It was a quiet highway in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, blue sky, prairie grass and rolling green hills in all directions, buttes in the distance, the windows partly down. This was in Wyoming in the summer of 1972, and, as usual when we traveled, I found myself sandwiched in the front seat between my parents, my older three siblings fighting turf wars of their own in the backseat.
As I recall, there was no air conditioning in the car, but that fact, like most of the others surrounding this family vacation — which, now as a married adult with two kids of my own, I can see in the review mirror was an epic undertaking by mother and father — is lost to time. All that remains are a few grainy photographs (no selfies or video footage of the entire trip) and scattered memories among the six of us.
One other thing I do remember, however, which my mother likes to remind me, is that I continually grumbled about being stuck in the car, on a highway shared by others, the endless vistas appearing and then quickly disappearing as my father kept his foot on the accelerator.
“But I want to be out there,” I would protest, pointing to some distant butte or valley where I presumed there were no other people, save perhaps for some small Indian settlement (something at that tender age I naively dreamed still existed somewhere), and only buffalo or antelope or whatever other wild creatures the Great Plains might be home to. “Out there.”
I don’t remember if we ever got “out there” – at least to my satisfaction — on that particular trip, although we did drive through the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Tetons and I remember seeing a black bear and some elk. But so, too, did the throngs of other vacationers with whom we shared the roads and motels and magnificent scenery.
Being “out there” wasn’t an idea or ideal that I remember working on or expanding the meaning of while growing up in the middle of Iowa farm country, some 8.5 miles from the nearest town and nearly a mile from the nearest neighbors. It never once occurred to me that by many people’s definition, my family was living “out there.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago when Stephanie and I bought a cabin in the woods and I moved here to recover from some health problems that I began thinking about what I meant on that lonely stretch of highway in the middle of Wyoming. What is being “out there?” Does such a thing even exist? If so, what does it look and feel like? Is “out there” the same for everyone or does it at least include some common attributes or characteristics? How would I know if I’m truly “out there?” Does living in a cabin in the Superior National Forest qualify?
Please bear with me as I make a rudimentary attempt to briefly answer these questions for myself.
First of all, in this context, “out there” has to do with a personal interaction with the environment. It does not have anything to do with artificial hallucinogens or psychotic behavior though being “out there” can release endorphins that cause us to feel good.
Secondly, “out there” is a subjective term. One person’s definition may not fit another’s just as one man’s dog sled trip to the North Pole might be another man’s walk through a park with his canine companion.
Third, being “out there” likely involves some level of risk — even if it’s merely subjecting oneself to uncomfortable temperatures, blood-sucking insects or the like — and reward – where we derive some benefit from the experience, even something as basic as a little exercise or the release of some stress.
Finally, and certainly not last nor least on this potentially exhaustive topic, it involves being alone or at least in the company of a limited number of people, out of earshot of manmade noise and ideally out of cell phone range, a criteria that’s getting more and more difficult to meet.
Personally, being “out there” needs to involve at least some tactile engagement with plants or animals or rocks or water or other natural elements and it almost always involves getting off the beaten path and away from crowds and buildings and roads.
I liken sidewalks to highways and paths to gravel roads, and I’ve spent a good part of my life – even to this day – on gravel roads, both out of necessity and now by choice. Sidewalks, for the most part, take you where you think you want to go. They’re designed to be people friendly, minimizing one’s risk of being injured or subjected to unpleasant and unexpected encounters with the encroachment of nature, such as rocks, thickets, low-hanging limbs and water.
When you step off a sidewalk and onto a path, however, all bets are off. If the path is one you’ve never stepped foot upon and there’s no signage directing where it leads, you don’t know for sure where you’ll end up. You don’t even know what “hazards” might await. That, to me, is an opportunity. It’s where curiosity fuels the feet and the road to adventure and potentially being “out there” begins.
I have been “out there” many times throughout my life. Among some that come to mind: Paddling a kayak with my wife and in-laws in an Atlantic Ocean bay as seals and porpoises poked up their heads nearby to see who the intruders were; sharing a rocky shelter with a marmot near the top of a Colorado mountain peak while watching a storm blow over; sitting in a canoe on a remote lake in northern Minnesota on a beautiful November day, miles and miles from the nearest person and listening to a flock of tundra swans preening and playing; snowshoeing down a trail in winter and crossing paths with a timber wolf; standing near bison in the middle of wildlife refuge in central Iowa; stalking a pheasant through a swale.
Each of us defines in our own terms what it means to be “out there,” but no matter the similarities or differences, if you have opportunity today or tomorrow or some day next week, it’s my hope that you will find a trail and go for a walk. If it’s a concrete sidewalk, take a risk and step off it and find a wildlife trail or foot path. Explore it. Interact with it. Discover where it might take you. See if you eventually find yourself “out there.”