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Launching Myself Into the Out
On one of the sunny days that pops up like a break in the clouds between the rain, wind, and persistent 30-degree temps of a fitful Minnesota spring, I launch myself out the door as soon as I get home.
I will only walk for 30 minutes I tell myself. Because I have a list of things I’m supposed to do with the rest of the day, with the five hours between finishing work and going to bed so I can wake up to do it again. I will only walk for 30 minutes.
That’s important, because the last time I only walked “for 30 minutes” I walked for an hour.
The time before, I walked four miles. Traipsing along the bike path in the city I’m calling home.
So this time, I will only walk for 30 minutes and I set a timer for 15 minutes to remind me when to turn around.
When I have to start walking back to resume the rest of my life.
For a year at the start of the pandemic, I lived in Iowa. I was desperately lonely. A little bored. Restless and sleepless. My body wanting to be somewhere else and I couldn’t indulge it because I had a job, a fridge full of groceries, paid rent and utilities for a sunless basement apartment I had to keep occupied.
So instead, I hiked.
Launched myself into the Out.
Every weekend with almost religious consistency, I went for a hike. A proper hike, on dirt trails woven through with exposed tree roots and smooth rocks jutting up from packed dirt and a trampled layer cake of leaves moldering into dirt.
I made this deal with myself. However far I had to spend in a car just to get to a patch of wilderness on public land where I could hike, that was how long I would stay there for. An hour to Blue Mounds State Park meant at least two hours of hiking/sitting on rocks/listening to prairie birds. An hour and a half to Palisades is three hours of sitting by a river and climbing rocks and snacking on dried cranberries and chili-lime cashews.
Which, by the way, is top tier trail food.
I don’t know how many miles I racked up. I think at the time, I was trying to get away and long walks was the closest thing I could find. Even though at the end of every hike I was back at my car, driving to a basement apartment, my fingers stained red with chili-lime and the Sunday scaries looming over my shoulder.
I just wanted to keep walking, keep going, until eventually I walked right out of my life and into a different one.
I once hiked half the Superior Hiking Trail with my dad and two sisters. I did not like it at the time. Maybe I would like it now, although I’m not sure. In my life the outdoors is a place I can escape to, but sweltering summer weekends is was not the way I wanted to be escaping when I was 17. Drinking greenish “beaver water” filtered from along the trail, shitting in holes and passing around the toilet paper, crawling into a narrow tent feeling the sticky stiffness of dried sweat on my limbs = feeling like maybe this outside thing is for the birds.
So I know I did not always like hiking, although I’ve hiked for years and years with my family. Hiked the northwoods of Minnesota, hiked prairies of Minnesota, hiked river trails and the woods behind our country home and the white gravel roads of rural southeast Minnesota where a block is a half mile.
Now I realize what a privilege it is when going outside is a form of retreat, not a circumstance one wants to retreat from. Where I can spend Midwest winters indoors moaning about how it’s dark all the time, but at least it’s also 70 degrees where I spend all my time. Where when I go outside it is for leisure. Where I don’t have to worry about what threats the world outside my doors might pose. Where I can walk out unaccompanied, a little deaf to the world except for my podcast, and no one will tell me I’m wrong for that. (At least not out loud. At least not more than once. At least not without me flipping them off.)
I started noticing the outside and it’s promise and opportunity because of the pandemic. Everything was closed. Except the outside. So I went there. Again and again. Hoping for peace. Hoping for healing. Hoping for the burn of tired legs and sore feet. Hoping for cars with mufflers so my podcast wasn’t drowned out. Hoping for all the bikers to tell me they’re coming behind me. Hoping for answers. Hoping to not think about my questions just for one fucking hour please and thank you. Hoping the air smelled nice, hoping there was a little breeze, hoping that bird was singing again. Just plain old hoping. Glad that the outside was there, whether I was in it or not.
Mostly I think “the journey is more important than the destination” is sort of bullshit. I am never just going, I am always going to even if it’s just in my head.
But lately I’ve noticed I am never arriving, never stopping at a finish line to rest on my laurels, to rest in the satisfaction of completion, to rest. Finish lines flit by like power poles along a highway and I’m driving resolutely five miles over the speed limit, already fixed on the next place I am going to.
So sometimes going for a walk is the only way I know to just be in the present. In the moment I occupy right now, the space I take up right now. To breathe in whatever is around me right now – cool smell of mud, laced with the bitter edge of exhaust or sour notes of fresh goose poop. It’s spring in a city in Minnesota, after all.
I think going for a walk can be a giant pause.
I think going for a walk can be a way to not pause.
To be not busy and busy at all once. To let my mind unwind and my body focus on not stubbing my toes on tree roots and panting up inclines and the cold air + exercise making my nose run. To have the point of the whole thing be going somewhere and coming back, where both going and coming are equally important and the somewhere part is only a matter of when my 15 minute timer goes off.
So I walk aimlessly. Pick a trail and amble down it. Figure it will take me somewhere, or if it dead ends that I can just walk back. Meander off the bike path to walk the sidewalk of a residential block and look at all the little houses where someone’s turned over the dirt out front, ready for planting flowers. I’ve started collecting interesting sticks. Or stones. Snooping in FREE boxes on the curb. Admiring the moss growing on the tree just off the trail. Reading all the plaques and feeling more like my dad every time. Just going somewhere and coming back.
I wrote this at 3 a.m. because I thought my wide-awake brain was trying to say something.
Maybe it was just the journey keeping me awake.
Maybe it was just excited about the hike I had planned for the next day.