The Crucial Joy of Playing Outside

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The day after I called the suicide hotline for the first time, I went skiing for thirteen hours.

I’m ok, now. Really.

That call was more a request for resources than a life-threatening situation*. But it was definitely a worrisome low point. I’d already been to the emergency room twice in the past six months for undiagnosed chest pain, my focus and concentration on tasks was slipping, and I was feeling increasingly isolated and unhappy at work. I knew something was wrong and felt that I didn’t have time to get on some therapist’s months-long waiting list. I needed guidance, and so I called.  And was put on hold for a very long time. And when I finally got through, there just wasn’t much help available.  Though the person on the other end was kind and well-meaning, there was no express-lane to treatment; I was going to have to do the legwork myself and wait for an opening.

In the meantime, I decided to go skiing.

And that next day was much better.  Skiing easy groomers, riding the chairlift, taking breaks on the base lodge patio, chatting with people; it all lifted my spirits and helped me begin to clarify my thoughts.

Say what you will about Poconos skiing; we may not have big-mountains or amazing snow, but what we do have is simply available on a scale that few other places in the world can offer. My home hill, Blue Mountain in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, is open until 10pm every night unless the weather is bad, and the weather has to be pretty bad for them to close. In short, skiing was accessible when I needed a healthy way to be active outdoors in the winter. And when I didn’t want to go home at 4:00 in the afternoon that day because I was afraid of sitting at home pointlessly brooding, I didn’t have to.

So I didn’t.  I stayed and skied until 9:30 in the evening.

Two months after that dire phone call, I had quit my job and again found myself amongst the weekday skiers and snowboarders at Blue.  This time, though, it was in a spirit of joyful liberation from the work environment that had so threatened my wellbeing. I felt a relief and hopefulness for the future that had eluded me since October.

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I am not a good skier and that is an objective fact. If you saw me from a chairlift, you would register a rank intermediate with a stiff, tentative stance and mediocre technique. I try hard; I’ve put in a great deal of time on my technique and I take lessons and seek honest feedback as much as possible. But this is only my second full season, and I’ve seen enough video of myself to know where I stand.

I enjoy being outside, though, and what slow progress I’ve achieved over the course of two seasons was carried out in a spirit of fun and adventure and determination to improve on my own terms. I don’t aspire to great speed, and Red Bull videos are tons of fun to watch, but I doubt I’ll ever “huck” anything bigger than an intermediate side-hit. I like roaming around a mountain trying out new trails and enjoying the feel of that “pop” of energy that comes from making a good turn. If the weather is warm and I want a change of pace from groomer zooming, the learning area is always a fun place to try little drills, skiing backward, and just having some time to productively goof around.

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Blue Mountain, PA at Dusk

Growing up, we were a suburban Irish-Catholic family with Episcopal social aspirations. Golf and tennis were the keys to the WASP-Y kingdom of nonchalant confidence and Ivy League admissions.  Had you suggested the benefits of a long hike or a family-camping weekend to my parents, I can imagine their responses with pitch-perfect clarity. Over the sound of ice cubes gently clinking in his gin-and-tonic glass, my father would have smiled politely and later, out of genuine bewilderment, called the suggestion “gobbledygook.” My mother would have said on the spot that you were out of your “G.D. mind.” They both grew up in cities, and the quarter-acre lawns of Nassau County were manicured markers of hard-won social and economic achievement. To drive away from Manhasset to sleep in a tent in the woods—that was not an undertaking for which we had the practical knowledge or security of status. Even my Brownie troop mostly made macaroni wreaths and other crafts within the shellac-related medium; I don’t ever recall doing any activity outside of a church basement.

But I was always fascinated by outdoorsy people on television. I admired the backpacking girl in the Schoolhouse Rock “Adjectives” episode, for example, who seemed completely at ease walking along in her giant backpack with a cook-pot on top, with her casual knowledge of a woodsy lifestyle that I badly wanted access to. I adored the character Mindy from Mork and Mindy because she lived in Colorado and drove a Jeep. That was as cool as you could get in my book. Both characters were independent and at ease with themselves, and though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I think that was something I aspired to as well, or at least it influenced on my perception of the sort of person I thought I could be

Being outside has always made me feel healthy, both mentally and physically, and I have always been acutely sensitive to the disparity between natural and urban landscapes. Sitting in the way-back of the family station wagon as we drove through the graffiti-covered concrete of the 1970s Bronx always gave me a headache and a sort of sick feeling.  Summers on the Massachusetts coast were the happiest periods in the life of an otherwise sensitive, moody child. There, we were outside day and night, barefoot and sunburned and ceaselessly active. In cold drizzle or full nor’easter, we roamed around enjoying the awe-inspiring ocean in ominous shades of green and gray.

