Two summers ago, upon my return from the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, I sat outside a coffee shop in my suburb and cried. Once I finished crying, I set to realigning my daily life and haven’t yet stopped.
While ordering iced coffee, I felt the indoor air heavy and stale on my arms. I retreated to the front porch to be with the breeze. I had staggered into my usual routine on this first full day back, but I longed to be paddling on the water, hiking the portages and stepping over and on rocks and logs and mud and munching on the occasional tiny, juicy raspberry on the side of the trail. I needed the heavy pack on my shoulders keeping me grounded.
There in the woods, I felt strong and beautiful and I knew what my purpose was. Here next to the shop’s well-manicured lawn, I felt more lost than I ever did searching for the next portage or campsite. I felt weak and ugly. At our campsites, I did not miss mirrors or screens or windows. Out there, I remembered parts of myself I had forgotten, like shoulder muscles, strong ankles and the nature, solitude and silence I loved.
There, I stepped firmly and confidently through mud while carrying a canoe on my shoulders. I wore bruises as badges of honor. Sweat from physical exhaustion produced much less odor than stress sweat. Permanent ponytails were acceptable and bras were optional in our small group of four women. We enjoyed a lunch of turkey and cheese rolled in a tortilla while drifting across Ada Lake. We agreed that mac and cheese never tasted better with its liquid butter and powdered milk than after miles of paddling and several wretched portages. For evening awe and entertainment, we watched a moose standing in the lake flinging his massive head out of the water, shaking his floppy ears and chewing on whatever tasty plants he was eating off the lake bottom. Bull frog croaks, loon calls and white-throated sparrow songs provided our trip’s soundtrack.
At the coffee shop, the traffic sounds were abrasive, like sandpaper on my eardrums. And so many people here, so clean, so pretty. Where are their paddles, their packs, their hats and hiking shoes? On the muddy trail, I saw the footprints of many who had passed before me. On the rocks I saw their wet steps. Here, the sidewalks remain flat and unmarked. The roads show no trace of its travelers except for the litter and potholes. Where does my attention go when I don’t have to watch my every step because the way is so paved? In watching my every step, I saw not-yet-ripe blueberries, crushed and scattered pinecone seeds, tadpoles, snakes and snails. I breathed small orange flowers, red bunchberries, and the dozens of shades of green.
I knew who I was out there. I knew what was expected of me, when to cook, when to clean, approximately where I was going, what I was to carry, when I could rest and wander on my own, when I could read and write. My shoulders ached and I felt alive. My lower back throbbed and I held a downward-facing dog pose for relief. I could meet my needs and the needs of my fellow travelers. All my senses were open and engaged. They still were that afternoon at the coffee shop, but in a few days I was dulled again. Dulled to the onslaught of this civil, social, loud, fast-paced world, so I could survive it.
There is nothing like the Boundary Waters here. Too many cellphone towers, big buildings, and asphalt roads. But I longed for it, that wildness, the fresh air, the getting up with the sun. I wanted to run back there, stay there, and be open to the sights and sounds unbounded by tall buildings and leaf blowers. Dashing off to the Boundary Waters isn’t a viable option; I need to be here, but I needed to do something to hold on to the feeling of being connected to my natural surroundings, to hang on to the attention of how my body moves in this world, to hold on to the delight of a hard day’s paddle, the call of the loon, the path through the woods.
I needed more of there, here.