“I do not know how to distinguish between our waking life and a dream. Are we not always living the life that we imagine we are?”
- Henry David Thoreau
I grew up in a rural Minnesota neighborhood south of the Twin Cities. We lived on a gravel road where few cars passed by and the handful of neighborhood kids seemed to rule the road with our games and antics. Whether we were on foot, BMX bike, or eventually, four-wheelers and dirt-bikes, we were the kings of our world/neighborhood. My older brother and I were part of a small group that romped endlessly through dense hardwood forests, cornfields, and farmyards as if we owned them. We were typical boys playing in the mud, swamps, and streams on the search for frogs, waterbugs, and anything else that was new and exciting. Climbing enormous oaks, chasing down salamanders, and searching for berry patches were daily occurrences. Games of imaginary worlds where we were the kings, soldiers, and heroes grew out of this landscape of possibilities. Our castles and dream homes were forts built out of sticks and old left-over lumber and nails from our parents’ projects. We learned about tools and structures by using them and looking at what was built around us, respectively. This was the realm of possibilities. The land of dreams. A world of our own making. I don’t believe that world has changed for me, because I still live with that same mindset of imagination and creative gusto.
When visiting extended family over holidays, we developed a game that became known as “Monster”. This game involved all of our uncles (the monsters) and all of our cousins (we all happen to be rowdy boys roughly the same age). The basic premise was to evade our uncles and to rescue the others who inevitably would get caught. When caught, we were tied up with bailing twine in some odd location around our grandmother’s farm, so we learned about search and rescue at a young age, as well as tactics of stealth and evasion. We also learned that one should always have the tools necessary to survive/escape, such as a pocketknife and a lighter, because we never knew when one of our scheming uncles would kidnap an unlucky cousin from the festivities, thus setting off a game that would last the remainder of the day. These games further developed an already growing love and understanding for nature and adventure.
As we grew into our teenage years, my brother and I gathered friends for huge games of capture the flag and paintball every Thursday. It became tradition. Our parents would grill up a feast while we would spend the remaining hours of after-school sunlight in pursuit of each other in the forest surrounding our house. It was serious, camouflage clothing and face-paint serious. It was life or death, run til you get a thorn in your eye, then keep on running type of serious. My brother actually did that, and afterwards had to go to an eye specialist to have the thorn removed. We lived for the outdoors. Even in winter we would play outdoors, sledding, snowboarding, building snow-caves, and generally romping around until we were called in for dinner or often well after dark for bedtime. The need for fresh air and freedom was palpable.
Upon entering high school, I fell into the idea that I had to be out with the other kids, of course vying for attention from all the girls, but also missing out on the true beauty of the natural world all around me. I spent my high school years caught up in the world of sports and weight lifting, schoolwork, and ideas of young love. I realize now that all the times I said I was "bored" throughout those years, I was just lacking the mystery and wonder that nature beholds.
After those years of confusion I began working full time in construction, working outdoors for 12 to 21 hours per day and following those long hours outside at friends' houses sitting around campfires until I passed out from exhaustion. I didn't realize it just yet, but nature was creeping back into my life and I was not resisting. It wasn't long before I began playing in rainstorms, walking all night in winter snowstorms along the river bottoms, and hiking into the bluffs around Winona, MN to clear my head. Along the way I found a new appreciation for writing my thoughts and imaginings into a notebook which I vehemently labeled, "NOT A JOURNAL!" At the time I thought I was too cool to journal, HA! What did I know?
At the age of 23 I hitched a ride to western Montana to work for the Montana Conservation Corps, performing backcountry trails maintenance. I learned through experience about backpacking and became fully entranced by the spell of the mountains. This time spent with the MCC in Idaho and Montana imbued a devout appreciation for Leave No Trace ethics as well as the understanding that I can endorse environmental stewardship through leadership. It was a dream job to travel through virtually untouched public wilderness for a living, until my back gave out a few years later after carrying a few too many over-loaded packs (60-100 pounds) full of tools.
Although this was an injury I would deal with for many years (at least 5 and possibly a lifetime) I had been inspired by the natural wonder of the mountains. I was determined to get back out there in the wilds. Over the course of years, I progressed through short walks, eventually discovering a joy for trail running, mountain biking, and I even competed in a triathlon (and hopefully will again). Although putting on a heavy backpack was still a daunting task, it just hurt so much. It felt like my spine was squishing together and grinding out every nerve fiber when I donned a heavy backpack. Since the injury, I bounced between schools while attending college for nursing, making use of educational awards I had received, as well as grants and scholarships for a high GPA, but chose not to finish my degree due to a change in motivations. I couldn't imagine myself working in a fluorescent environment for any number of hours in a day. I didn't even want to be indoors.
I lived in an unheated garage during winter while attending school in Missoula, Montana to keep rent down, but also to keep myself from getting too comfortable at home. I had discovered that my level of comfort at home directly correlated with the amount of time I spent in the forested mountains. I found that if my house was comfortable I never left it. So I fought that issue with a cold and barren garage for a bedroom. The best part? It worked. I was outdoors every moment I could be, from before sunrise until I fell asleep long after dark. My time was used to cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowboard, or trail run at every opportunity between class and homework, whether with a friend or alone. I also learned during this time that my back pain subsided when I was more active. This finding eventually led to the discovery that a persistent regimen of yoga every morning nearly eliminates my back pain, so long as I am diligent to follow through every morning with the routine. This made life livable again, and it opened the door to backpacking once more, as long as I travel lightly. In an attempt to get out backpacking again I have grown from traditional backpacking into a lightweight setup in which my total pack weight is just below 11 pounds before adding consumables (fuel, food, and water).
During this same time of personal revelations I found that I was incredibly intrigued with the science of nutrition and became interested in trying different nutritional lifestyles. I use the term lifestyle rather than diet because I was not trying to lose weight, nor control calorie intake, but instead I was trying to eliminate foods that made me feel less than stellar and discover through trial and error if my thoughts on how life should be lived fit with any of those nutritional lifestyles. The paleolithic life stood out and I felt very strong and fit while trying it, so I adopted many (but certainly not all) of the basic premises into my everyday life. It fit my mindset of living simply and intentionally. It matched the knowledge I had gleaned from nutrition and biochemistry courses in college and made sense in a physiological sense to me, so I chose to keep it up. Although I have to say that I am a firm believer in exercising moderation in all endeavours of life, so I still enjoy sweets (I just don't bring them into my own home) and I still eat whatever comes my way when served great food at a friend or family member's home.
Ultimately, I have found that nutrition and fitness are of primal importance in my life because they make me feel alive and because I strive to live an intentional life in which I am ready for all opportunities that come my way. I have developed an attitude of positivity over the years of outdoor adventure and struggle, and have learned that no matter how hard I try, I will always have much to improve upon in all aspects of my life. A free life of breathing fresh air, drinking fresh mountain water, and sauntering endlessly through untouched terrain are what I dream for now.