What is "The Outdoors?"

8:14 a.m. on March 16, 2009 (EDT)
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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?

11:36 a.m. on March 16, 2009 (EDT)
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.... the current perception that an adventure in the outdoors requires trails, clear streams, and whispering pines.

Having spent part of my youth in Central American jungles and most of my growing up plus a good part of my adult life in deserts, much of which in both places had no trails, I don't understand where this "perception" comes from. And Antarctica doesn't have trails, streams, or whispering pines.

So what happened to the other 5 people in the photo? Doesn't look like the photo was taken in Boston, either.

8:25 p.m. on March 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Good question. I am limited to wandering the Southeast, unless I choose to give up my business and family responsibilities.

But I am, quite frankly, tired of trails. I have grown tired of going to the same places a hundred thousand other people have already gone. Many trails take you to great places, that is true! If you have a trail guide you already know what you will be seeing for the most part, and what to expect around the next bend etc.

I really enjoy going to the most remote places my area has to offer ( "remote" is of course a relative term ) with the only trail being the trail I make on my map. I guess I like an adventure with something to be discovered, a little bit of the unknown thrown in.

However, I often have mini adventures in my backyard. Our house is backed up to a swampy wilderness area, we have turtles, snakes, lizards, aligators, opossums, racoons, pileated woodpeckers, owls, ospreys, hawks, eagles, bla-bla-bla. Never a dull moment if you feed them right. HaHa.

I go dayhiking in the swamp on weekends, go to the duckpond, carcamping at KOA, so on and so forth.

Even a nice walk about downtown Charleston SC once in a while to see all the tourists...err I mean to go shopping and grab a meal.

If I'm not in my house I'm in the outdoors, I can't stand being indoors very long.

Hey..... how can you be IN the OUTDOORS anyway?

8:31 p.m. on March 16, 2009 (EDT)
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....deer, both red & gray fox, porcupines, armadillos, several species of bat, gray, flying & fox squirrels, skunks, ottors, beavers, rabbits, bobcat, boar, coastal bear etc.

Did I mention raccoons? I love the outdoors!

1:06 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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Your life has been truly blessed so far as wilderness experiences.

You said: "which in both places had no trails, I don't understand where this "perception" comes from."

Just look up... no, at the header to this page - Trailspace.com. Or you can go to Whiteblazes.com for AT walkers. The perception may come from the fact that thousands of pairs of "trail shoes" or "trail boots" are sold every year; thus the outdoor experience seems, IMO, to be equated with trails. Many books have been, and will be, written concerning every turn of the established trails.

My simple premise is that the Outdoors is available in any city or town, waiting to be discovered. If you live in Denver, just put on some old clothes and leave the house at midnight with no money, no watch; prepared to find the wonder. Go to a part of the city you don't know, where no one knows you and just walk through the night and the day, catching sleep and food where and when you can. That is the outdoors, too.


P.S. - the island was a key in FL above Sanibel Island called Upper Captiva, ca. 1968. We were the sole occupants at the time. Two weeks spent on various school projects. Lots of coquina broth but the only solid food was one raccoon (delicious).

4:06 p.m. on April 25, 2009 (EDT)
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no walls = outdoors == sky above, earth below, air all around

9:40 a.m. on April 27, 2009 (EDT)
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It's whatever isn't Indoors.

7:49 a.m. on May 6, 2009 (EDT)
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Your description of "homeless" camping, hitching, and finding the rent-free freedom of the open road hits home. To paraphrase an old poem by Robert Service, there are some who are called to it. You can call them hobos or road dogs or the Rainbow Tribe or backpackers or bums or wanderers or pilgrims, whatever, they're the ones who find joy and contentment sleeping under a bush behind a grocery store or in a tent inside a vast wilderness. It's the American form of the wandering sadhu or the last vestige of the nomadic personality. Hallelujah I'm A Bum, Hallelujah Bum Again! My Dad used to sing this song to me back in the '50s and when we went to town I would look wistfully at the old drunks sleeping on park benches.

