I used to be an indoor kid. Like, for most of my life. If someone stumbled across my Instagram account today – because one’s Instagram account is a true window into one’s soul, of course (insert sarcasm font here, duh) – they might assume I’ve always been outdoorsy, but they would be wrong. This whole love affair I’m having with Mother Earth is a relatively new thing. She’s been here all along, but I’m only just tuning in.
McKenzie River Trail, December 2015; photo by Taylor Hatmaker
When I was in elementary school my teachers worried about me because I’d bring a book out to the playground at recess and sit quietly for the 30 minutes my classmates ran around outside, deeply engrossed in the adventures of The Babysitter’s Club members, the sisters in Telling, or the angsty main characters in Judy Blume’s novels. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to play tag or climb a structure or do just about anything else when there were books to be read. Also, winter in Toronto is fucking cold. I wished I was allowed to stay inside and read, but my teachers insisted I bundle up with the rest of my classmates and take my books outside. So I did.
I met my first serious girlfriend when we were both volunteering in Israel, and she nicknamed me “Indoor Kid” almost immediately. Our volunteer crew did a ton of hikes over the course of our year abroad, all of which I would love the chance to do again with my new frame of mind, and I complained bitterly on most of them.
Sure, the landscapes were beautiful, but who wants to wade through hip-deep water, avoiding bees and praying you won’t slip on a particularly slick rock and catapult head first down the river? (I want to do that hike again so badly, now.) I remember feeling resentful at the end of that particular hike because I wanted my girlfriend to complain about it with me, but she’d had a nice time. I settled for complaining with my roommate instead, who was more than happy to join me in my grumblings.
A year and a half later, that same girlfriend took me to New Paltz, NY to celebrate our anniversary. We’d been together for two years by then, and she knew I loved photography, so she thought I’d enjoy a particularly beautiful hike called the Lemon Squeeze. We could take cutesy photos at the top, where there was a gorgeous view, she promised me. I had bought a tripod for the occasion and was excited to try it out. The day of the hike was clear and chilly. I wore leggings, a sports bra, sensible shoes, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt, and carried my camera slung over one shoulder, the tripod slung over the other.
Right from the start I realized I was not going to be able to do the Lemon Squeeze. It required more use of my hands than I was able to achieve with my photography gear, and leaving the camera and tripod behind were not an option. My girlfriend, bless her, was kind. She didn’t want me to do the hike if I didn’t want to, but she maintained that she knew I could. A family passed us, a dad with two little girls, and they easily skipped and jumped their way down the trail. If those little girls can do it, so can you, I told myself. Then I looked helplessly down the trail again, and burst into tears.
We didn’t end up doing the hike. We took a different route, up on a gravel road. It was very easy. We took gorgeous photos at the top. In fact, the photos from that weekend getaway were so beautiful that many of our friends texted us after I posted them on Facebook: Are those engagement photos? Are you two getting married? We were not.
October 2012, New Paltz
My parents never took the family camping when I was a kid, and for a brief period I wondered why, maybe blamed them a little bit for my slow start at loving nature, maybe implied in my head that with their help I could’ve avoided being an indoor kid. Perhaps if they had introduced me to The Great Outdoors I would have loved it sooner. But you know, they did. (Ed. note: Hi mom. It’s not your fault. I’m an asshole for ever thinking that way. Love you.)
Both my mom and my dad grew up in South Africa and adore the beach. We spent so much time by the ocean when I was a kid, and I hated it. Sand would get into everything: the creases where my thighs met my torso, the holes in the puffy white sliced bread we used to make sandwiches, my eyes, my nose, my throat. Once I got stung by a jellyfish; I cried. My dad tried his best to teach me how to ride a bike, tried his best to teach me how to ski, tried his best to get me to hang out in our yard instead of with my book and my journal and my arts and crafts in my bedroom. But I liked being inside.
When I was eight a well-meaning allergist diagnosed me with a mild allergy to grass, and after that I had the perfect excuse to give anyone who suggested that I should spend a lot of time outdoors.
