As an outdoors blogger you are obligated, at some point, to answer the Why do we go outside? question. Or, that’s what reading outdoors blogs would have you think. To be honest, I’m not really interested in this question because there is a much better one hiding inside it: who is this we you are talking about?
There are something like three-hundred and twenty-five million of people in the US, and most of them are pretty normal. They go to work, they raise their kids, and they try not to screw up in the process. Some percentage of them are lucky enough to have the disposable income to spend time in the wild*, and some smaller percentage of these people use their time outside to form a core part of who they are.
Almost none of these people are doing the things you read about in magazines or on the blogs. They are hiking local trails, camping along roads or just barely inside the wilderness, and fishing your city ponds. As 10 minutes on the local trail will tell you, this group of people is profoundly diverse. Their experiences outdoors are important to them, but they are experiences that those of us in the blog-inista almost certainly look down at. We do this at great peril, because they, these normal people doing normal things, make up the vast, vast majority of what actually goes on outside. For better or for worse this is a fundamental, inescapable truth.
A fundamental truth we outdoors extremists are very bad at dealing with. I have read a great many posts asking Why do people go outside?, but I don’t think I’ve come across one that centers around normal outdoors lovers and their experiences. It is easier to build monotonically around Mallory, in all his because-it’s-there glory, and explain these yaboos away as a nuisance because that is a world we understand. However, Mallory’s fundamentalism is ultimately the periphery, not the core, of how people interact with the outdoors. If we really want to understand our relationship with the wild we have to start by understanding what it is normal people get from being outside and then layer us outdoors-extremists on top of this picture. The result is more complex, but by allowing the shades of gray to seep in both groups, the causalists and the extremists, become more interesting.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the experiences of outdoors extremists are not important. This would be obviously false. The outdoors probably means a lot more to someone who spends all their time outside than someone who spends relatively little. However, there are also a lot more casualists and semi-casualists than there are us, and ignoring or devaluing them serves no one. Or, if these humanist arguments alone aren’t good enough for you, look at it this way: we are going to need these people to agree with us and vote with us to meet the conservation goals we all want. That is going to be a lot easier if we know who we are dealing with.
I am also not saying we will like what we find. If the trash scattered across my beloved Fossil Springs and Wet Beaver Creek is any indication, a careful examination of what actually goes on outside will confront us with some hard truths. On the other hand, we also have a lot to learn. Asking an old retiree why they hike a simple local trail every day will almost certainly beget an answer profound, beautiful, and mostly unexamined. We will learn much more about human endurance from studying when a life long hiker finally succumbs to decades of injury than we will from reading yet another interview with yet another record breaking thru-hiker, not because the thru-hiker isn’t important, but because we have already talked to a lot of people like them.
To the extent I can, with the friends and family that I have, I am trying to do this here at Lesser Places. It is not something I am perfect at. However, I am trying to highlight, through my trip reports, my gear reviews, and my odd one offs, the lessons that can be pulled from the outdoors experiences of reasonably fit, reasonably sane people within a reasonable driving distance of a major metropolitan area. We still do a fair share of really
stupid hard core trips but we also don’t devalue the little trips. When being outside is fun, we talk about that; when being outside is scary, we talk about that; and when being outside involves looking at butts, we talk about that too.
Have we been successful? No, not really. Ultimately my friends, family, and I are a self-selected group of people who don’t really love car camping and will let nothing stand between us and the promise of better fishing holes. Luckily our expanding waistlines make us more relatable. Despite all that, we are trying.
And that’s all we can do.
*In the Western sense of the word. Thinking about what the “wild” means across the vast diversity of humanity is important, but beyond the scope of this post.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.