The Beginning of an Outdoor Life

I constantly try to pinpoint a time in my life when my outlook on living changed.  A single event that swayed me towards this life of outdoor pursuits instead of being a video gamer, or a couch barnacle which so many others my age have become.  My family and I lived in Newport News, VA for about five years, or about 5th grade to 9th grade.  It was the time of my life when I was trying my hardest to impress girls and have cool friends.  I suppose nothing has actually changed.  I remember I wore a pair of khaki cargo pants, a yellow fleece vest and a pair of silver slip on shoes to my first day of 5th grade.  Obviously, I was still desperately reaching for a little bit of cool.  I remember spending my first day scanning my class for cute girls.  I assumed if I could make one my girlfriend, I’d be cool by association. Like making the football team because your dad is the coach.  My friends and I used swear words in a whisper, followed by a snicker.  That’s what makes people tough, right?

We talked about video games.  Who had the highest scores?  Who had the best aim?  Who was the fastest racer?  Who had the most games?  Video games were fun for me but I bored of them easily and before long I’d find myself slogging through a muddy creek catching frogs and snakes.  Maybe I’d precariously stack bricks as a pedestal for a flimsy piece of plywood that would launch my bike into the air if it didn’t fall over.  However, if I had friends over we’d stay inside and play Madden until our eyes burned.  It was an easy peer pressure to slip into at that age.

bike jump

Every year my dad would load up the F250 and drive us out to Douthat State Park in the Appalachians.  I was always a little jaded towards it because we had to drive “forever” to get there and it would eat up a weekend I could spend with my friends.  One year we spent Christmas in a cabin in Douthat, and my dad took us for a hike Christmas day right after we opened presents.  The mercury was steadily rising all morning and the past week’s snow was disappearing fast. The streams were bursting from their banks, washing burnt orange leaves downhill like a lazy river gone wrong.

Our hike led us up to some of the highest elevations in the Appalachians as we boulder hopped along ridge lines looking down on the massive expanse of trees and rolling hills below us.  The branches of the dead hardwoods criscrossing like a childrens doodles. The white snow and gray clouds a background all the same as paper.  We dropped back down into the comfort of the dense forest.  No longer on a trail, I grew concerned Dad had lead us astray.  My dad, a colonel in the army, assured me we would simply follow this stream straight downhill and it would cross our original trail. From there we could make our way back to the cabin.  

At the start of the hike, Dad had given me a full gatorade, which of course I failed to ration so my parched throat longed for rehydration.  My dad took the bottle and squatted down in front of the very stream that was apparently our compass down.  He looked hard at the water, and then back up the hill.  The stream cascaded swiftly over the roots.  The water moved fast but never became white. It was crystal clear  and bubbling with a twinkling like wind chimes on a patio in a gentle breeze.  Dad looked at me with a smile, “you want to drink some of this water?”  At the time, my ten year old mind couldn’t fathom the idea of drinking water straight from a stream.  I don’t remember exactly what he said but it was along these lines:

“Kneel down here I’ll teach how to tell if the water is clean.  This is a state park so there aren’t any cattle that can taint this water source with any viruses.  We’re pretty close to the ridge line and you can tell by how small the stream bed is that this stream is only around during melt times and the rainy season.  So it doesn’t travel over farmlands or through human traffic areas so it has no real contaminants.  So what we’ll do now is find a place where the water is falling off of a lip so we can get the bottle under there without stirring up any sediment. Make sure you don’t stir up the water above where you’re going to fill up so there’s no sediment in the water.  Lastly, never take water from a standing pool because it could be stagnant.”

At that point he dipped the bottle under a small drop and filled it full of the clear, naturally chilled, Appalachian Mountain stream water.  He took a big swig of the water, “Ahhh,” and held it up for me to see.  I took a drink too and couldn’t believe how much better it tasted than water from the tap, or water in those bottles labeled “Spring Water.”  It was absolutely the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me outside.  My mind raced and I wanted to run back to the cabin and show Paula (step mom) that we had collected stream water and drank it without a filter. 

I think if I had to remember a time when the outdoors began to outweigh everything else in life, that would be it.  From that point on I began to find a lot more joy in the things I found outside than the things I saw on the TV screen.  Before long I completely stopped using video game consoles and by the time I graduated high school I was maybe playing video games for an hour or two a year and that was usually when I was with someone else.  I went to college and had the only room on my hall that didn’t have a video game console for the entire time I lived in the dorms.  That one little bottle of fresh mountain water might have completely changed my outlook on life and the way I live it to date.  Above all of the deer I shot, the runs I ski’d, the trails I biked, the rivers I rafted, the tents I slept in, or the rocks I climbed, that little bottle of water signified a purity I couldn’t find in any video game, and has led me to barely scratch the surface of a long life outside.