The Mountains are Calling and I Must Go: On Escapism, Instagram, and Road Rash

The mountains are calling and I must go. I’m an avid outdoorsman, and yet I hate that phrase—an overused and misconstrued John Muirism that has been sewn into patches, overlaid on all manner of Instagram photos, and pinned to a million Pinterest boards. I don’t think I simply despise it because I have a particular connotation of it—on a patch made by one of the very cliché Pacific Northwesterners such things epitomize, a fellow who also made rings out of vintage spoons he found, one of which rings I bought for a lady friend far too prematurely, aware of the latent symbolism of rings and unconcerned because this one cost less than a decent dinner and drinks, only to watch that fling implode magnificently less than 48 hours after gifting her said ring. The patches and rings all shared space on his Etsy page, which should have been my first red flag.

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Anecdotes aside, the mountains are calling and I must go. The twenty first Century has wanderlust-lust. We thirst for scenic overlooks that can be cropped at a 1:1 ratio and filtered just-so, we believe that we can find the answers backpacking in Thailand or glamping in Yosemite, we eat foreign cuisine, pray to other people’s gods, love places we have been for one week, never leaving the safe tourist districts. The aesthetic du jour is vaguely vintage, gentlemanly, much coordinated waxed canvas and plaid, beards when possible. Thus the instacred that quoting John Muir provides. In the context of the letter he wrote his sister, that phrase (which, as it happens, is actually the first clause in a much longer sentence) has more to do with work and duty than it does with this vague idea that going somewhere else, preferably somewhere dramatic and photogenic, will fix whatever problems we’re having here. This idea is not new, but it seems to ring more true every day that we cease to believe in other things that might solve our problems without requiring stylized escapism.

There’s something about the mountains, though. And the ocean, and canyons and redwood sequoias and humpback whales. Regardless of our explanatory schema, humans do have an innate need to be reminded that we are not omnipotent or omniscient, that there are things much bigger and more mysterious than us. This is where the mountains come in. One of the better sermons I’ve heard lately alluded to this fact—that we go places like the mountains precisely because we cannot look at them and think, “Look how awesome I am!” Man has accomplished lots of ridiculous feats of engineering, and still the most mindboggling things on earth are well beyond our capabilities. Mountains also typically represent an escape, not just of mind, but of surroundings. The realities of grade and altitude mean that most mountainous regions are sparsely populated, low in cell service, somehow more open and free than other locales, with crisper air and more ideological integrity. I believe that all humans should embrace the need for a respite from self-absorption and city centers alike, but the prepackaged phraseology and mimetic photography get rather cloying.

Still, I recently found myself being called by the mountains. More specifically, by an incredible off-road bicycle race called Grinduro (I wrote about it here) that takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in far northern California. As the date drew nearer, I became impatient for the time when I’d be sleeping alone in a tent with nothing but my bike, boots, and a wool blanket over my Texas-weight sleeping bag. Life around Austin felt weighty and relentless-yet-monotonous. Of course, this is a mindset that can’t be escaped geographically, but the mountains do promise to do their darndest.

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The race was grueling, the company refreshing, and the scenery as recentering as one might hope. Conifer forests and rocky peaks are undeniably photogenic, and the air up high does have a particular cleanliness. Sleeping on the ground and getting wounds full of grit and dirt is often exactly what the doctor orders, and this trip was no exception. It is of utmost importance that we remind ourselves that we’re tougher than our climate-controlled, Tempurpedic environs make us out to be. As I used a borrowed bar of soap to rub the scree out of an enormous swath of road rash on my right shin, I had to smile in light of the reality of the situation—my first shower in nearly three days, tepid water flowing in a dirty campground stall as the outside temperature dropped into the high forties, blood and dirt pooling in the hair-clogged drain. I was just as alive as I am every night when I shower at home, maybe even more so. My Chakra was more aligned than it ever gets when yoga instructors encourage us to forget our anxieties and just be present. We don’t all have to bleed or travel to postcard-worthy places to remind ourselves that we are more capable than we think. But grabbing your dusty Coleman tent and a couple of WalMart special sleeping bags and heading to a state park is a worthy way to get outside and remind yourself that we are not the biggest things out there, but we’re capable of sleeping and living among them.