I don’t know when I stopped being an indoor kid. I left suburbia for a large city when I was 17 and I stayed there for a long time. I left to visit other big cities and then I came back and I thought I might stay forever but then one day I didn’t want to anymore. Yes, I read Wild, but no, Cheryl Strayed isn’t the person who inspired me to love the outdoors, to move to Oregon, to aspire to hike the PCT. (She inspired me to do a ton of other stuff, don’t worry. In a lot of ways Cheryl Strayed is the reason I moved to Oregon, is the reason I want to hike the PCT. But it’s more complicated than that, and that’s another story. I just mean I wasn’t one of those people who picked up Wild and finished it and the next day decided to go on a long hike. Everything was a little more jumbled up than that.)
I just woke up one day and felt so bored in the city. So confused about why I was attached to a screen 24/7 and why I wasn’t outside more often. Maybe I picked the outdoors because I’ve always loved a good adventure story and the most adventurous thing I could do was turn my back on the whole way I had lived my life up to that point. I don’t know. Isn’t it so weird how life works like that? Some of the most important decisions we will ever make, the most life altering ones, the pivotal shit, it’s just like: I have no fucking idea why I made that choice. There were many choices to be made: stay, go, where, when, etc. I chose to be outside more. I chose to be online less. I decided I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.
That is maybe really where my indoor kid nature comes from. Fear. It’s not that being inside is safe, but to me, before, being outside felt scary. The jellyfish sting. Falling on the slippery rocks in that river hike. I fell when I rode my bike. I was cold and miserable when I tried to ski. The grass did give me rashes. When I stayed inside I got to do the things that felt comfortable, safe, easy. I read about other people’s adventures. I didn’t need to have those adventures for myself – until I did, actually, need that very much.
Utah, June 2015
So okay, fast forward, blah blah blah, now I love being outside. I love hiking and I love camping and I just wanna flood your Instagram feed with nine million photos of Oregon being gorgeous because good goddess, have you seen this state?! She’s a fucking babe.
Near Umpqua Hot Springs, January 2015
But what happened? How did the shift occur? I’ve become so fascinated with our different reactions to nature – the privilege of even considering if you’re an “indoor kid” or an “outdoor kid,” the roles our cultures play in shaping these differences, how different bodies and different brains can absorb relationships to the earth in such vastly varied ways. Maybe I’m being too convoluted – put simply, I wonder how we are programmed to be.
“Put simply.” Ha. Last summer Danielle and I were driving home from the Gorge together, and I was rambling on and on and on (shocking), and I finally got to my actual question, and Dani listened patiently and then laughed at me and said, “I think what you’re asking is how does the universe work? Like how does the whole world function?” And that probably is exactly what I was asking. And perhaps, “put simply,” that is exactly what I am asking now.
The Gorge, November 2015
But in the most minuscule way: why do some people love being outside and why do other people hate it? How come some folks are lukewarm about going on a hike and others want to hike thousands of miles for forever? And the change! The change is the most scintillating part, which is maybe narcissistic because of course my own personal change is the thing that spurs that interest, but nonetheless: Are we born loving nature (or not)? How and why does the shift occur? When did I go from being an indoor kid to a nature diva?
My first real hike was with a girl who I dated briefly. We were a bad match and I try not to think about her very much but unfortunately she taught me how to be outside (though not how to love being outside), so whenever I am on a trail or setting up my tent or simply enjoying the feeling of being a human who is alive who gets to stand on a mountain and breath in, I think about her a little bit. Brains suck, sometimes.
But anyway, that first hike with her was not memorable. I can’t remember anything other than we must have been in New Mexico and she was faster than me so I hiked for a long time by myself, and my thighs rubbed together and chafed and hurt and my shoes were too small so I got blisters and I thought the trail was pretty but not that great.
New Mexico, April 2014
And I remember that she was joyous. Pure bliss. She was exactly where she wanted to be. No matter how upset I am about anything, she told me on the road trip that strung all of our hikes together, when I get out here I’m not upset anymore. It’s hard to look at the earth and see all these big things and still care about the small stupid stuff. At the time, I nodded, but I knew we were feeling different things. I was having an adequately nice time on a steep walk, still caring very much about the “small stupid stuff,” and she was in her happiest place. How do I get there, I wondered. Is it genetic? Can it be learned? (I still have those questions.)
