Growing up, I had no idea the mountains were calling. My giant pink plastic Dream Phone™ on the other hand was ringing off the hook.
I grew up indoors in the privileged yet depressingly un-outdoorsy confines of fluorescently lit ballet studios, fenced in tennis courts, and well padded playrooms. In fact, I was spectacularly indoorsy. The moment I stepped out into the world where the concrete sidewalks were uneven and the lawns were filled with unseen divots I would trip or fall. I tended to do better on the leveled studio floors and courts. I knew it. My parents knew it. I thrived inside and I accidentally stayed there for a really long time. It was safe. I got good at avoiding getting hurt, getting dirty, getting risky. My parents probably loved knowing exactly where I was at any given moment. Plus, my hair wasn’t frizzy indoors which was great for my lewk.
I was raised in a town that for all intents and purposes felt like constant movie set suburbia. A square mile of youthful New Jersey oasis that existed only an hour from the hustle and eau de garbage of New York. My family lived in two houses over the course of my eighteen years at home, one all the way on the north side of town on a dead end street adjacent to the train tracks and a big grassy hill that we’d sled on in the winter when it was covered with snow and school was closed, and one all the way on the south side of town on a dead end street adjacent to the ballfields and an even steeper grassy hill that we’d sled on in the winter when it was covered in snow and school was closed.
Those two hills were really as close as I got to mountains.
My parents grew up in the neighboring town. I found it miraculous that they always knew where they were and that they nearly always recognized someone wherever we went. We were rarely lost and rarely alone and if we were they did a damn good job making it seem like we weren’t. They told my sisters and I stories of trips they’d take to the quarry to bring their dog swimming, trails they’d hike nearby, places they’d set up camp with their friends. There are many pictures of my Dad and his Brawny Paper Towel man flannel shirt vibes. I remember my Dad telling me how he spent his younger days laying on the lawn and me thinking that was weird. They seemed to have spent a lot of time outside, which made sense to me because they didn’t have access to Dream Phone™ when they were young. But we never went to that quarry, we never went hiking, we never went camping. Although, to be fair, we never asked to go camping.
I was always jealous of my friends who left town every summer for their woodsy sleepover camp where they did woodsy things. My mother was sent to sleep away camp, seemingly against her will, at a young age, didn’t love it and consequently never sent us. Although, to be fair, we never asked to be sent to sleep away camp.
Sometimes we would visit our grandparents’ apartment at the beach which we loved because it had a pool, which was inherently calmer than the ocean and there was also lots of ice cream in the freezer. A few times, we stayed at our neighbors’ lake house, which we also loved because we were on vacation and allowed to have Berry Berry Kix cereal for breakfast and normally not allowed to have Berry Berry Kix cereal at home. Looking back, it is clear that the inspiration to love these nature-y places was merely the sugar rushes that came with them and not the serenity of dirt under your feet.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, my parents, for reasons unbeknownst to me, decided that they would rent a cabin in upstate New York. This was the first and last time my family would venture away from what felt like civilization but was, in actuality, minutes from a perfectly economically sound community. I have no idea how long we were there because I was so underwhelmed the entire time I nearly declined going to college upstate just to avoid the area. If I had to guess, it was three months. I think probably it was closer to seven days. Our family left New Jersey cable subscription and headed north, the five of us humans, our curious chocolate lab, Maggie, and our oblivious guinea pig, Chewy.
The cabin was furnished with a mounted elk head that I swear made actual eye contact when you looked at it, an electric blanket that I was sure would engulf me in flames while I slept, and strategically placed mouse traps under every piece of furniture. We spent the first days upstate at the closest veterinary office as Maggie had found one of the containers of rat poison and like any good laborador retriever, completely consumed every last pellet. We, on the other hand, ate at one restaurant the entire time because it was the only one that was ever open. I had penne alla vodka every night for a month. Or seven days. Or however long we were there. Although, to be fair, I asked for it every single time.
I’m sure the view at the lake was lovely, but to us it was merely a slap in the face as other families on speed boats zoomed by with their rafts in tow while our arsenal of boats consisted only of one canoe with a sizable hole. My father looked at the speed boats and looked back at us. “We can try, but I don’t think I can paddle that fast.”
It was one of the hottest summers I can ever remember, so much so that we had to leave the cabin for a night or two because we noticed Chewy seemed unequipped to handle the humidity. We packed up, headed back to New Jersey and spent the night on vacation from our vacation in the air conditioning with our beloved television.
We returned to the cabin. I remember washing our hair in the lake. The electric blanket never lit on fire. We named the elk head Elky. I remember our dog thankfully making a full recovery and swimming far far away from us and back again while we became giant walking mosquito bites. We stayed there until we went back home, as you do. It was what it was but mostly it was us wanting to leave.
After that, I don’t remember my parents trying to get us back into the great outdoors. We stayed in hotels. We went to the pool club by the highway. I went to ballet camp and tennis camp and SAT prep camp. I ended up going to college in upstate New York where we had a big grassy hill, my newest mountain, and used to joke that everyone’s minor was in Laying on the Grass, which happened to be my legacy skill.
I always considered myself a city person and I moved to New York four years ago. The move coincided with a lot of other big changes in my life, as most moves to New York City do. I have gotten comfortable being lost. I have gotten comfortable being alone. I have ironically embraced my far from effortless nature-y side from within this urban jungle, escaping to the beach to learn to surf, the mountains to learn to hike, the local campgrounds to learn to start a fire. I just got up on water skis for the first time, at 31, so there’s that.
With every year, I realize more and more how hard it was, how hard it is, to raise children. You want them to be safe. You want them to be comfortable. You want them to sleep enough and eat enough and learn enough. You want them to have the newest things and the best things and the things you never had. Bringing them outside can be a true undertaking, but one that I truly believe is worth all the bad stories and the calamine lotion.
I love the way I grew up. I felt safe, I felt loved, I felt supported in my curiosity. I didn’t often get dirty and while this felt like a perk growing up, it’s been my own new mountain to climb as an adult.
I wish I had gotten lost more. I wish I had been alone more. I wish I had figured out sooner that I can stand the summer heat if I stand in the shade, that I can sleep outside if I sleep under the stars, that I can hike for hours assuming I’ve got enough water and a watch.
When you’re sinking in city life, floating in the ocean is so good for you, whether your 3 or 30.
As a level headed, well adjusted, mildly successful adult human, I can safely say that there’s a good life on the other side of being raised indoorsy. Last year, I was driving with a friend and her son, rolling through a lush area of highway side forest. He was staring out the window and she asked him what he was looking at so intently. He said, “I’m listening to the trees. I think they talk to each other.” I imagined my Dream Phone and how when I was little, not as little as him but little nonetheless, the trees calling each other was far less interesting than fake boys calling my friends and how I was so very wrong.
The mountains are finally calling and I must go (when I can get off of work). My dream phone is one that doesn’t ring all weekend.
Outdoorsy, here I come.
(Originally published in Folk Rebellion's The Dispatch - Nature Issue)