My parents have always been highly conscious of the rapid pace at which the world changes. In 2000, my father read a news article about the extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex, a subspecies of the Iberian wild goat, once found throughout the Andorran Pyrenees. At that time, my brother had not yet been born, but my parents had already decided that they would make sure their children saw the natural phenomena and wonder of America — glaciers, endangered flora, volcanic craters — before it disappeared.
I don’t remember exactly what national park I visited first. I have vague memories of a road trip on Route 66 through the Grand Canyon, mingled with the sound of a geyser in Yellowstone. As far back as I can remember, I have visited no less than one national park, protected area, or wilderness zone a year, usually during the summer. I have gathered eight Audubon field guides (New England, Florida, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain, Night Sky, Southeast, Southwest, and California), 25 lapel pins (two each from the 12 national parks that I’ve visited and one commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service), and six photo albums over the duration of these short 17 years. Yet the significance of these trips has never laid in the collection of collectibles or the pictures taken, but in the stories that our family has accrued.
There’s an unspoken rule when we go on these trips that cell phones are to be left tucked away in the deepest pocket of our backpacks, even below the novel that I have never once taken out but always pack. My parents make a point to take us to places where the cell phone reception is almost non-existent, often teetering between one and no bars. They have a theory that the number of bars is somehow inversely proportional to the quality of the trip.
I don’t have a grudge against cities or anything. I’ve found some of my favorite ramen shops in Manhattan and I’ve spent great afternoons biking around Portland and Shanghai. But when I’m out camping or hiking, and visiting places like the national parks, my system slows down. I spend more time sitting and observing — really observing — rather than just doing. Without the distractions of cell phone vibrations or traffic signals, it becomes easier to look and see the beauty all around you.
I’ll admit, too, that I enjoy the fear that can be found only in isolation. While camping along the Appalachian Trail, before we knew how to properly store our food, my brother and I heard countless noises as raccoons scratched at our food supplies or clawed at our tent.
During our trip to Everglades National Park, we spent hours staring out into the marshes, hoping to see signs of an American alligator or crocodile but only sighting egrets and herons. When we finally turned to leave, my brother screamed and pointed into the reeds, revealing an alligator, a leviathan lying parallel to the boardwalk, resting on a rock between the reeds. It squinted at us, as if gauging whether we were worth the effort. Its tail swayed on the water, its jaw stretched open, but it remained still, watching us with cold eyes. There are few thrills that quite match the shiver down the spine I felt then, knowing with sincerity that I do not stand atop the food chain.
It wakes you up, in a different way.
Backcountry also has a side effect of sharpening the connections between the people you choose to surround yourself with. Over the years, these trips have built the bedrock on which my relationship with my brother is built. We don’t necessarily speak more on these trips, but it seems that the mix of experiences naturally forms a flexible glue that holds us together. Often, we spend the day watching each other's back view, a refreshing break from the constant "in your face" interactions we have day-to-day.
On a week-long kayak trip through the San Juan islands in Washington a few summers ago, we sat around a campfire and made brownies, then washed the dishes in the ocean and slept on a tarp beneath stars undimmed by city lights. We didn't have our phones, and I took a picture of the sunrise with a dew-soaked disposable camera. In the morning, we paddled out to a rock where seals liked to rest and watched them wake up. On tiny, three-acre Blind Island, having company to laugh and eat with seemed like the most important thing we had packed in our boats.
Off the Golden Ring in Iceland, where the weather was, more often than not, below-freezing, we trekked with only GPS coordinates through rain and mud to reach Brúarfoss. I saw with fresh eyes how water could fall into itself, the small waterfalls running into a deep chasm of blue raspberry. My brother fell into the water and pulled my father and I with him. Our boots and coats were marinated in the deep blue water the next morning.
Along the West Coast, in Redwoods National Park, we followed Carruthers Cove trail, an old skid road, down through alders and berries to a beach. We slipped on some steep grades, but ultimately made it safely onto the shore, where we encountered a herd of elk grazing in the distance, one with large, almost coral-like antlers.
When we returned to Grand Canyon National Park, we rafted down the Colorado River to reach Elves Chasm, a hidden little canyon off the river, where the warm red rocks are covered in emerald green moss and constantly bathed in glassy water.
These destinations may not be easy to get to — and my brother has always been vocal about this as we struggle to climb up a hill or slip on loose footing — but that’s only led to an extension of the cellphone theory: the colors always seem to be more vivid if an expedition draws a little blood first.
If many aspects of this country upset me these days, the one thing that I have always appreciated is the ease with which I could vanish into its wilderness, how many hidden gems there are to find and explore. With the noise and clamor that afflict us every day, this kind of remoteness is now more precious and fragile than ever. Our planet is so crowded that we spend all our days trying to get somewhere, brushing by strangers on the streets, rushing to the next errand. But in the wilderness, deep in the national parks, I have found that I can surrender myself to what Gretel Ehrlich called the “absolute indifference” of nature. Out there, where there is nothing, we fill up the emptiness with experiences and stories.
This piece was also published in The Choate News, on January 20, 2017.