A boulder field in Southeastern Greenland and a jungle tower in French Polynesia have very little in common with one another and even less in common with a small plot of woods in Ohio. Yet, somehow over the past few years I found myself on two great adventures in the remote corners of the Earth that, ultimately, had their roots in a humble slice of Midwestern woods.
I don’t think of my early days outdoors often, but that’s not to say that I forget where I came from. My Midwestern roots are an integral part of who I am, and that small little piece of deciduous heaven is what originally inspired my relationship with the outdoors and continues to influence who I am today. Recently, during a trip to Kentucky to visit family, the importance of my childhood adventures in the woods dawned on me.
A visit to the nearby creek with my young niece and nephew has become a tradition during my trips to the Midwest. This time, while playing in the clay-streaked water and watching my niece float leaf boats down the tiny waterfalls, I saw a bit of my young self in her.
She moved from rock to rock with confidence, not minding the cold water that poured into her tiny yellow boots. She picked the biggest stick she could find and helped me stir the creek like it was a giant stew. She scooped up slimy green moss and threw big rocks into the deep pools, unfazed by their chilly splashes. For a brief moment, I had the joy of seeing the outdoors through the eyes of a child again, and I couldn’t help but reminisce about my early experiences outside.
The suburbs of Cincinnati weren’t what I would call a mecca of outdoor activity. Still, the trees grow tall there, and many wooded areas still exist. Twenty years ago, when my family’s neighborhood was being developed, a few plots of untouched woods dotted the street. One happened to sit right next door, sandwiched between my house and another. It was less than an acre of trees, but for me, it was paradise. My forays into the woods began with fort building, and graduated to homemade slingshot shooting, lean-to construction, and modified (read: completely unsafe) rappelling from trees.
I was devastated when I learned that the wooded lot next door was going to be bulldozed to make room for one more house. At the time, I didn’t understand the true importance that little piece of woods would play in the grand scheme of my life, I just knew that it didn’t seem fair for them to knock it all down. They didn’t know the best way through it, they didn’t know which trees were the ideal lookout spots. They didn’t know how important it was to a few children, and I didn’t know the lessons that woods had taught me.
While I was shooting slingshots and climbing trees, I was too busy to notice that I was learning to be independent. After the failure of my “rappel” system landed me on my back with the wind taken from my lungs, I was too busy worrying about dying to realize that I had just learned about the consequences of poor planning. And so the woods were taken away, but the lessons were left untouched, tucked away in my subconscious for later in life. Those lessons were there when I took my future in my own hands and made the decision to move away for college. They were there when I decided to pursue climbing full-time. And they were there on my adventures to the remote fjords of Greenland and the challenging jungle of Ua Pou.
The woods I play in today have gotten larger and the trails longer (or nonexistent), but the lesson is still the same. Children need to be outside, touching the dirt, getting their feet wet and cold, rubbing the clay between their fingers, climbing the trees, and learning the truths (even the hard, cold, slimy, uncomfortable, painful ones) that Nature can teach. And this simple fact doesn’t change as we get older; we all need this.
We care about places we connect with, and we connect with places by being in them. Many things have changed since I was a child, but that basic idea has not. I care more about Greenland and The Marquesas Islands now that I have touched them, experienced them, spent time in them, and seen them first hand.
But it isn’t just the exotic, far away places to which I feel connected. One of the places I care most about is sitting right under my nose at home in Colorado. Rocky Mountain National Park is to my early adulthood what that little plot of woods was to my childhood. This year is the 100th Anniversary of the area’s designation as a national park. In celebration of its 100th and in honor of what The Park has given me, I’m taking on the challenge posed by the park service to spend 100 days outside.
No matter how hectic or mundane life may get, I will make sure that 100 of those days are spent outdoors. I will document my experience through photographs and share them along the way, and I encourage anyone and everyone to join me. Whether the outdoors is a small patch of grass surrounded by concrete or a sprawling, untouched wilderness, get out there, connect with it, enjoy it, and learn what it has to teach you.
Author: Professional climber and Mountain Hardwear athlete, Angie Payne.