When I came to college, I didn't really have any ambitions or dreams of being a backpacker. Sure, my family had spent summers on Lake Superior and I could swim practically before I could walk, and I've always had an affinity for the outdoors, but I grew up in a city and have always been most comfortable with concrete blocks and metal billboards. Furthermore I don't particularly believe in a binary between "natural" and "unnatural." Janet Fiskio says it better than me, but basically natural spaces are merely the ones we've designated as such and see them as untouchable while viewing the rest of the world as ours to dispose of. The wilderness is not a place we have to travel to, it exists in the cracks between the sidewalks and our own backyards. Nature is where we make it.
A sunset over Lake Michigan on my most recent camping trip. Taken by me.
That said, it has been at Oberlin that I've discovered a strong connection between retreating into isolated places and being able to retreat into myself. I've learned the woods is the best place to find self-awareness, to ask the hard existential questions, to wonder what I will dedicate my life to, to find affirmation that I exist and of my smallness in the scale of this universe. I like the pace of camping: how you design your days without external pressures, how time's significance seems to dwindle, how a lot of what you do revolves around the food you're preparing and eating to sustain yourself. There's a routine to it all that even in its ruggedness I find deeply soothing. Above all I love the space and time I get to steal away with my thoughts.
First year Spring Break I spent camping with my then partner. We dug our tent and firepit in a foot of snow and had a blast all weekend. I learned that you should always pack enough protein, and s'mores are still delicious in thirty degrees.
This past September I spent Labor Day in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore back at my beloved Lake Superior. This is the place I had grown up visiting and carving out my love for the woods and the water. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I learned how to drive a car, shoot a gun, identify which plants were poisonous and which could be used as toilet paper. I mostly learned how to be myself without judgment. Plus, the stars in the U.P. are unlike any I've ever seen elsewhere. This trip back there this past Fall felt like a homecoming; a return to a satisfied sense of self I hadn't felt in a long time. The air fresher, the water's edge greeting me, my faith in the possible and optimistic present again.
Accurate depiction of how I feel when camping. Photo courtesy Rewa.
You can spot the pattern that every time I get a break from school and the responsibilities of classes and chores I like to take off to the woods. Preferably woods that are near large bodies of water. (What can I say, truly I am a Michigander and a mermaid.) I like this time and space to retreat, to reset, to rejuvenate, and rediscover all the feelings and thoughts I frankly just don't have time for at school. I like the chance to do something just for me and the opportunity to give myself space to be truly and wholly me. And I like sharing this with others! Camping with friends and partners, bonding over badly cooked camp food, and watching majestic sunsets has fostered some of my strongest relationships and favorite college memories. So when this semester ended I knew I wanted to celebrate with a camping trip. My friend Rewa and I went to my brother's favorite place, Nordhouse Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Rewa and I beginning the hike from the car to the beach, packs in tow. Selfie by Rewa.
Sometimes it's nice to get into the trees and just process. At the end of a semester there is always so much to think about. Finals dictate that we buckle down with books and sprint to the finish line and there is no space left to work through all the goodbyes or the various sensations of accomplishment and failure over the course of the semester. There is no time for reflection on the ways that you have grown or the room you took to do it. This semester especially so. Not graduating "on time" has me feeling a whole bunch of ways. I feel left behind and lost; there is a type of grieving that comes along with celebrating your friends' graduating and going off into the world. I feel grateful for the extra time I get to spend in this place--that I continue to receive the benefits of its shelter, that I get to call it home for a little longer. I feel caught between desperately wanting to grow up and try my best hand at this thing called adulting, and craving going back in time and cherishing my adolescence for as long as possible. The way I feel reminds me of a book I read in Harrod Suarez' Ethnic American Literature class I took second year, twin time; or how death befell me. The protagonists are so enwrapped with thoughts of where they are going and what it means for them to get there that they hardly move at all. I do want to move in some direction, once I know which one, I just need a lot of time to figure out which way it's pointing.
And then, sometimes it's nice to get into the lake and not have to think at all. I often use the shocking sensation of a naked polar plunge into a Great Lake as a tactic to quell anxious thoughts. I've created an unofficial tradition for myself where during Finals Week each year in December I drive up to Lake Erie and take a bare dive into the icy water. Nothing acts like such a drastic jolt to the system as feeling every nerve ending in your body fire and your entire skin create goosebumps at once. Jumping into northern Lake Michigan in late May felt the same way. It was a moment to just leave it all behind. Clear my head. Feel nothing but alive.
These are my beloved Lake Michigan sand dunes. Photo by me.
I think for me one of the greatest benefits of getting outdoors is having the freedom to get back in touch with myself, to feel again passion for what I study and the work I do; to remember what in life is important and meaningful to me. In getting away I always gain some perspective. This helps me come back to Oberlin rested and ready to recommit to myself, my goals, and my communities. I only have one semester left in this place and then who know where in the world I'll be, so I'm gonna make this last one count.