Getting Outside

Last night, I watched the movie Free Solo, which is a National Geographic documentary film about Alex Honnold's successful free solo climb of "El Capitan" in Yosemite National Park. The film has been positively reviewed elsewhere, and I won't do so here. My short review of the film can be summarized as follows: Free Solo is a wonderful film for people who have familiarity with rock climbing or the rock climbing community, while non-climbers may find the pace of the movie a little slow and will almost certainly miss out on some of the technical details of the climb. This movie is not merely "guy does amazing thing," it is specifically "guy who is an amazing climber does an amazing climbing thing." The better you understand climbing, the better you will appreciate the movie. That said, my wife enjoyed it, and she knows nothing about climbing.

Beyond the element of rock climbing in the movie, the film jolted my memory about a great many things I haven't been in touch with for a very long time. Watching the film, I was impressed by the rock climbing community, people who hang out at the same national parks and wilderness areas, pursuing the same outdoor hobbies, with a sort of similar attitude toward nature and toward technology. It's not merely a rock climbing community, it's a subset of the broader "outside" community.

This is a community that surrounded me as I grew up. It's impossible to avoid this community in Utah - or at least, it was when I lived there - because Utah is such a wonderfully special place for outdoor sports. In addition to featuring bar-none the best skiing in the entire world, Utah is home to impressive red rock formations that attract rock climbers and mountain bikers from all over the world. The northern part of the state is home to some of the best single-track mountain biking trails in the Rocky Mountains, along with plenty of limestone climbing routes, national and state parks, mountains for hiking and ice climbing, rivers for kayaking and fishing, reservoirs for boating, and endless routes for trail-running, camping, caving, and exploring. In short, if an outdoor sport exists, there are many beautiful places where you can do it in Utah. I am not sure that any other place in the world has so many great, world-class outdoor sporting locations as Utah does.

Consequently and unsurprisingly, the outdoor sporting community thrives there, so much so that when I moved away I slowly had to adjust to the fact that people who live in other places don't necessarily do something. In Utah, everyone does something. Some fish, some bike, some run, some climb, some ski, some camp, and some do more than one of the above, but everyone does something. Outside of that world, though, a lot of people don't do something. Outside of that world, it's not uncommon to meet people whose only real hobbies involve watching TV and eating. The point I'm trying to make here is that I literally didn't understand this until I left Utah, because I had never really met such people when I was there. The outside community is everywhere there. I hadn't realized how much I missed it until I watched Free Solo.

This outside community is an interesting group. They're a people who like to spend the majority of their time in nature, doing very low-fidelity things - they're campers, not glampers - but who are also extremely tech-savvy. In fact, the outside community has their own thriving world of gadgets and gizmos that many people don't know exist, but again, this is all in support of fundamentally low-tech passtimes. These are people who eat extremely healthy diets, and yet who are also stereotypically passionate about beer and coffee. They're among the most physically fit people in the whole world, and yet they spend little time in gyms and don't tend to bulk-up like body-builders. (Indeed, one of the more impressive things about Alex Honnold is how incredibly strong and muscular he is, despite his somewhat gangly appearance. That's not something you'd encounter in your average gym rat.) The gear they need to do their thing is horrendously expensive, as anyone who has tried to assemble the most basic, fundamental rock climbing kit can attest, and yet they are generally not a community of people who exude affluence or wealth.

Stepping into this world means stepping into a world of people who have made it a point to spend most of their time outside, and who have figured out the means to do so. Why run on a sidewalk when there is a trail available? Why take a car when you can take a bike? Why eat indoors when you can eat outdoors? Why sleep under a roof when you can sleep under the stars? It's a romantic world, borne out of the community's close proximity to the kind of wilderness that is capable of being enjoyed. That is, you're unlikely to meet a great outdoorsman living in the Sahara desert; you're much more likely to meet one at the foot of Mount Rainier. Like people who live on the coast and cannot imagine life in a place where one can wander miles without seeing a drop of water, so the outside community lives in places where there are copious trails and fun things to do outside, and they cannot fathom what it might be like to live in an urban center, or a flat, sprawling suburbia like you find in the South.

It's a great world, and I miss it. I like living in north Texas, but it would be nice to be able to transport my lifestyle and resources from here to a place closer to the community of people I grew up around. Maybe a better choice would be to make small changes to my own life, to see if I can enjoy a little more of that lifestyle than I otherwise would.

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