village with me afterwards when I was tired and frustrated. This summer I spent some time on the Appalachian Trail and it was a great time even after we were halfway though our ambitious hike and realized we weren’t going to make it all the way.
After all this, I decided I like the outdoors and ever since I’ve been getting out as much as possible. Like all good converts, I needed a nice jacket preferably from a cool brand. Patagonia had a nice logo, and I got one of those thick fleece jackets that look like teddy bear fur. Sometime after that, I picked up Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and I watched 180º South. This only added fuel to the fire and now here I am, making plans to drink the indigenous maté with my Argentinian friends in preparation for my trip that will hopefully happen soon. There’s even been talk about climbing 14ers in Colorado.
I think the part of me that now loves the outdoors comes from the same place for most people. You read Emerson or Thoreau. You watch A River Runs Through It. You go on a nice hike in the woods with someone you like and the lights shine through the trees in a slightly different way. However the itch comes about, it gets down deep. You crave the escape from deadlines and structure and smog that might make up your context. The outdoors embody escape, transcendence. The represent not just physical but intellectual and spiritual removal from the everyday. You begin to feel tricked, like everything around you in a fabrication, and the answer, you tell yourself, if the get away from it. You go to the woods. To the mountains or the ocean. There all the things erected around you which you can no longer trust are stripped away.
And all of those things are attractive to headstrong twentysomethings who think they know a thing or two about what’s wrong with the world. But at some point the initial allure dies away, and you are forced to ask yourself if you really are a person who loves being outside.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered that as the newness has died away, I still love being outside.
The reasons are much less pompous that those above. While it is an escape, retreating from the things that need redemption is never the answer. I like the city just as much as I like the outdoors, I’ve realized.
For me, it’s something else. I like being there with the things that have been there much longer than I have. I like swimming in water that has flowed for millions of years, in rivers carved out by forces that have never waned for just as long. I like climbing natural forms pushed up by powers nearly incomprehensible. For me, the initial reasons for being outside were arrogant, a misplaced sense of deeper understanding I though I had found. My new reasons are quite the opposite. They do a better job of putting it in perspective. They tell you that you are a small part of a long, long history. That you, contrary to what may feel, are not the most powerful force around. You are a visitor, one of billions that have come along over the long course of history. This new set of reasons causes you to think of yourself more humbly.
It’s not degrading. It’s not meant to cause you to question the necessity of your own place in this world. To be sure, you are needed and created on purpose. But it removes you from the center. It gives you a role to play in stewarding, in redeeming, in restoring, and in bring peace. You become a part of a much larger whole, one that you play in integral role in. It is true that your individual impact is small and transient. Some echo louder and longer than others. But more importantly, impact is judged by each person collectively playing their own role. It is the harmony of parts that we need, no the drowning solos.
I look forward to learning more lessons outside. Risk. Adventure. Beauty. Transcendence. Humility. History. And hopefully this journey will take me to Patagonia, that remote, uncharted, desolate land, largely untouched and uncorrupted. Humans have had to travel farther to get to Patagonia than to populate any other place on Earth. And it is a journey worth the effort, I’m sure.