Returning to the Wild

Over my city hang stars that are faint and apologetic. It’s not their fault, of course. It’s ours for pushing them away. And while many people don’t even seem to notice this as they go through their day to day lives, it bothers me. I prefer locations where the Milky Way seems to descend and envelop me, and where the people are outnumbered by the wildlife. Give me the wild over the city any day. This was easy, when I was young and uncommitted and wild myself. Now here I am, approaching thirty faster than I want to acknowledge, with a darling little girl to take care of and a demanding full-time job at a large tech company.

They make me miss the outdoors more than ever. The woods, the ocean, the swamps, the mountains. The radiant green of nature, and of course the gorgeous sky shimmering overhead. It calls me, and for nearly six years I ignored it, and the hole it left in me.

One year ago, I decided to ignore it no longer. Stress at work was getting to me and I desperately wanted to quit, although I was actually in a better financial situation than I had been in years. I was constantly tired, angry, and battling depression.  So for my daughter’s sixth birthday, I planned a camping trip to Mammoth Cave, the closest National Park to our home in Indianapolis, about three hours south of us. It was only four days, but it was the test: what if she hates it? What if, by now, I hate it? That nagging voice didn’t want to let go. What if the whole trip is a dismal failure? This could shape all of our travel to come. Not to mention the fact that at this point, my skills in tent assembly and firestarting were undoubtedly rusty.

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There was only one way to find out. And in some ways, yes, it was a disaster. It took half a container of lighter fluid to get our fire going, a downpour soaked my tent, I got a mosquito bite on my eyelid that swelled it nearly shut, and I stepped on a wasp. But when the stars winked at us through the trees the first time, the awe on her face was worth it all.

We kayaked down Green River one morning. A water moccasin sashayed lazily toward shore and turtles plopped into the water at the sight of us. A curious gar swam up to stare at us. At the end of the seven mile run was the boss level, or as I prefer to remember him, Charon, an angry ferryman who would swear and howl and chase kayakers who would attempt to approach the landing site.  We were assisted by a pair of hippies in a canoe singing Sugar Ray songs at the top of their lungs and later that afternoon descended into the dark of Tartarus, better known as the caves of central Kentucky (including the famous Mammoth Cave itself) where the dark of underground loomed like a physical presence.

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Back at the campsite, under the green sky of forest canopy, I asked her what she thought. Eyes shining, she told me she loved it and in spite of my soreness, I did too. So we followed it up with Gatlinburg in October under the misty skies of the Smoky Mountains, then we returned to city life to see pre-Mardi Gras New Orleans in January and the Mile-High city of Denver in April. And each time, when she finally crawls into her bed at the end of a trip, the last thing she says as I tuck her in is this-
“Where will we go next?”

Everywhere, my dear, anywhere and everywhere.

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