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The first phrase we heard as children on a summer morning was "Go on, go play outdoors" Barring massive civil unrest, category two or greater cyclonic disturbances, or several of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse cantering down Maple Avenue -- we were banished to "the outdoors."
"Outdoors" gave us plenty of scope, for we had a far more liberal interpretation of it than our elders. Outdoors included picking our way over the rotten floorboards of an abandoned barn, crawling through the town's maze of stormdrains, flattening pennies on the railway tracks; as well as the obvious falling in the swamp while chasing watersnakes complemented by falling in the pond while catching turtles.
The years passed and I continued to find myself Outdoors. As a young teen it was fishing, hiking, or just wandering the woods. With college came -- perhaps an illustration will suffice. I'm the one standing in the center behind the tiki.
Lord of the Flies or College Daze?
In the midst of my college studies (see above), I heard once again the call of the Outdoors. There were several other calls - and some insistent letters as well - but I only answered the Outdoors. So, still eighteen, I packed my 8'6" two piece fly rod, some flies, a spare pair of bellbottom jeans, two blue shirts, and a few pairs of socks and headed from Boston, by thumb, to Livingston, MT, for a bit of fishing. By the time I got to Livingston I only had enough cash to pay for a one day fishing license; so, I fished for one day, caught one small trout, and headed home.
But, alas, I had tasted the nectar of the road and now had no home. So, apart from brief interludes, for the next nine years I enjoyed the Outdoors. This was not the Outdoors as hikers, kayakers, and their ilk know it - majestic forests, high mountain slopes, or crystalline streams - though I saw these as well. This was weather as it happened - torrential rains blinding you as you slogged up the highway from the BC coast; thirty below zero and a wind across the prairie as you stumble down the road toward Moose Jaw, SK, feet and hands long since insensible; a snow storm in June, leaves you huddled under an overpass outside Miles City, MT, - only a piece of plastic found by the roadside keeping the snow off; or waking up on the beach in Santa Monica to the slap of joggers feet in the warm wet sand.
Each day was a tabla rasa, a blank slate. With absolutely no foreknowledge, nor any preconception, of the future day, I could start out with a simple decision - North, South, East, or West. I hitchhiked. Oh, I tried jumping a freight once, near Hope, B.C.; I climbed into the cab of the second diesel back and made myself comfortable; only to have the train shunt back and forth in the yard for two hours before coming to a standstill. Lesson learned - if you decide to ride a freight, choose one that is going somewhere.
So, I hitchhiked. If I had bought a car I would need to spend months in one place paying it off, then everywhere I went I would have to work to feed it and repair it. Hitching gave me freedom and the opportunity to gain a superb education, while simultaneously providing an ear for the driver, who may not have had an anonymous confessor in years. I met wonderful people of every description, and many who beggar description. Most wanted to talk, and from them I learned to listen - a valuable skill; some just wanted to do another a kindness; a few needed someone to referee an ongoing verbal battle with their spouse in the front seat.
So, what is "Outdoors" when you don't own a door? In West Hollywood, CA, it was the open dirt courtyard of the Presbyterian Church, where the police would roust us in the morning, to "Move along." Once I spent a month on P.E.I. sleeping by night in a tube tent in a thicket and fashing turnips for a displaced Cheshire farmer by day. Fashing turnips involves pulling the large beastie from the ground, lopping the tops off with your sharp fashing knife, like a small machete, then spinning the turnip in your left hand while briskly chopping off the roots with fast strokes of the blade. Toss the finished turnip in the wooden bin carried by your tractor, then pull another turnip. A good day is one that leaves you sore from bending, but carrying on your hands the same number of digits you had at start of day.
The best of the Outdoors on the Interstate is one of those islands of rock and trees you find occasionally in the triangle where an off-ramp and an overpass intersect. Those are fine fortresses of solitude - you fall asleep to the sound of infrequent traffic, while safely nestled under some scrub juniper on your private island. I still can't drive past such a spot without visualizing camping there for a night. On backroads, shelter is whatever is handy. Sometimes it is a pile of leaves or straw to envelop you, or it might be the loft of a barn if it is far from the farm house and wouldn't inconvenience anyone by summoning them out with a shotgun. I was never one to inconvenience others. In a small city, the city park usually had plenty of spots for a nap. I also found that the French drain around some buildings provided a shelter of sorts - provided it wasn't raining.
You might think from the above that I was homeless. Well, in the late 1960's through the mid 1970's, there were no homeless; just street people, night people, and bums. Since I didn't have any liquid or powder addictions, I was in the nether world of the street people. That doesn't indicate a hierarchy, we would share what we had with anyone else, we just had different reasons for being "Of No Fixed Address."
(to be continued)
PS - I wrote the above to address the current perception that an adventure in the outdoors requires trails, clear streams, and whispering pines. In fact, all that is needed is imagination, curiosity, and a door to be out of.
What does the outdoors mean to you?