Simple Beginnings: Defining the Outdoors

Over the last few months I’ve mentioned to a few people I’m starting a blog. The response I almost always get is: “Cool. What kind?”

What kind. 

I stop to think: “Oh, you know, just a girl on a quest to develop skills and share knowledge of fishing, hiking, cooking, travel, natural health, comprehensive wellness and big life lessons captured through the lens of small outdoor experiences, all in the hope of experimenting with my talents while helping and inspiring others,” doesn’t really lend itself to casual conversation. For ease of communication, I generally sum it up with three words: 

“Um, The Outdoors.” 

The first time I said it, I remember immediately pondering my own words. Was that accurate - is my blog about the outdoors? Am I even outdoorsy? Where is the outdoors? What is the outdoors anyway?

Here, folks, is where I start. If I’m creating a blog loosely tethered to the idea of the outdoors, I think it’s important to talk about what “the outdoors” is anyway. 

Outdoors. Adverb or noun depending on usage. Literally, outdoors means outside or in fresh air. But it’s come to mean the lifestyle, industry and hobby that’s tied to Earth’s wildest places.  If you look up any outdoor experts, outdoor photographers, outdoor bloggers, outdoor girls or outdoor guys, you’ll usually see an array of high-end equipment, awe-inspiring scenery, and puffy coats. 

Outdoorsy folks spend their days hiking high mountains or fishing blue waters, their nights building bonfires under the stars. They own a beat up old truck, or a camper, or better yet, a trail bike. Outdoor people are always “out there” because they quit their day job and hit the road long ago. They drink from colorful reusable water bottles, carry multi-pocketed backpacks, and make homemade maple syrup. They have the raddest times with the coolest people and they absolutely never shave. 

Cliche, maybe. But you see what I’m getting at. Our image of what it takes to be an outdoor person has become a lofty ideal, an almost impossible standard, no doubt reinforced by advertisements and social media. But is all that really what it takes to be a partaker of the outdoors? 

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It’s funny, I never really thought of myself as being outdoorsy, but I’ve always loved being outside. When someone says the word “childhood,” I see flashes of swimming, climbing, digging, and hours playing alone on the swing set in our backyard. I feel the prickle of grass, taste the snow, hear the songbirds, and see the sun lowering behind the pines outside our screened-in porch. 

But I wasn’t outdoorsy. I never camped. I almost never fished. I didn’t know the first thing about reading maps or starting a fire without a match. I’d daydream about adventuring through the wilderness, but it simply wasn’t something my family or close friends did. So neither did I. 

But my heart yearned to be outdoors. It longed to be wild. 

So I did what any aspiring outdoorsman would do: I went camping in Alaska. For a month. At the age of 22, after years of wishful thinking, I finally carved out the time to head on a four-week sea kayaking and backpacking trip with NOLS through Prince William Sound and the Chugach Mountains. Up to that point, the only tent I’d slept in was pitched in my parent’s backyard. But it only took a couple days to realize I was built for this. Quickly I learned my heart was right after all: I was wild. I was rugged. I belonged outside. 

I came back from that trip on a true high of inspiration, newfound strength, and a fiery desire to keep exploring. As it often seems to go however, I let life get in the way. I started a full-time career and soon moved from Minnesota to downtown Chicago. 

Wait, wait. An aspiring outdoorsman moving free-willingly to the heart of the county’s third-largest city? I know. It was a choice that to this day I cannot quite explain, and yet it was one of the most significant decisions of my life. Perhaps I’ll expand on that another time. But for the purposes of this blog post, just know that I temporarily became a Chicagoan, at least according to the address on my utility bills.  

After only a few weeks as an urbanite, I remember beginning to crave the outdoors again. It was a craving that carried through my nearly five-year stint in the city. I did my best to connect with the outdoors when possible. That usually meant quick fishing weekends in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, a day-hike in the canyons of Illinois' Starved Rock State Park, or meandering through suburban trails. But between my taxing corporate job, owning a loft that required upkeep, and trying to enjoy the perks of Chicago at least occasionally, there wasn’t always time to leave the city. 

Often my fix of nature was quite urban. I’d walk the busy Lakeshore Drive, narrowly dodging bikers to catch sunrise over Lake Michigan. For years my secret hideaway was the Lincoln Park Conservatory - its steamy wildness and the way it pressed reset on my rushed, citified soul. I’d tend to my humble rooftop garden with its partial view of the Willis Tower. I delighted watching my flowers bloom and peppers ripen, relished the gritty lines of dirt beneath my fingernails right there in the city. 

I was far from the wilderness that deep down I longed for, but these were the nature experiences I could get. And I loved them for it. 

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An excerpt from an Instagram caption I wrote in March 2017:

“I always think it’s funny we call it the “outdoors.” You know, defining nature by humanity, our creations. If you’ve ever truly been “out,” you know Earth’s rugged terrain really has nothing to do with us.”

I can't help but ponder this simple fact: the word itself is inescapably tied to human touch.  How silly that we as a culture glommed onto this term. Out-doors. Why not nature? Or wilderness? Or the array of other terms one could use to describe the natural world. We chose outdoors to champion this place, lifestyle, industry and hobby. As though nature only exists because we erected buildings, installed doors and tossed it back outside again. Rather the outdoors is a place untouched by human interference; where plants, animals, land and sky exist free of us. Except of course for when a true outdoorsman ventures there to witness it. That’s outdoors, isn't it? 

Then again, I think back to those moments in Chicago. The sense of awe I had watching the sun climb off the lake right next to the skyscrapers, the peace I sensed winding along the damp, plant-lined pathways in the Conservatory, the groundedness I felt caring for my rooftop garden. No, it was not the same as fishing a quiet lake in northern Wisconsin. It didn’t top gazing across Prince William Sound at a pod of humpback whales breaching between the icebergs.  I was surrounded by city noise, city sights, and unpleasant city smells. But still, in those moments, I touched the outdoors.

So today I will amend my Instagram post from last March. I now think the outdoors has everything to do with us. Nature? No, nature is its own beautiful beast. Nature does not depend on us for its existence, but I believe the outdoors does. 

That’s because the outdoors isn’t a place or a lifestyle or an industry or a hobby. It’s not the pristine mountainside or the gushing waterfall. It’s not the doe feeding deep in the woods, or the expensive camera that captures her.

It’s that feeling you get when you unzip your tent, gaze at the stars, dive into the river, or witness daisies bloom on your rooftop in Chicago. It’s that moment you’ve tapped into your primordial self - that place inside you that roots right down to the soil. Where nature invokes within you the sense that you’re both powerful and small, both invigorated and at peace; equally challenged, rewarded, wild, free, humbled, connected and deeply in wonder. Outdoorsy is just the desire to step out your front door to feel all that.  

So am I writing an outdoor blog? Yes, I am. Am I outdoorsy?  Yes, I think I’m outdoorsy after all. And I think you are, too. 

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Hooray! You’ve made it to the end of my first blog post. Thank you for being here. There is a lot more on the way, and I’ll be exploring everything from fish stories to outdoor tips to cooking to wellness to life lessons and much more. I promise they won't all be this long. I hope you’ll stay tuned! 

Natalie Dillon6 Comments