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Blue Mountain, PA

So my instinct to take off skiing when as an adult I was struggling was perhaps a natural impulse to get outside in a season when one needs a pretty solid excuse to hang around in the cold. I’d never been much into winter sports aside from a bit of light hiking and road running. But somewhere in my lizard-brain I knew that the way to health and wellness pointed outdoors, and skiing keeps you out for much longer than running or a brisk walk. It also comes with a feeling of righteous physical exhaustion of the kind you remember from childhood. It’s the kind of exhaustion that overtakes you irrepressibly as you read on the couch or type on the laptop, and it leaves no room for angst or anxiety, only deep and restful sleep.

Lately I’ve wondered if my penchant for skiing over the past few months has been a form of childish escapism; that if I’d simply buckled down and confronted my problems head on I would have found a solution. I think, though, that my ability to get outside and be active for sustained periods of time is the reason that my period of crisis was so relatively short-lived, and why it wasn’t darker, scarier, and more existentially threatening than it might have been. Winter can be a difficult time to wrestle with mental health issues; it exacerbates problems by making it feel as though the universe is conspiring to prove to you that everything is dark, gloomy, and hopeless.

In running from anxiety and stress, I impulsively ran toward something that adults don’t always have available to them: regular, unconstrained time to play outdoors and all of the mental and physical benefits that accompany it. The emphasis  here is on play; not train, not compete; just play around for hours for no reason other than the sheer joy of being outside and having fun. And if it had been a different season, I no doubt would have taken to long-distance hiking or mountain biking.  The slow physical pace of hiking under a full pack forces you into a more relaxed mental gear as well, as you alternate between a tight focus on day-to-day logistics and the broad swathes of time that encourage daydreaming. Mountain biking is physically intense, but it is also skill-based, and the way to acquire those skills is to mess around on your bike a lot. And the hours spend practicing track stands, bunny-hops, and wheelies pay mental as well as physical dividends.

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My Current View: A Hopeful New Path

 

 

Skiing didn’t save my life or solve all of my problems, but it helped me find my way through them. It didn’t preclude seeing a therapist and relying on friends and family for support. Rather, it was the excuse to spend long periods of time outdoors in the sun, or looking at the moon and the stars from the chairlift, alternating intense activity with contemplation that helped me put things into perspective. The skiing didn’t obviate the need for help, it allowed me the time and space to see clearly that I needed help.

I recently relocated to a small house on the shoulder of a mountainside in Vermont.  This affords me many more opportunities to work and play outdoors and to be around people who share my interests and values. I’m not young, and I want to enjoy the things I enjoy while I’m fit and healthy enough to do so. This year has been filled with anxiety and upheaval, but all the sturm und drang seems to have led me to a good place, physically and mentally. I’m still sorting everything out, but I think I’m glad I listened to that part of me that pushed me outside.

 

* I’m not suggesting in anything I’m about to say that “being outdoors” is a substitute for good and proper mental health care, of which I am a longtime beneficiary.  Nor do I intend to suggest outdoor activity as a substitute for appropriate medication. 

 

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For the Record

6 thoughts on “The Crucial Joy of Playing Outside

  1. I love this, Chris, and can definitely relate. After years of suffering with a job in advertising in suburban Philly, I ditched it all and turned to ski-bummery 12 years ago — also in Vermont. The monetary pay ain’t great but the psychic benefits are enormous. My one regret is that it took me so long to get here. Your doing so demonstrates a tremendous amount of fortitude and courage. Kudos to you!

    Like

    • Thanks, Wendy! Indeed, the monetary side of things is a challenge right now; twenty years of teaching doesn’t really translate to other sectors as relevant experience, so I’m in the early stages of figuring out what’s next. I love my new home, though, and am excited for the future!

      Like

  2. So glad you have found a beautiful place to escape to. Wish I had realized how truly unhappy you were this past year… hoping those feelings are truly behind you and that you can find peace (and a decent wage) where you are now. Sending positive thoughts!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aside from your distinct and always-beautiful writing, I appreciated this essay. I was a lucky girl indeed to have parents who took us camping and hiking. By far the happiest time in my often-dreary childhood was testing my strength and endurance against a (relatively tame) White Mountain trail. The memories of those hikes fueled my fantasies until the next year, when we got to go again. I could feel the strength in my legs, the fatigue that was just there to be challenged. Hopeless at sports, I experienced myself as a strong girl for just two weeks each year.

    I left it all behind for much too long, in favor of work. No more! I, too, am learning to ski, pushing my old bones and muscles past where they want to go.

    Liked by 1 person

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