If you view many people’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts (including mine sometimes), nature is pretty, awe-inspiring, often cuddly, and almost perfect in its beauty. In photos and stories, the spring flowers are a multi-colored blanket of wonderful on what was once a muddy field, the photographer arrived just in time at a beautiful spot on a driftwood-strewn beach to capture a vivid, orange sunset, the cute doe pauses and looks up just as the photographer snaps the photo, you get the idea.
But having hiked and camped since I was about eight, I can assure you that not every trip to the woods or wilderness is filled with perfect moments. The truth that people who love the outdoors already know is that hiking, camping, birdwatching, canoeing, kayaking, and whatever else that you like doing outside is not always a “day at the beach”—even if you are at the beach. In short, you often must suffer a little pain (or at least the occasional discomfort) to gain a memorable outdoor experience.
The great outdoors is sometimes bug-filled (the black flies of the Great Lakes are infamous), crowded (visiting Starved Rock State Park in Illinois on a summer weekend is not fun), and not as beautiful at every step as social media, travel shows, or glossy magazines depict. You have to traverse the occasional “just okay” scenery and deal with tired legs to reach those stunning vistas. Some trails are not always well-marked, and it’s easy to get lost. Animals don’t always pose for photos. Nature can also be dangerous. In my nearly 30 years as an adult hiker, I’ve:
- Been impaled by a jumping cholla cactus, which embedded itself in my arm as I hiked at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. It was not fun pulling it out of my arm. Some call the jumping cholla the most feared and hated cacti in the desert because its hollow spines make it hard to extract from human skin. But I couldn’t see getting back on an airplane to go home with a prickly piece of Arizona in my arm, so out it came.
- Had my cornea scratched by a windblown tree branch as I hiked at Cap Sauer’s Holding in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. I was supposed to go on my first date with my future wife the next day but had to cancel. Years later, she loves recounting my “excuse” and says that she still doesn’t believe a word of it.
- Rode Lake Superior’s version of the Titanic as my wife and I traveled to Isle Royale National Park from the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. We left port on a pretty summer morning with calm waters. Within an hour into the 4-hour trip, the boat was tipped so far to the side due to rough winds and high waves that all we saw from the windows was blue sky. I spent most of the trip lying on the floor of the ship’s washroom. My wife was the ONLY person on the boat to not get sick.
- Sliced up my thick boots, but, luckily, not my feet too much, as I hiked the sharp lava fields of El Malpais National Monument in central New Mexico. Oh, and I also got lost (pre-GPS) for a bit in the 95-degree heat. There were no landmarks, just rolling “hills” of sharp dried lava.
- Developed serious cellulitis from a bug bite after visiting North Park Village Nature Center with my son in the pristine wilderness of the northwest side of Chicago. Yes, nature centers are dangerous places. (Click here to check out my article about this great destination.)
- Was nearly bitten by a wolverine on the bluffs above Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, almost walked into a buffalo that was hanging out just on the other side of a trail on a hill I was ascending at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and had several interactions with venomous snakes on the rivers and trails in several midwestern, western, and southwestern states.
- Almost developed hypothermia while on a solo hike in a drenching rain in the dense hilly forests at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This story is ironic because it was summer, and 25 miles away back in town, my wife was enjoying (as she told me later) a relaxing 70-degree, rain free day by the lake with our toddler son. Even though Pictured Rocks is known for its microclimates, you would not believe this story unless you lived it. I shivered constantly as I walked, felt clumsy on my feet as the cold rain came down, and knew I’d have a real issue if I stopped moving and generating heat. Luckily, I’d packed a silver emergency heat-saving poncho, and donned it as I rapidly walked out of the woods—despite knowing that I probably looked like some sort of cheesy 1950s Hollywood alien.
So, why do I keep hiking, camping, canoeing, and what-not outside despite these challenges? There are many reasons, but here are 10 reasons why I love the outdoors:
1. If you live in a metropolitan area with millions and millions of people like I do, it’s wonderful to escape miles of concrete, endless lines of rush-hour traffic, assorted noise issues, unhealthy air, and tons of people by visiting nature areas. If you visit the Palos Forest Preserves and other large forest preserves in Chicagoland and travel off the main trails, you may not see another person during your entire hike. If you live in a big city, when was the last time you could say you were out and about and didn’t run into someone doing something? Being alone helps you to slow down, reset, and appreciate life.
2. Being outdoors gets you away from Fortnite, Facebook, and other f-ing technological diversions. Despite purporting to make us more connected, studies show that Facebook and other social media sites make many of us depressed. There have been documented cases of people dying from playing video games too much. Fresh air and sunlight can provide a free mental fix, and a good hike is a great cure for the modern world. I understand the irony of my lamenting in my blog about the overuse of social media, which I just promoted on Facebook and Twitter. I’m heading to the nearest national park as soon as I post this.