I felt proud of myself for doing the hikes, especially considering some of my hiking failures in the past. I told the new girl the story of the Lemon Squeeze, of my old then-girlfriend sweetly agreeing to take the easy walking path so I could carry my camera and tripod. Why wouldn’t you just leave the camera in the car? She was clearly appalled. Was the point of the hike the pictures? (Yes.)
Utah, May 2014
(Honestly, even now that I am this different version of myself, this hiker, this outdoorsy girl, this nature diva –– sometimes the point of the hike is still the pictures. If I’m worried having my DSLR or my film camera will slow me down then I allow my iPhone camera to suffice, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a hike without stopping to marvel at at least five different things and photograph each one of them. I don’t care anymore if you judge me for that.)
Breakups are usually good catalysts for change, so maybe it’s not weird that the me I am today was born out of a series of breakups: a girlfriend, a city, a different girlfriend, a best friend, a community, ugh. Or maybe all this change was just born out of life: the days go on, the moon shifts, we change. We make choices and they are not always divine, they are often just choices, and then here we are. All I know is that after a series of breakups I took a train from Los Angeles to Southern Oregon and when we crossed the California state line and I looked out the train window I thought, Oh. I thought, Yes. I thought, Thank you.
The very first photo I ever took of Oregon, out the train window, June 2014
In Southern Oregon I lived in a tent for four months. I stayed on a 46 acre queer land project and learned to garden, to feed chickens, to breath. I learned how to be myself again, and then there I was: not really an indoor kid anymore. It got colder and I moved out of my tent into the main structure on the land and I learned to chop wood and build a fire in the wood stove and appreciate a cold walk in the rain.
It was in Southern Oregon that I met Carrot and Chance and Jess. We all ended up at the same gathering and I didn’t know anyone and they were nice to me. They had just finished the L2H hike and when Carrot told me all about it I thought, this person is the coolest person I have ever met. Someone mentioned she kept a blog so I went home that night and googled her and added her on Facebook and asked her to be my friend enough times on the internet that finally eventually we were friends. (Hi Carrot!) Carrot had hiked the PCT twice. Chance had hiked it four times. I read their blogs. I followed them on Instagram. We hung out again. They made me want to hike the PCT. They made me feel like I could. (I can. I will.)
So now I like being outside. No, scratch that, I love it. It’s hard not to, in Oregon. Almost everything fun to do here involves being outdoors and it’s amazing and I’m grateful every day. I just typed the sentence “the way life moves is not obvious” and then deleted it because I’m not sure what I meant but then decided to type it again because I maybe know what I mean. We’re not always exactly there yet, but then we can get there, you know?
Southern Oregon, Winter 2014
Anyway what I mean, maybe, is that I’m not sure I could be who I am today if I had stayed in New York. How would I have learned that I love being outside if I was still living in a tiny sixth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn and working at a desk in Manhattan? Maybe if I had been a different sort of child, someone who already knew she loved Mother Earth, I could have lived in New York and been a total nature diva…but I needed help discovering this side of me. I don’t know if I could’ve unearthed her where I was.
“What if” is a pointless game to play in terms of tangible realities, but sometimes it’s useful as theory. What if my parents had never moved to Toronto and I had spent my childhood by the beach in South Africa? What if I hadn’t gone to NYU and hadn’t met Emily and she hadn’t kissed me that night we got wine drunk in Molly’s dorm room? What if I had never gone on that road trip with that girl? What if I hadn’t moved to Oregon? What if I’d stayed home that night and not met Carrot and learned about other women who thru-hike who are not Cheryl Strayed? Etc etc etc.
What if I had kept being afraid of some unknown something and had never let myself fall in love with Mother Earth?
I don’t know. It didn’t happen that way. It happened gradually, in increments, degrees, baby steps…then all at once. I am here now, I am me now. I want to know how everyone else is, how we all got this way.
“I think what you’re asking is how does the universe work.”
I think the answer, maybe, is to go outside.
McKenzie River Trail, December 2015; photo by Alley Hector