It's easy to live out of a pack and be a nylon hobo, I mean, we're still mammals and spent millions of years living outdoors and sleeping under the stars. What's unnatural is our current fascination with the indoor life and our conscious turning away from "nature."

3:11 a.m. on May 14, 2009 (EDT)
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Funny that we're all (most likely) writing our thoughts sitting indoors at computers plugged into the grid...

I guess for most people, and depending on the territory, trails are safe/useful/efficient ways to get where you want to go. Defined routes that avoid unanticipated pitfalls like cliffs, bogs, deep river crossings, heavy buswhacking, Sure they take a little or a lot of the wild out a place or an experience in it, but in return you are spared the time and travails of serious mapwork. On a trail you can listen to the birds, meditate on life, just put one foot if front of the other. Off-trail you might want to be paying a bit more attention. Trails have gotten me to and through beautiful and interesting places all over the world, some very wild, some less so. I haven't been afraid to leave them when I saw an opportunity to get some good place they didn't go, but I guess I've spent a lot more time on trail than off. And I can understand that some (many) people aren't self-assured enough in the woods to leave the trail. (It's the people that hole up at a KOA in an RV and call it "outdoors" that baffle me...)

Much of that applies, of course, to forested or other navigation-unfriendly places. Here in Norway, you don't have to go up too far before you're out of the trees. Then, at least in some of the more forgiving terrain and weather, you can simply point your feet, or better yet skis, to where you want to go, or at least plan a route largely by sight. The trails -- marked routes really -- are here to get you between huts and other civilized places. There are a few marked routes to mountaintops, but the rest is up to your imagination (or, quite often, beta from those who have gone before). In the springtime, major routes between huts in more heavily travelled regions are marked with kvister (birch branches stuck in the snow every 20 meters or so), so you can get between huts in poor visibility. I have been very grateful for those, and more than once. A solid whiteout in a pure white landscape without much relief, like Hardangervidda, is downright hallucinatory, and you'd better be damn good with a map and compass, and/or have spare batteries in your GPS, if you're going to go out in it.

Oops. I guess that was an extended riff/reaction to the idea that outdoors=trails for some people.

Two Norwegian words:

"Naturen" -- it's always "the nature" (the -en ending is the definite article), not just "nature" as in English. Probably the closest thing to "outdoors" as we us it in the US. "Ut i naturen", "Out in the nature" I think applies to everything from a walk in the park to a winter on Svalbard.

"Friluftsliv" = "freeairlife", a very important cultural concept, applies to any form of getting "ut i naturen".

It's a subtle thing, but these and other words underscore the cultural emphasis on "outdoors" as we are discussing it here.

5:34 p.m. on May 14, 2009 (EDT)
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Friluftsliv - I love it! It's the exact opposite of farfromnature which is a growing movement here in the US.

I really do like the concept. I'm already working up a plan to use it in my teaching.


From Neo Vox -

Friluftsliv--A Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life by Christian Peters, German Sport University Cologne
"From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind." H. D. Thoreau
American naturalist and environmentalist John Muir saw in nature "a mystical ability to inspire and refresh." "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," he advised once. "Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

People in Europe’s beautiful north have not only a rational understanding of what Muir expressed, but live holistically with nature in their everyday routine. Some say in addition to, others say only because of their unique landscape, Scandinavians have a very special human-nature relationship.

And really, whenever you visit Scandinavian countries, you will soon realize that a high percentage of people move around in free nature. During winter time, parents--even with their only two-year-old children-- go skiing in a fantastic winter wonderland. Cross-country skiing is highly popular as an outdoor recreation activity. In the summer, nearly everybody in Norway, Sweden, and Finland hikes out to spend some time in the mountains where shelters wait for the tired and often nerve-shaken mountaineers.

In contrast to Americans and Germans, Scandinavians even have a word for their tradition of living with nature and in the outdoors. They call it "Friluftsliv." Coined by Henrik Ibsen, famous Norwegian writer, dramatist, and poet, the term "Friluftsliv" can not easily be translated into foreign languages. Translations like "Life beneath the stars," "Open Air life," "Life in (and with) nature," only approximate the holistic content of the term.

