One of the most important lessons that I learned from my father was taught to me by hiking. And when I think of the value of that lesson, the effect of the ignorance of that lesson immediately comes to mind. The lesson was that in the wilderness, you are responsible for your own survival and consequently when you are in civilization, others are responsible.
We would go to the San Gabriel mountains, scarcely 30 miles from our house, and be totally alone. I felt that I was the master of my own destiny there. There was nothing man-made to corner me, nothing except that which I made. No social conventions except that which we constructed. No rule of law except for that which we created. I knew what it felt like to be the maker of civilization.
The ignorance of that lesson became clear to me when, on one particular occasion, we took some [underprivileged] kids to Big Sur. I don't recall the circumstances, but it was certainly a great deal less wild and more picturesque as we descended from the road down to where we thought we might see some seals. Then suddenly some of the kids froze in fear. They had never been outside of the city. Somebody had made a strange chirping noise that triggered the fear. Keep moving I said, it's not far. I can't they replied, trembling. Why not? Jason's down there. Who? Jason. He's going to kill us.
It took some explaining to me that Jason was a character from a horror movie called Friday the 13th that I had never paid attention to, and that chirping noise was the sound effect that was employed whenever the teenagers were about to be slaughtered. The poignancy of the moment was not lost on me. I almost cried. Here were kids who were so far from being liberated by the outdoors that it was almost impossible. Their minds were captivated by nonsense. I became angry and gave a guarantee that no Hollywood slasher was going to attack. What began as a nature hike became a forced march. I would prove to them that they had too much foolishness in their heads.
I don't know what happened in any other part of that trip. The memory has been reduced to the constant counterexample of what nature meant to me. In my mind it was a blank slate awaiting civilization or the sort characterized by Sierra Club bonhomie and Boy Scout honor. To them, it was an outdoor slaughterhouse.
To this day, especially since I live in the World's Most Overpriced Suburb, I often think of the liberating possibilities of the outdoors. What I want, of course, is big fat broadband, ample heat and frozen meat somewhere I could live extraordinarily cheaply. Occasionally, I will find someplace on Google Earth which is stark, clean and beautiful. Occasionally I will fly over some interestingly remote place between my home and my job. I think about the few things I need, like Steve Martin in 'The Jerk'.
It's frightening to contemplate how much of the world is built up, quartered and owned in perpetuity. There are buildings in Manhattan whose upper floors I'm never going to see, even as I brush my fingers across the cornerstone at street level. That is the inside. But I get a feeling of longing when I think about those remote places I might never see. I get the feeling of wanderlust and I wonder how it might be to have a sinecure in some ancient, obscure yet relevant remote place. Have you ever wanted to live in a castle or a cathedral? Just last night I was watching 'The Man Who Would Be King' and I'm thinking about the adventure of making a civilized spot somewhere.
The islands of Malta evoke such feelings, and that place where the Ruskies exploded the Tsar Bomba, and the Berents Sea where they lost the Kursk. And today I learned about the Scapa Flow. It's difficult to believe that nobody would know about the Orkney Islands and the fact that most of the German warships were scuttled there at the end of WW1. Warships. They all seem such an unimaginably distant and alien sort of power. In an archipelago of dozens of isles and skerries, north of forgotten, west of nowhere, in 40 meters of frigid water are the water graves of sailors. There's that lighthouse you saw in a movie once. Cliffs overlooking a nameless sea, houses, hovels and castles all made of rock, because only rock can handle the howling wind and frothy wet cold.
I dream of outside because outside is where you could be. Eating food. Waking early or sleeping late. Where weather determines the time and a mind can connect across the distance to the greater economy. I think it might be my destiny if I can convince my wife, and somebody pays me to keyboard as I do. I will be on God's planet once again.