3. The chance to see animals in their natural habitats. Sure, I almost was gored by a bison, but it was one of the most memorable moments I’ve had in the wild. It was exciting to suddenly be just feet from a massive bison and have to think quickly to extricate myself from the situation. (The bison also helped out by not charging me.) I’ve also had the chance to be within just steps of a mother elk and her young at Isle Royale National Park; glimpse a grizzly bear just across a river in Yellowstone; view a pack of wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; watch hundreds of dragonflies hover above Visitation Prairie during the partial eclipse in Chicago last August; see a coyote emerge from its den as I crouched in a creek bed in the Forest Preserves of Cook County; see thousands of pollywogs churn the water into a frenzy as I walked along a stream; and view many other wild animals.
4. It keeps me aware of the fragility of nature and the need to protect it from further development. In addition to its beauty, nature provides many practical benefits to humans. Wetlands serve as reservoirs for rainwater that would otherwise floods our streets and homes. Trees produce oxygen and sequester carbon dioxide (an overabundance of carbon dioxide is worsening global climate change). Studies also show that trees increase the value of our homes, fight stress, and reduce crime.
5. The great outdoors has not been Disneyfied (although the glampers are making a good run at it). Unlike our often predictable, planned, and scheduled world, anything can happen when you hike. If you take precautions (e.g., extra water, cell phone, compass, bear spray, etc.), this feeling of unpredictability can be exhilarating.
6. There is something very Zen about not having a destination or plan, but just making a journey where your feet and eyes take you. When things get stressful, I often head to the woods with no expectations or plans, just a goal of wandering to see what new things I can discover.
7. Nature helps build friendships and memories. I began a long and rewarding friendship with my friend Imad (who was working as a freelance systems analyst at my company at the time) because he saw a photo I had in my office of Edward Abbey, the author of Desert Solitaire and many other great books. Our shared love of nature led us to our first hike together at Cap Sauer’s Holding. My good friend Dave and I, although living in different states, go camping together each year at Wisconsin’s Kohler-Andrae State Park with our kids. Nature serves as a great meeting place to keep our 30+-year friendship going. Finally, my cousin Janet and I traveled together to Yellowstone National Park and had the time of our lives. We climbed Mount Washington, viewed mega- and micro-fauna, and simply marveled at the mind-blowing scenery. I’ll always treasure this time we had together in our 30s before life got more complicated.
8. I love discovering the amazing geological and archaeological history of the Chicago area. Chicago was once covered by a warm, shallow sea that teemed with tropical life—great cephalopods, which looked like octopuses; crinoids, which were cousins of starfish; trilobites, which were genetically linked to crabs; and probably primitive fish. When I was a boy in Beverly, I would dig up shells, crinoids, and fossilized coral that told me that my Chicago neighborhood was much different millions of years ago. And during those same digs in my backyard, I would occasionally discover arrowheads left by the Indians who had inhabited this area for thousands of years. Many don’t realize that the remains of Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois Native American villages lie just below our gardens and streets, our el lines and skyscrapers sit atop what were once Native American burial mounds (before many were removed to use as landfill), and our forest preserves still harbor centuries of French, Spanish, and Native American history just waiting to be discovered.
9. Despite the occasional challenges, there is beauty big and small everywhere you look in nature. On that same trip where the jumping cholla cacti punctured my arm, I remember reveling in how the sunlight made the white stones scattered in the hills of Organ Pipe National Monument sparkle like gems. During my seven-hour hike on the Maah Daah Hey Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (where I met the buffalo), I was rewarded with stunning views of the badlands and, at the top of a ridge, the winding Little Missouri River and miles of golden aspens that seemed to have a celestial glow in the early fall light. There is nothing like sitting on the bluffs above Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in complete darkness and looking up at the Milky Way, thousands of stars, and the occasional meteor providing “wow, look at that!” moments.
10. Provides me with the chance to spend time with my 7-year-old and wife. My father took my brother and I hiking all the time, and I’ve enjoyed passing on the love of nature to my son. Forty years later, I still remember my first hikes with my dad, and 40 years from now, when I’m 88, I hope my son will have fond memories of all the times we spent outdoors. And I hope the cycle continues with his kids and grandkids.
I hope you’ll head outdoors this Memorial Day weekend to hike, camp, fish, birdwatch, kayak, or participate in other activities. The pleasure of enjoying the outdoors is worth the occasional meeting with a jumping cholla or angry bison.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes