When I was in 4th or 5th grade, there were two extremely popular books about kids learning to live in the wilderness. One was Hatchet, which is about a boy who survives a plane crash and has to stay alive until rescuers come.
The other was My Side of the Mountain.
I had no idea when I first read MSotM that it was the less well-known of these two fairly similar books. I always preferred it, but as an adult I've found fewer people know of it than Hatchet. When I explain its premise, they may vaguely remember it.
MSotM got under my skin, though. It stuck with me. It follows Sam, a preteen who chooses to leave his nice suburban home* and go live in the woods for some reason. I'm not clear on why, exactly, but I remember that he hollows out a dead tree to live in and trains a falcon to be his friend.
I wanted to be Sam.
As I got older, my obsession with Sam and his hollowed out tree faded, but never entirely died out. I always felt a pull in my gut leading me to mountains and forests. I always felt the most relaxed, inspired, and joyful surrounded by trees, but to say a favorite book from childhood planted that seed never dawned on me.
Until the other day, when we went hiking at Barclay Lake.
Matt and I chose to hike Barclay Lake because the weather was bad. Okay, bad may be unfair, but it was certainly subpar. With a high of 59° and overcast skies, we didn't want to waste a two-hour drive to see a view that would probably be obscured by clouds. Instead, we chose a hike with a lake destination; lake views can't be ruined by cloud cover.
|And honestly, the clouds ended up adding to the ambience.|
The trail was eerily quiet. When we parked, we were shocked to hear no traffic, no birdsong, no animals. It's the quietest we've ever heard a trail, and it stayed that way the entire time, broken up only once or twice by the gentlest trickle of running water.
This hike was pure joy from the beginning. The trail is my favorite kind: extremely rocky but not very steep. In fact, as far as elevation goes, you don't gain much, but the terrain is interesting and challenging.
I found myself stopping multiple times to just stare at the path ahead, at the way the roots wove up out of the dirt, the way the rocks jutted, the beautiful aesthetic of the jumbled earth leading us deeper into the trees...I could not explain to Matt the visceral impact of these views - I almost felt choked up! - and I can't explain it now. But just know, there was something so satisfyingly beautiful about this hike, like it struck a chord and reverberated on the same frequency as my soul.
We noticed early on that there were tons of huge rocks and giant stumps along the way, and that these landmarks often formed caves of some sort. I ventured into a couple of the more open, shallower ones, something in my lizard-brain attracted to the space without knowing why.
My Side of the Mountain floated up in my mind, unearthed by the sight of dozens of huge hollow stumps, and I mentioned it to Matt, thinking very little of it.
Because we stopped frequently to ogle the views, the trip to the lake took about 90 minutes. Our watches disagreed on the final distance, as did all the reviews we read beforehand, but it was probably around two miles to our destination.
We left the trail and wound through heavy trees toward the lake, and the beach that opened up before us was unexpected and breathtaking.
The downed trees that lay along the shore were bone-white and weathered smooth. They reminded me of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King; the eerie stillness of the lake and the clouds wreathing the mountain peaks above us added to the atmosphere.
After taking photos and basking in this very different vista after hours of trees-trees-trees, Matt and I set up our new hammock and ate the snacks we had brought along for exactly this purpose.
All told, the hike to Barclay Lake was perfect - lighthearted and low-stress, just the best kind of hike I could ask for.
Laying quietly in the hammock under the silent trees did something to me. My brain turned off, and at the same time my childhood wish to live in the forest and be one with nature was reawakened. As we began the return trip, the "caves" we'd been passing suddenly felt magnetic. I wanted to get in the caves. All of them.
Matt was obliging, pointing out caves as we passed so I could fit myself into them like a cat exploring a new cardboard box.
Weirdly, I lost my usual fear of spiders and other creepy-crawlies. All that mattered was getting under the rocks and roots and moss as deep as I could go.