As a philosophy, "Friluftsliv" is deeply felt in Norway and Sweden, but has lately obtained a more superficial meaning as the commercialisation of outdoor activities has arisen in the last years. The philosophy and pedagogy of "Friluftsliv" functions in Scandinavia as well as in Germany at the German Sport University, (Cologne,) as an important philosophical instrument in the field of outdoor education. But Friluftsliv is different in many aspects, because it is mainly focused on the physical activity in nature and not on the pedagogical and educational implication created by an outdoor experience.

"Friluftsliv" is the lived experience in the outdoors, being out in free nature all day and night long. It concerns an aspiration towards a genuine meeting face-to-face: nature in its primacy, as it genuinely is! This quality of experience is unfettered by an aggressive human agenda of conquest or study of nature as "other", or nature as a cultural construction. "Friluftsliv" is a quality of practical knowledge through which guides and students come to understand and experience a particular spirit of connectedness.

While there is a big difference between the week-long "apprenticeship" of the canoe or snowshoe trip (whether in the Alps, the Adirondacks or the Norwegian "Fjell") and full-time habitation, "Friluftsliv" as a principal tradition for outdoor education seeks this seeping of nature into one's bones and thus remains an apprenticeship for how to do well in nature. Home with nature is home with a quietly celebrated, respected presence, not an awe-struck spirit of worshipped otherness. The tonic of "Friluftsliv" is for a nature that gets under one's skin, solidifying in our being.

Another important factor deeply anchored in the cultural roots of the Scandinavian society should definitely not be forgotten when talking about Friluftsliv: the exclusiv tradition of "Allmannsrtt." "Allemansrtt" in Scandinavia means everyone's right to move freely in nature, pick mushrooms, flowers and berries, within certain restrictions. It is an important basic element in the "Friluftsliv" tradition and is not a law but could be seen as the "free space" between various restrictions.

For example, it is allowed to camp for not more than 24 hours, to bathe, to traverse any area, lake or river, to light a fire, etc. if none of the restrictions mentioned above is endangered.

A close linkage between outdoor life and philosophical and political perspectives has always been existent troughout history. Maybe these thoughts and ideas can function as important catalysts to chance society’s mind about conservation. The Norwegian "ecosophers/ecophilosophers" Naess, Kvalmy, and Faarlund have been heavily involved in environmental actions and environmental ethics (like Aldo Leopold in North America), and have also pointed to "Friluftsliv" as inspiration.

With regard to "Friluftsliv," the German teachers Lagerström and Buschmann outline five principles for a responsible outdoor life from an ethical and ecological perspective:

1. respect for all life;
2. "identification" with life and landscape;
3. minimization of the stress upon the cycle of nature;
4. natural lifestyle (using local and natural resources for equipment);
5. including enough time for adaptation.

Conservationist Sigurd Olson, reflecting on the north woods, sought the lived experience of "Friluftsliv" in nature as a listening to the wisdom of the stillness, touching the external rhythms of the water and land, discovering the harmony of the natural order. Developing through this lived experience, he sought a personal philosophy, what can be called an ecosophy with which he developed a personal rhythm, stillness, and touch for life with nature. The lived experience of "Friluftsliv" is a living "with" one's place, rather than an agenda of "against," "over," or "through" as one's dominant expression of relationship. It is a particular kind of meeting.

Even today, Friluftsliv in Scandinavia still plays an outstanding role in society. As an everyday routine it helps people to keep their life balanced, to replenish and to relax. "Life in the Outdoors" is the antipode to their often stressful and hard work and makes life more enjoyable. It seems that people in Norway, Swede, and Finland intuitively knew and made part of their culture what John Muir meant when he said: "Wildness is a necessity. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…"

9:14 p.m. on May 14, 2009 (EDT)
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The issue "Friluftsliv" leaves unresolved is that it accords only "wild places" the status of "Nature"; whereas, Nature can be found, IMO, anywhere. Admittedly, if we only perceive the world through the eyes of Transcendentalism, then the world is divided into the corrupt and the unsullied. That is a real loss, because, no matter how man has altered the ecosystem in which he lives, it still has a beauty if we can perceive it.


