The Circle of [Outdoor] Life

Luke and I live in Minneapolis, a low-key outdoor lifestyle hub for the hardy set of adventurers who strap Wenonah Canoes to the roofs of their Mini Coopers and head north as soon as the waterways clear.

We recently attended an outdoor expo at a shop somewhat ironically named Midwest Mountaineering. (Technically, we have one small mountain range in state, so I guess it’s a valid claim.) Their tented-over parking lot was packed with Patagonia-vested attendees from all walks of outdoorsy life.

From the sea of Earth tones rose one clear voice above the rest, momentarily diverting my attention away from the Icebreaker sale rack. It belonged to a young woman who was an employee of the store. She was conversing with her fellow utility-vested colleague about a chance encounter she had with her former high school principal.

“He’s the one who got me into backpacking,” she said. The expression on her face reflected a wistful hint of recollection back to her more innocent days of outdoor recreation. She has since developed the finely tuned muscle memory of someone who knows exactly what to do with a rock wall or sea kayak.

This forced me to retrace the origins of my own outdoor lifestyle, which began neither willingly nor gracefully.

In our early days of traveling together, Luke and I devised a “you pick/I pick/we pick” system for selecting the destination of our annual “big trip.” I got to go first and picked Amsterdam. When Luke’s turn came up, he picked a road trip to Yellowstone via the Badlands and Devil’s Tower.

Fortunately, car camping presents a low barrier for entry when you’re starting from scratch. Luke took me to REI and introduced me to a lot of specialized equipment that seemed to be very expensive for what I thought would be single-use items. When would I ever need to wear a set a base layers or a headlamp again?

Begrudgingly, I went all in. I got a sleeping bag and pad. (I already had a liner thanks to the sketchy hostel in Amsterdam.) I bought the damn base layers and other foreign objects purportedly meant to enhance my time outdoors. We loaded all of my new stuff into the Jetta and headed for the prairie dogs.

Thanks to a complete mismanagement of time, I completed my first mountain pass in the dead of night. I’ll never forget approaching that hulking mass of danger, praying to God there was a way around it.

“Not unless we want to drive to Canada or Mexico,” said Luke.

So over it we went, startling hundreds of mule deer out of their nocturnal routines with our unwelcome presence. They took turns taunting us by dashing in front of my bumper at regular intervals. We had to drive 10 miles per hour to avoid creaming them, which put us at the Cody Cowboy Village at 2 a.m.

Aside from mistaking the majestic sound of elk bugling for a flute-wielding serial killer coming to get me in the night, things calmed down once we got into Yellowstone.

I was introduced to many learning lessons over the course of the week and gained the understanding that the world is so much more achingly beautiful than anything I could ever depict in my wildest dreams.

Ten years into the outdoor game and those base layers have since been worn threadbare by a variety of activities that would not have been possible without them. They are now retired and occupy a special place in my gear closet as a reminder of where it all began for me.

I have suffered the consequences of my ignorance, but I’m always learning new ways to be better prepared for the next time. It’s the circle of outdoor life and it continues on indefinitely.

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