The hollow trees weren't really nice to go in - I mean, of course Sam had to widen and clean his hidey-hole by burning it out a bit - but there was still something alluring about being within the tree. I recognized that I was doing something I had always wanted a chance to try as a kid.
After my second or third foray into a cave, I started laughing. "I'm going to look like a little gremlin in these pictures!" And then it occurred to me - I wasn't just enjoying myself; I was being silly. I was playing!
After we got home and I looked back at all these photos and sat down to write, I realized something. My Side of the Mountain did not create this interest to live in a tree; rather, the novel revealed it to me. I think the reason I connected with the book so intensely was because the inclination to run away and live in a tree already existed within me.
I was the weird kid who saw beauty in strange things and often felt a little bit like an outsider. Connecting with nature anchored me and made me feel like I belonged somewhere.
I had forgotten this bit of trivia about myself, that I feel the most me when I'm outside, "in nature". Now, it's coming back to me.
I keep saying that being outside and surrounded by trees is where I feel happiest; more to the point, it's where I feel the most inspired. Hiking makes me want to write. Why?
Growing up, my backyard sloped down to a line of trees that separated us from the neighbors' yard on the next street over. These "woods" weren't dense, but if you got into them you could pretend you were in a forest. I remember sitting under those trees and making up stories.
I have been making up stories all of my life. According to my mom, I used to spin yarns when I was two or three; we have at least one home video of me telling a fantastical tale that came wholly out of my head. In grade school, writing was my passion and my escape, and that only intensified as I got older; I think I wrote most prolifically in high school, when I had so. many. feelings and so much time on my hands.
Writing was what I was known for. As I've reconnected with old friends over the years, the first thing many of them have asked me is if I'm still writing. That question brings me both joy and pain, because the truth is that I haven't written fiction in a long time. Not the way I used to, anyway.
As I got older, the time for creative writing dwindled. The drive petered out. At some point, I wondered if I even enjoyed it anymore, because it felt so difficult. I never had new ideas; the faucet that once flowed so freely was stoppered.
I've come to believe that adulthood kills our hobbies not because we outgrow them, but because we don't have the time and energy to nurture them anymore. We don't forget what used to bring us joy, but we do forget what that all-consuming joy actually feels like.
Hiking itself hasn't necessarily reignited my desire to write - that's never really left me - but it has reminded me of how that desire used to feel. How it would fill me up inside with longing, how I felt ready to burst if I didn't tell a story. How idea after idea would spring up, fresh and tantalizing.
To write was a need, as intuitive as breathing.
I'm remembering how it felt to be imaginative. To play. I'm finding who I am after years of shutting myself away because I just didn't have time to explore who I was becoming.
I keep saying that being surrounded by trees inspires me, but it's really more that it reminds me of who I am at my core, and I am desperately trying to get back there.
For months now, I've been joking with friends that Seattle-Ali will be different in some ways, and now I'm seeing that she's not different. She's just more me. She's more honest. She's the foundation of who I was before other stuff got in the way.
I can't be the only one who feels this way.
How sad, to know that many of us are living as shells of ourselves without realizing it, so separated from our passions and interests that we wonder if we even have them anymore. How sad to know that this is "normal" and part of life, because other obligations must take priority.
But we're missing out. Creative explorations, having fun, taking the time to play...isn't that what makes life worth living?
I'll admit, being unemployed (or marginally self-employed) during a pandemic is scary and filled with uncertainty, but I am so grateful that I have this time to throw off expectations and obligations and rediscover who I am.
I shouldn't be surprised that who I am is still a person who is left speechless in the presence of natural landscapes and wants to live inside a tree.
*I read the Wikipedia page on My Side of the Mountain to refresh my memory and clearly forgot the impetus for Sam's leaving home was that his parents were raising 8 kids in an NYC apartment. Yikes. I can't blame him! Also, this book was published in 1959 but kids in 1996 were eating it up, I swear.