The "Noble Savage" and "Friluftsliv" as a religion -- we've seen that often enough through the centuries to appreciate how shallow it ultimately is. Going into the woods and fields intent on finding peace of mind is a fool's game. IMO, that peace has to be found by each of us, through whatever trials are necessary, before we can ever discern the true beauty, and peace, around us. Neither a mountain hermitage nor a desert island ever made one better, gentler, wiser, more perceptive, or kinder. I recall visiting a friend, a Carmelite monk at a Trappist monastery in NB, many years ago. While I was in my cell, I looked at some of the suggestions written for those who might desire to retire from the world. Foremost was the admonition that if you are coming seeking peace - in flight from something - you should not enter there. The Abbot had learned, as others had through the centuries, that avoiding what we fear makes us weaker, not stronger.

So, I'll pass on this diminished version of pantheism and find instead that Pan lives even on a park bench - or he is not "pan".

Just one opinion. :)

3:38 a.m. on May 15, 2009 (EDT)
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I think the German article kind of overstates the case. It's not any more a religion here than it is for backpackers/hunters/fisherman/climbers etc. in the US. It's just that there's this special word that kind of sums it all up and gives notice that it's built into the culture. And it's a myth that all Weegies/Scandos are outdoorsy. You see overweight people and hyperconsumption here too, just maybe not as much. At Easter, lot of people head for the beaches of Spain or the Canary Islands instead of the mountains. It is true, however, that many people turn out regularly (religiously?) for Sunday walks or ski tours, that's when the city's open/wooded areas (markaområder) are always busiest.

This is partly meant in good humor, but also just a way of feeling out the boundaries, I guess for each of us personally. From overmywaders we get the perspective that sleeping under a highway overpass is (or can be) outdoors (but maybe really because it's part of a much larger adventure/lifestyle?), ditto sitting or sleeping on a park bench (?). So which of the following (marginal?) scenarios qualifies as being "outdoors" or "in nature" for you personally?

A drive down I95 with the windows open (or closed?).

A train ride across Canada or Siberia or whatever (or the scenic Flåmsbanen here in Norway).

18 holes on some fine golf course.

A walk along the Charles River in Boston (or equivalent).

A walk down Madison Avenue, Wall Street, or some other busy thoroughfare.

An outdoor rock or folk or jazz or classical music concert.

A day of lift-serviced downhill skiing.

A day of snowmobiling (with or without a stop for a fire/lunch).

Waterskiing, wakeboarding, jetskiing.


Cruising in a big motorized yacht.

A week on a cruise ship.

Mountain biking on backwoods roads and trails.

Bike riding/touring on busy roads.

BMX racing.

Motocross racing.


I'm not sure I have ready answers to all of these things, especially as there are some I have never done myself. (I did the cruise ship thing a couple summers ago, but I got paid for it, as a "ship's naturalist" on A Prairie Home Companion's cruise along the Norwegian coast. It was fun because of the APHC people and shows, but otherwise very much a gilded cage for me personally). I will freely admit to a ferocious bias against motorized "outdoor" sports, and that probably shows in my list. And I'm sure part of the answer is it depends on how you do it, that snowmobiling is being outdoors if you are paying attention to or interacting with your surroundings in some reasonably minimal way, but not if it's all about speed and air? And maybe a hike can be a little bit less outdoorsy if you spend the entire time thinking about your job or fiddling with gear and not hearing the birds, smelling the flowers etc. (I recall watching a beautiful sunset with may dad on some mountain top in New Hampshire, while a couple of guys were holed up in a tent back in the woods, cooking over a roaring stove, paying absolutely no attention...)

I have this theory that it takes a minimum of three days out on the trail to really let go of life's complications and Be One With The Outdoors. When you can sleep like a log with a root digging into your side and pretty much all you can talk about is food and bodily functions, you're there...

Outdoors is not where you find it, but how you do it? Not a place, but a state of mind?

4:47 p.m. on May 26, 2009 (EDT)
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I thought outdoors was outside.

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