Wash your spirit clean

There is something magical about the quality of light in the early morning when it is filtered between trees that weren't planted by any landscaper.

I came late to hiking and backpacking; my parents took us on one or two camping trips when I was young, but Dad's idea of camping was (and still is) a four-star hotel on a golf course. I didn't really start camping until I was in college, a few rowdy trips when I didn't know what I was doing beyond the instructions in a book I found in the library.

But my first husband was not particularly fond of the outdoors. He said his family's idea of camping was a sleeping bag and a fishing pole. If you didn't catch anything, you starve, and you can just sleep out under the stars and eat bugs like a man. No wonder I could never get him into the woods.

The call of the wild. Eventually I took it upon myself to begin hiking and backpacking solo. And I fell in love with it.

The light, you see. That strange ethereal quality you only find in places where fluorescents have never shone. The silence isn't really silent - there is the rustling and murmur of living things all around you. The stars never shine so brightly anywhere near civilization as they do in the woods, and there is a quality to the air that fills you with energy - with light, even.

I went alone, because my husband wouldn't go and my son was too small. It was my escape, my soul replenishment. It was what I did on that one solitary day off I had every month when it was my turn for the weekend - I'd get a weekday off to compensate, and my son would be at day care. Off to the trails. A weekend here or there, hiking the Whispering Pines trail or along the Meramec River. Funny thing, those whispering pines really did whisper. It's a funny trick of the wind.

One blazing-hot August afternoon I climbed Goat Cliff alongside the Mississippi, which ends at McAdams Peak. It's not a long hike - less than seven miles - but you gain and lose a lot of elevation in those seven miles. It was 100 degrees that day, and I drank every drop of water in the bottles in my pack and sweated it all out my skin climbing to the view at McAdams Peak.

My god, I miss it so.

I got older, and health problems intervened. The plantar set in, making it harder to walk, then a knee injury two years ago pretty well ended my hiking. I kept my subscription to Backpacker and tried to switch to car camping, figuring I could get small doses of the outdoors while I tried to get back into shape, to disappear once more into the woods with everything I need on my back. Those hours-long day hikes shortened into short strolls through the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which always gave me something lovely to look at while I wandered.

This comes to mind sometimes, and always with a true sense of regret and loss. Today, it's because REI has announced it is staying closed on Black Friday. There's the usual internet kerfuffle about it: some lauding the decision, others cynically sneering that they must have had crap sales. REI's website says they want to encourage people to go outside on that Friday most people have off work. As a Midwesterner, I must admit a slight snicker; after all, it's pretty dang cold by Thanksgiving, guys.

I have gotten soft, I guess.

REI says it believes getting outside makes all our lives better. They're right. Somehow in the last several years, I've gone from a woman who disappeared onto the trails every day off to a woman who sees the sun so little she has a critical deficiency of vitamin D. Camping has become something I do on the Fourth of July only, despite my best intentions to Get Out More, and the unwavering support of my husband. I even allowed my membership at the Gardens to lapse.

I'm not so foolish as to insist that my husband and I will definitely go hiking the day after Thanksgiving. Yes, we are both off work, but you cannot roll back time that quickly, and I'm not in the shape I was back then. But some things are too important to lose from your life even if you find yourself in poor health on the dark side of forty. There has to be something we can do, even for a few hours.

Opt Outside isn't the worst idea I've read all year; it may be one of the best. Maybe it won't be too cold for us to do something. Maybe we are slowing down, but that shouldn't mean stopping. We can do this, can't we? There is still light to be captured, and the trees still whisper.

Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. 
-- John Muir, 1915


  1. Colds, schmold. Put on your warm clothes and go out. It doesn't need to be a long hike. It can be a walk around the park. But it isn't far to find good places that are even more outdoorsy. Pierre Marquette comes to mind in your area. It will be beautiful, even if it is typical Midwest November. I will be outside that Friday, too, probably up in Rocky Mountain National Park, or nearby environs. I think this is an awesome idea, and should become a tradition.

  2. So lucky to live near Rocky Mountain National Park! I was fortunate enough to visit Yosemite as a young girl, but too young to really appreciate the experience.

  3. I am indeed blessed. You and Jimmy and Ian are always welcome to visit. Free lodging with kitchen, and 24 miles from RMNP.

  4. You know you are always welcome at Brittony Woods - just give me a shout and let me know you plan to come to the woods. Even if I'm not there. But wear bright orange this time of year - the hunters are out.


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