Clif Bar Toilet Paper
Like most people I know, I waste a lot of time staring at my phone. I’m particularly fond of flipping through photos on Instagram, usually looking at shots of professional climbers doing things that I’ll probably never come close to. But last week, I found myself waiting in a coffee shop flipping through the feed for #outdoors.
The photos were a beautiful melange of sunsets, beaches, peaks and lakes. I could recognize a few of the locations, but for the most part, the images started to blur together, each looking more and more like the one before, beautiful, but somehow hollow. That's also around the time that I started to realize my own social media had fallen into that same trap and become, for the most part, a rolling series of summit postcards, a sort of passive aggressive online humble-brag.
But, there's a big difference between the #outdoors and the outdoors. For every beautiful sunset photo, there's a lot of "behind the scenes" moments - here's a few.
1. There's no toilet paper.
No matter how many times I travel into the backcountry, I never seem to learn one important lesson – bring your own toilet paper. It should be easy enough to remember, yet, time after time I find myself sitting in an outhouse or squatting over a hole (at least six inches deep) coming to the painful realization that, once again, I forgot to bring anything to wipe my ass with.
At times like this, I breathe deep, calm myself down and improvise. Sometimes I dig into my pockets and feel a wave of relief wash over me when my fingers touch the crinkled edges of a Clif bar wrapper. Other times, I’ve grabbed moss and leaves, done a quiet prayer that they aren’t the kind that give you a rash, and wiped. I’ve had serious moral debates about keeping American dollar bills that turned into emergency shit tickets to pay for coffee on the drive home.
2. There's a lot of pain.
Everyone knows about the severed limbs, broken femurs, amputations and near death experiences that are the bread and butter of a lot of outdoor adventure writing. It’s true, these things do happen and people do die in the outdoors – there are a lot of books and movies about it – but the kinds of injuries we deal with in the outdoors are typically a lot more banal.
Backpacking trips will sprain your ankles again and again and again. Climbing will shred your fingers, scrape your knees and occasionally smash you into a wall hard enough to hobble your leg for at least a few days. You will probably get dehydrated at some point and you’re definitely going to get a sunburn so bad that it hurts to wear a t-shirt. You’ll get diarrhea.
Week to week, month to month and year to year, there’s a lot less 127 Hours and a lot more Advil, tensor bandages and weird looks from coworkers wondering where all those scabs and bruises are from. But, while this constant ass-kicking makes life just a little bit more difficult, it’s a good reminder that no matter how carefully you step or cautiously you move, be it up a wall or through life, shit is going to go wrong and you're going to get hurt – it's all about how you deal.
3. Bears are amazing, but they'll maul you.
In a world obsessed with UFC, where people cheer louder for fights than goals at most hockey games, a lot of people seem to really value the ability to beat up other people. Where I grew up, you can still watch the social pecking order get sorted every Friday nights as drunk men brawl on street corners prove their value to society.
In the woods, this disappears. No matter how tough someone thinks they are, they don’t have a chance in a fight with a bear (or a wolf, a cougar or a shark, rattlesnake or tarantula for that matter). But it's not just fighting. Generally speaking, humans are pretty weak and slow.
Even the fastest humans on earth can be outrun by a house cat. Michael Phelps can barely swim compared to a shark, and despite many heroic efforts, human flight is still either just slow descent, or dependent on an engine and a lot of fuel. We don’t have claws, shells, or even a particularly thick skin. In fact, we are so naturally vulnerable that we’ve spent centuries trying to make artificial version of all these things just to be able to defend ourselves from the natural world. When you really think about it, the outdoors are so chock full of living things that human beings are basically slow moving food for, that it makes our place atop the global food chain seem pretty unstable.
4. There are avalanches.
It’s seems popular these days to talk about “giving zero fucks”. Celebrities say it, people makes memes about it, and then flood Instagram with them. But, the truth is, we all give fucks. Even sociopaths give some fucks. Even people who claim to give no fucks, give enough fucks about not giving any fucks to tell the world all about it.
You know what actually gives no fucks? Avalanches.
Avalanches do not care about me, you or that guy in the corner drinking a coconut milk latte. They will bury a multi-million dollar ski chalet just the same as they’ll bury a dirtbag’s van. They don’t care if you have a top of the line Gore-Tex jacket and carbon-fibre powder skis or if you’re decked out head to toe in denim, sporting a pair of snow blades. Avalanches don’t even care if you’ve had avalanche training.
The same can be said of tides, currents, rivers, and even the weather. We research and learn about them. Some people make careers trying to codify and predict them, others make their lives trying to harness their power. But, in the end, rivers run over dams, tides shape coastlines, storms come out of nowhere and avalanches happen when the risk is considered low. If you end up on the wrong side of any of these things, it’s often all you can do just to try and survive.
These aren’t the sepia-toned beautiful things about getting outside. A sprained ankle or a bout of incontinence sucks. Getting stuck in a rip current, taking a big lead fall or narrowly avoiding a slab avalanche is terrifying. Running into a bear in the wrong situation will leave you with soiledunderwear. But, while these things can, and have, left me feeling small, broken, and soiled, they’re also the things that stick with me. They’re the things that teach me about who I am, and in the end, that’s a lot of why I spent time outdoors.
Maybe I value them because they force me to feel the things I don't in the city. Maybe it’s because they’re so humbling, a stark reminder that outside the city, humanity’s dominion over the natural world is fleeting. Maybe it’s because no matter how important I think I am, I’m still just a sack of flesh that needs to wipe his ass with the wrapper from a discarded energy bar, or, you know, a human being.