In the past five years — in my life as an expat — I have hiked in the Ecuadorian Amazon, climbed thousands of steps on the three-day trek to Machu Picchu and walked in the hills of Hong Kong. These places have been full of lush nature, intriguing novelty — like the social monkeys at the foot of a trail in Hong Kong — and exotic scents. These spaces have ignited my wanderlusty spirit. And now these experiences stand juxtaposed next to the familiarity of nature back home — the Minneapolis lakes, the trail near my parents’ home where I walk my dog Gus and paths that lead through the landscapes of Northern Minnesota.
I was home for seven weeks this summer, eating my way through Minneapolis — as any foodie is wont to do in this city of fine dining — but one of the best weekends was spent exploring the great outdoors of my heart’s homebase. In late July, the handsome man I met the week I returned home picked me up from my parents’ suburban home and we drove off for Itasca State Park.
Did you know black bears come Prius-sized these days? Jason and I did not know this either until we were driving some 70 miles per hour down the left side of the highway. Suddenly we found that we were coming in hot to a bear sauntering along the right side of the road. Words from my college landlord came flashing back to me: the left side is the right side because the right side is suicide. He meant this as a warning to me when I used to run the streets of St. Peter, Minnesota, but as we flew past the bear, his words took on new meaning. We weren’t even hiking any trails yet, but our tickers had sure picked up speed.
After surviving our drive-by with Smoky, we pulled into an adorable airbnb in Bemidji, a city that boasts nearly 15,000 residents, is home to huge Paul Bunyan and Babe statues and offers scenic trails and lakes for great outdoor activities.
Jason and I had taken the road trip to check out where “the mighty Mississippi begins to flow.”
Within the park, you can choose to kayak or bike or boat. After decadent Martha Stewart pancakes, we wound our way into the state park to walk off some butter. In the five miles it took us to reach the headwaters, it was more than an indulgent breakfast that melted away. As we walked and talked — and sometimes just enjoyed the song of birds in the absence of our own words — my spirit melted into all of the moments.
I currently reside in Shenzhen, China, home to over 12 million people and countless factories and high rise buildings. There is unmistakable beauty in Shenzhen, but it is not the same beauty that is found in the serenity of the nature of the Midwest, and that is found in another’s beautiful hand.
While we walked underneath the Aspen trees, sunlight streaming through the leaves, I was reminded of my 11th grade English class where we studied Transcendentalism. My junior year was the year I fell in love with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The latter having written words in Walden that spoke to so many of the moments that Jason and I kept stepping into: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
That nature can soothe and heal us is not just a romantic idea. In 1984, biologist Edward O. Wilson coined our innate love of nature “Biophilia.” In her book entitled the Nature Fix, author Florence Williams takes a deep dive into the science of the connection between spending time in the woods and our happiness. The wisdom here: nature is our anodyne.
This summer reminded me of the intimacy in the familiar. For a number of years now, I have constantly craved newness, venturing into unknown lands to uncover truths in distant ancient ruins. Sometimes, though, it is the adventure outside your own back door that tells of the beauty that still speaks to your heart.