I must be self-aware about my vitriolic indictment of embroidering Muir’s words on everything and super-matchy hiking excursions in the Pacific Northwest. I am an avid Instagram user; it helps me spread my personal brand as a freelance journalist and connect with like-minded people. It encourages folks to be creative with their smartphones instead of falling for clickbait titles and mindlessly reading each other’s political opinions.  A popular article by one of my favorite outdoor writers, aptly titled Please Continue Instagramming Your Amazing Life, summarizes my justifying opinions quite well. As long as we maintain perspective and remember that we don’t have to have a ridiculously cool vintage SUV, plaid wool everything, and fog swirling through stately pine trees to have a good time outside, we can and should be inspired by whatever imagery gets us off the couch, out of our slumps, away from the status quo that sucks us into dangerous compliance. Another cliché darling of the overly-stylized fauxlksy outdoors types is #outsideisfree. Free has a couple of meanings here, and both are quite apt. I’ll grant them a pass here, too, then.

Another aside on the beauty of Instagram as a channel for good—I’ve met some of my favorite people via Instagram in one way or another. Some are great photographers, others unabashedly take portraits and share their stories, and my personal favorite uses her feed to promote the positivity that ensues from what’s often perceived as a selfish sport (triathlon), but more on that at a later date.

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A long weekend hardly seems enough time to escape what ails us, so I extended the trip to last a full week and planned to stay in the Bay area so the ocean and the rhythm of a stranger’s city could do its part for me, too. Much of my best writing comes from these times, when I feel quite anchorless and capable of sitting in a coffee shop for six hours at a time, typing ‘til it hurts for lack of a viable alternative. In the woods we feel solitude; in cities we feel alone. Sadness brings about good art. And so, a trip to the mountains would help fill my mind with focused thoughts, an epilogue in San Francisco would madden me to the point of artful thought-spilling.

To a degree, it worked. I made no progress on any of my numerous barely-finished short stories. I did not update this usually-neglected blog. I wrote the above-mentioned coverage of Grinduro, which has been pleasantly well-received. But, more than anything, I drifted from café to café, biked through one of America’s iconic cities, and found myself supremely grateful that I live on a quiet street in a much smaller place. I fell asleep on an uneven couch to the sounds of sex in the other room and dumpsters banging in the alleyway below. I caught myself drifting off to dreams that started with receiving a lethal injection and fought my way back to consciousness, only to hear trollies whirring by and more sex. I have heard New Yorkers who move to quieter towns often buy city soundtracks to help them sleep at night. I cannot relate.

I missed my plants, indoor and out, which I knew were being utterly neglected. There was nobody turning off the fluorescent lights on the Nepenthes terrarium, nobody watering the bougainvillea, no one to deadhead the daisies so they’d keep blooming well beyond their natural inclination. I missed my other bicycle and its intense focus that becomes apparent the moment you lean down to its slammed handlebars. I wanted to make smoothies in my own blender and eat tacos at my favorite lunch spot, to get through an entire day spending less than twenty dollars without trying to be frugal. I needed to see some of my friends, to be alone in my home, to pet a dog. That relentless monotony I resented is peppered with meaningful things and people. I do not know how things will play out, but there are plenty of plotlines at home to keep things interesting. I made new friends in California, but I did not need to fill my life with kismet to fill it with intrigue. I was able to reconnect with an old friend, to stand by the ocean and stare at all of its unfathomable depth and breadth and remember a time when he and I would sit by the ocean often. I felt happier this time than I did most of those times before, so content to sit by the sea side and contemplate the hard questions I’m grappling with, that after days of wishing my flight were sooner, I was sad that I had to leave Half Moon Bay for the airport at 11 AM.

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I don’t love the use of phrases so cliché that many people forget who said them, let alone why. I especially don’t love mimetic imagery that fills Instagram feeds that are much more popular than mine. If only I was willing to have someone jump in “that pose” in front of a generically-unique background, if only I could write surface level “honest captions” that made everyone like me, then I would have enough followers that my personal brand might be worth something and I could charge a little more for each article. And yet, as I’ve been writing, I’m texting two great friends here in Austin who I can say I met through Instagram. And the wounds on my leg are almost healed. They still itch and burn like hell, which makes me a weird kind of glad, like my connection to feeling isn’t as muted as I think it is some days. I still have a lot of shit to deal with, but at least I can go ride my road bike and see my favorite familiar roads in a whole new light on this cloudy, rainy Thursday. Maybe Mr. Muir was a little more right than we realize. Not because he provided a conveniently stylized phrase that fits every typography and square formatted image so perfectly, but because he framed the need to go be made small by nature as a duty that he was obliged to fulfill. Whether we let gravity have its way with us or stand in the shadows of giants, it’s good to experience things that we cannot take credit for, no matter how delusionally grandificent we may become. Whether we paddle a surfboard into the mystery of waves, hike up mountains, or ride our bikes down tree-lined streets, we enter a compact with the natural world that admits we are but a part of the whole. To neglect this is to deny ourselves reminders of our own resilience and perspective. The mountains are not calling me today, but Mount Bonnell Road most assuredly is. And I must go.

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