Recreational Therapy

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The Appalachian region received ~2-5 inches of rain last weekend (February 10-11); flooding, mudslides, and emergency evacuations ensued in parts of Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Where was I? Well, sleeping outside in the woods, of course.  

HAHA, funny, but really. Last weekend I was out, truly roughing it in a wilderness survival 101 course with Big Pig Outdoors. For 36 hours, I was soaked and cold, just a few degrees from hypothermia, much to the sadistic joy of our instructor, Andrew Herrington. And yet, when I returned to the “real” world on Monday, I felt oddly refreshed considering that I’d slept in a wet tent on a slope surrounded by a mud moat. I was ready to tackle the mundane with a new ferocity. If you’ve ever spent a great weekend outside, you know the feeling.

This is a classic example of the potential for nature to heal and empower us. Even a weekend in the woods in the most miserable conditions spit me out in a recharged and re-wilded state. We forget that humans are just animals. We are just comparatively smart animals with less fur. Humans used to have innate abilities to track and forage and survive, but many of us have lost that connection to our roots. Something about being outside, dirty and wet and cold, trying to build a fire in a puddle…it makes you feel alive in a way that other, more adrenaline-charged activities can’t. You feel part of the larger picture again, like you belong there in the woods with your dirty-ass fingernails and ash-covered face.  

I’ve taken this class before, but it was vastly different this time around. Not only did Andrew have updated gear and technique information, but this class was all females. A good friend and fellow badass, Jeanna, organized an all-women wilderness survival class. It was as awesome as it sounds. I won’t lie though, I went into the experience with some reservations since I’d been through it before with a class full of men in frigid (but dry) weather, and it wasn’t some Pinterest-worthy jaunt into the forest. But on Saturday morning, I arrived to a circle of kickass humans ready to make the weekend their bitch.

Usually the course begins with an emergency drill; but, since it was already raining and about to get worse, ours was no drill. We had to build a rough shelter and start a fire before it began to really pour. I don’t mean to brag, but the resulting shelter was a thing of beauty compared to the one constructed by the dudes in my previous class, who failed to erect a shelter in the allotted time. Now, yes, there was a bit of waffling as the women got used to each other, with nobody willing to assume a more aggressive leadership role yet. But in the end, our diplomatic, borderline-too-polite interactions yielded a more than satisfactory shelter that lasted all weekend. #girlpower

Truth be told, I wanted to do this class again because my first experience, while just as informative, was mired in machismo and chivalry that was, frankly, really-fucking-annoying.  Maybe it was nature of the subject, but the men jumped to every task and accepted no suggestions or help from me, taking over jobs from me--even when they had been my recommendations in the first place. Funny enough, Andrew had secretly placed a guy in the drill whose sole purpose was to mess things up. And despite how many times he dropped the water bucket or tripped and broke something, the other men still gave him tasks that I could have been doing. I was the only one who noticed that this guy seriously sucked and was throwing a wrench into the whole situation.

I’ll shoulder some of the blame for this; had I used more force and demanded tasks, I’m sure it would have been different. But a (vindictive) part of me got fed up and relished watching them scramble around and struggle.  *evil feminist cackle*

Being surrounded by women while we succeeded in building fires in puddles, in the rain, was an incredible feeling. Andrew treated us no differently than other classes and we took the information and grit and ran with it. He even threw in an extra bit on self-protection, in the wild and otherwise. This wasn’t some cute series of wrist moves and whistles (although I’m definitely not denying the validity of those). Andrew is a complex character with a background in law enforcement, fighting, and professional hunting (to control the invasive boar population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). His advice was raw, exhilarating stuff that would serve us well in any situation and made us feel like fucking superheros.  

When the day began its inevitable march toward night, I worried that we were about to enter the worst part of the trip. Darkness makes everything more difficult; starting a fire, setting up a shelter, cooking food. But, lying in my tent listening to huge raindrops smack against it, testing its construction along with my mental fortitude, I reached a sort of flow state. The tree frogs began their symphony sometime in the early morning hours before the sun, and as I rolled over, I couldn’t hear my breathing, only forest sounds. And for a few moments, you forget where you are and just feel one with your surroundings.  

I think if more people experienced this, and got over their surface level discomfort, they’d realize the importance of being connected to nature. It’s not all about sunny days and cool gear and perfect photo ops. When you spend enough time in the outdoors, you’ll inexorably reach a point where the conditions, the circumstances, the very world seems to be against you. And when you overcome that, you actually appreciate what the earth just provided to test you. Like my friend Jeanna referenced in her message to the group after our hellacious weekend, we all have to feed the rat or “flush out your system and do a bit of suffering” every once in a while, or we may never know what we’re capable of. This is a quote from the Al Alvarez book, Feeding the Rat: A Climber’s Life on the Edge (Adrenaline).  

Humans weren’t meant to live such cushy, protected lives! Our own innovation has robbed us of our natural skills and abilities, and in the process, we’re experiencing more illnesses and maladies that we as a species have never had to deal with before (I’m looking at you anxiety, type 2 diabetes, and fibromyalgia). I challenge everyone reading this to look back at the last time they spent more than 45 minutes outside, moving their body or just being, then set a goal to spend at least one consecutive hour outside every week. Then work up to two hours. Then throw your cell phone off a cliff (not really). Then realize how HAPPY you are when you’re not sitting inside, watching Netflix with your phone in your hand.