A normal Thursday at work. Six to eight half-hour meetings before lunch, a working lunch, and trying to get some work done amidst a handful of other meetings.
But, tonight, I would sleep under the stars.
One of my unmet goals for 2016 was to do a quarterly ‘micro-adventure’ with my friend Tash.
Finally, over a year later, we pulled one off.
The concept is that we don’t explore the world around us nearly enough. We are trapped in routine commutes, that our path through life is larger than a hamster wheel, but it’s still largely a hamster wheel and often difficult to tell one day from the next.
I can become incredibly comfortable with routine, with planning, with habit. Triathletes generally are – ask most members of my tri club what they’ll be doing Saturday morning and there is no question: a long bike ride.
Mastery, which is recently a topic in vogue, comes at a cost – dedication means repetition, it means the exclusion of other pursuits.
Personally my life has represented this in the extreme – more and more I have narrowed my life to fewer pursuits. Unfocused time became the first to go. A broad social life disappeared. Family faded in and out at times based on avalanches of guilt, loneliness, or love. Relationships could never fit into the focus of work and selfish pursuits.
While mindfulness is a concept I have discovered late in life, it doesn’t hold all the answers. The physical world is just as important as the space between your ears, and learning to combine both.
So now that I’ve built up this concept to the point where it sounds like it will save humanity, the most basic micro-adventure can be summed up as ‘an impromptu hike.’
Today when you talk to most people about camping, it’s an ordeal. Select your destination, plan your meals, find your gear, pack it all up, pick your trail, reserve your campsite, apply for leave to make it an exorbitant three-day weekend. All this means people don’t go camping that often, or that camping is the pursuit of the few that do it enough that the overhead is reflex.
I grew up camping, even in my own backyard. Summers in Eagle River, Alaska, meant getting the canvas tent and it’s external frame pack – which took one of us to carry the beast, and heading down to the Beaver pond to camp overnight. Three kids, early teens, running around a pond riddled area next to the train tracks. As the trains came by, we’d don bandanas and wave machetes and knives at the wide eyed tourists as they rolled by, sightseeing cattle looking at the Alaskan wilderness. A decade later, I rediscovered camping with friends in uni and even returned for a six week hiking trip through my home state of Alaska.
So the idea of re-introducing a bit of outdoor life into my ‘trapped in the city’ routine had instant appeal.
While the idea was to be as spontaneous as possible, there was tension between being totally unplanned and having a complete disaster for our first attempt.
With my work and training schedule, there’s no such thing as ‘free time.’ So I had to start with picking a date. Once that was set, we started with the broad strokes plan:
We’ll meet after work, go to the train station, take the next train 90 minutes, then exit the train, then hike for an hour, and then sleep overnight.
Now, I live in Sydney, Australia – a unique place where this is possible. Most US cities have dangerous areas, or you could not reach wilderness within 90 minutes, or even in Queensland that wilderness might be filled with things that will kill you. So this is easier than it would be in other places.
Still, by the time we had boarded the train, we actually had decided to head South, to hike into the Royal National Park, and find a place to camp along the trail.
The Train Ride
The ride South went quickly. The guy sitting across from us talked about the great trails, wished us well, leaving 5 empty beer cans in his seat. That’s quite a routine for anyone’s commute.
We grabbed a fish & chips dinner before hiking into the park. There was way too much to eat, and always fearful that my metabolism and hypoglycemia will turn me into an angry idiot, I packed the rest of the chips away in their paper bag in my backpack. (This is exposition)
The hike was fantastic. The trail provided only an occasional view of the horizon, but kept your attention on the winding, well maintained but not sterile path through rocks and trees. We were constantly on the lookout for places to sleep – looking for protected flat spots. There are no camping spots in here – what we were doing is technically illegal.
I love the phrase ‘technically illegal’ because it means the same thing as ‘illegal.’
We found a couple of places that would work out along the way, feeling the pressure of the race against the setting sun to try and reach one of the water pools in case we could get in a swim before going to sleep.
Hmm… Can’t see anything. Let’s jump in.
Finally, we emerged. The natural pools were there, in an open space, with flat rocks above. Before the sun set we found two flat spaces to camp. Then a quick change into swimmers, and trying to ease into the largest pool without breaking an ankle or scraping a knee on the slippery rock surfaces. The water was completely black, the bottom invisible. The water was cold, but in an invigorating way, rather than numbing or paralyzing. It required you to move, to breathe.
The notion that you could not see anything below you – how deep it was, whether the Aussie equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster was staring at your toes deliciously, whether there is a fresh water bush jellyfish species that your friends have failed to mention, or even whether your leg will get caught in some vegetation and this will be the tragic story of your life that is told. Isn’t imagination fun?
Time for sleep
The sun set, forcing bedtime. We read, drank, had dessert, and departed to our “sites”.
Our packs were fantastically small – I had a small rock climbing backpack and Tash had something similar. It was warm enough that I had only brought a sleep sack, a small Thermarest, and a tarp. It turned out to be perfect as the night was warm. The rock surface was not comfortable but the tarp and Thermarest helped.
The larger your pack, the less mobile, the less flexible, the more stuff you’ve carted in with you. A minimalist activity is well suited with minimal stuff.
My eyes began to get heavy.
No hot chips for you.
I am sure that as soon as I entered the park, that the entire kingdom was alerted to the smell of a paper bag containing a half-kilo of hot chips. Luckily most creatures in the park are afraid of man.
As I was about to drift off, I heard a noise in the bush next to me. I knew it wasn’t large, no bigger than a house cat and likely much smaller. Tash had been talking about a friend who owned lizards on the hike in, and how they existed in the park. I listened for the foot patterns of the animal, as if somehow I would determine “aha! that is clearly a mammilian scurrying cadence and not reptilian!”
As the movement neared me, I turned on my flashlight trying to catch a glimpse. It scurried (or crawled or hopped?) back into the bush. Finally after much cat and mouse, I caught it in the light. It was a small rodent.
From Tash’s site she wanted to know what in the world was going on. I told her a small mouse was around. The hot chips were certainly the draw, so I called upon my bear survival skills and broke a branch to hang my packback which contained the hot chips. Now, the nearest and best tree happened to be located a lot closer to Tash than me, which I swear I was not thinking about at the time.
The mouse stopped coming near my tarp. The next morning I learned that I didn’t fully deter him/her, but just refocused his attention on the new location of the backpack, so Tash had a few skirmishes of her own through the night.
The next morning, a google image search helped identify it as a bush rat. Tash was not happy that I had reported ‘a small mouse’ to find out it was a bush rat.
The alarm went off, and we packed via flashlight, and quickly hit the trail. On the way out the trail looked different but familiar, the way that only a wilderness trail can have a completely different side in cloudy sunset or bold moonlight.
I felt full of life, half-sleepy, partially relieved, but mostly connected and at peace. We boarded the train back to the city, had breakfast at a cafe, and then parted ways to head to work. I showered, dressed, and began Friday. It was the best Friday I’d had in a long, long time.
Thanks to my friend Tash for introducing me to such an amazing, simple way to reconnect to the natural world.