Sharp peaks, gleaming glacial lakes, trees that reach into the sky: on Instagram, all the splendour of nature is laid out before you in neat little squares, a social media patchwork of the appeal of adventure travel.
Even within my own social circle, I know plenty of outdoor and adventure travel aficionados. They are the friends who leave the city to ski down mountains, who drive an hour or two on a Saturday morning to hike over boulders, or who head to the nearest shoreline with a surfboard the minute the wind picks up.
It’s safe to say I am not one of them.
At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself. Somewhere along the way, I picked up and cemented the idea that I’m not an “outdoorsy” person – and certainly not the kind of person who travels for adventures in nature.
Maybe it stems from being bad (read: absolutely terrible) at sports. Maybe it lingers from being horrified at having to abseil down a rock face on a Girls Brigade weekend away as a teenager. Or maybe it’s the fact that most of the time, I am – and always have been – perfectly happy sitting on the couch curled up with a good book (or a pen and paper to hand).
Whatever the reason, it stuck – until this year.
This past year, this strange year when we’ve had to stay inside and cities have slowed down, it’s as if I’ve rediscovered part of myself that I left behind in childhood. The forced time indoors has rekindled my connection to the outdoors, whether it’s watching the birds through the window or, when we’ve been able to, getting out into nature itself.
Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, I was comforted by the song of the White-throated Sparrow and the view of the blossom on the tree outside our top floor flat. In the summer, I found myself again and again at the kitchen window in our new house, identifying the myriad birds that call the back garden home: the Northern Cardinals, the Eastern Towhees, even the occasional Downy Woodpecker.
And as summer slowly shape-shifted into autumn, I was finally able to leave the city and spend time outdoors. Cycling around Peaks Island in Maine, with the sea to my left and autumn colours to my right, left me elated. Stepping into the Atlantic Ocean on the deserted Seawall Beach felt like coming home. And walking the trails in Wolfe’s Neck Woods, trails that twist through pine trees and clumps of golden ferns to guide you to the waters of Casco Bay, brought a sense of much-needed calm after our urban lockdown.
I was surprised at how instantly the smell of those trees transported me to childhood.
The joy I’ve found in the outdoors this year makes me feel as if I’m being reintroduced to the part of me that climbed the trees in my Granny’s garden with my brother, looking for what we called “acorns,” and what I learned many years later are in fact pine cones. The version of me that loved nothing more than pulling on a pair of wellies and going splashing in the stream around the corner, or going on adventures in the “valley” that was really just an oversized ditch – but which to us as children was wild and magical. The side of me that went out on never-ending bike rides, the kind where you cycled through the village with friends for hours for the sake of it, only finally coming home when it started to get dark.
When it comes to travel, I love exploring the streets of a new city on foot, eating and drinking everything in sight, digging into the history of a place, and popping into shops and cafes. And yet, I’ve learned – or should I say remembered – that I love the great outdoors, too.
While this year has brought that into focus, if I think back to earlier travels, outdoor adventure does sneak in alongside the city breaks. I think of the drama of Mount Rainier in Washington, a sight that genuinely took my breath away. I think of the hikes in the Arizona desert, a beautiful, sharp landscape that is seemingly constantly out to get out you. I think of the evening spent kayaking in a bioluminescent lagoon in Puerto Rico, or the afternoon of stand-up paddle boarding in the Finger Lakes with friends. I think of sailing to the Shiants in the Outer Hebrides, a day on the water that has stayed with me ever since.
In the world of outdoor and adventure travel, the images we often see are of travellers in fancy hiking boots pitching up their tent in the wild.
But the outdoors belongs to us too, the ones without the gear or the technical skills, the ones who pull on scrappy trainers and get out of breath as they climb, the ones who are perennially clumsy on two wheels, but who relish the thrill of it all anyway.
I’m that traveller. I’m the one who falls off their bike while stationary on a flat pavement (true story!), the one who has to stop for a rest (or should I say “rests”) during hilltop hikes, and the one who is always nervous about getting in the water, despite being a strong swimmer wearing a life jacket.
But I can be all those things and still love outdoor travel.
We don’t have to be good at the things that bring us happiness; we simply have to enjoy them. And in a year when we often haven’t been able to go further than the four walls of our own homes, making the most of the outdoors when we can has felt more important than ever. Instead of looking at those towering trees through my phone screen, I’m re-learning (and resolving) to get outside more often and see them for myself.