Hiking? Sorry, I’m too busy not being an outdoors person

 “And you guys do this for FUN?!” I burst out as I stumbled clumsily onto the summit. I was spent. I could barely feel my legs, and I was sure I was going to pass out any second. The people in our hiking group were dispersed at different heights on the mountain. Some were already on their way back down. I was almost at the tail end of the hiking group because I was inexperienced and didn’t quite know how to keep “in pace”.

The hike was so strenuous, I hated every minute of it. The sun, the humidity, the bugs, and the possibility of getting bitten by the ticks. Oh, the ticks. I almost preferred the leeches in Agumbe. At least you could see the leeches because they would swell up with your blood. But with ticks, it’s impossible to tell where they are and whether they’d bestowed upon you the gift of Lyme disease.

It didn’t help when, during the beginning of the hike, as we walked across a meadow, J commented, by way of a casual introduction, “you’re in the Iron Mountains and this is tick city”. Welcome to rural New Hampshire, Vidya.

I didn’t want to go on the hike. But A and J wanted to give me a taste of the real New England. They didn’t think my cautious wanderings to the naval waterfront would suffice as a legitimate New England experience. “To experience New England, you need to experience what the outdoors have to offer. You need to take risks and go on adventures,” they said. A and J and their friends identify each other by their outdoor achievements. “Meet C”, A would say, by way of introduction. “C has climbed all the 4000 footers in New England!”

I have always struggled with reconciling my inclination to research natural areas with my dislike of the outdoors. Detecting land cover change in forests, projecting flood elevations onto New Hampshire’s thriving seacoast, identifying climate change impacts in Missouri’s gorgeous state parks—these things awaken the geek in me, and I spend hours in my lab poring over datasets, making maps, predictions and inferences.

But actually being in the outdoors? That’s when the anxiety kicks in.

I suddenly feel like I’m in The Hunger Games when I have to wade 4 feet deep into a tidal inlet. “But it is impossible for you to drown!”, A exclaimed, as she watched me stand paralyzed in fear at the thought of wading into a tidal pool in an otherwise calm, gorgeous beach in Maine. And yet, I was convinced I would drown.

This restless academic and professional interest I have in natural resources, the conference presentations, the lab papers, the fellowships– all of it is backed by a strong dislike for fraternizing with anything “natural”. Talk about shaky foundations.

And so, when people ask me what my area of study is, I go out of my way to avoid saying I study natural resources. Instead, I say I study “sustainability”. Sustainability sounds safer. This word feels like it’s enclosed by four safe, solid walls.

Where I don’t have to worry about ticks or drowning or falling down a mountain and fracturing a couple of bones. Other times, I say I study “climate change and society”. This alternate terminology is again, much safer, because most people don’t quite understand the full implications of the scholarly term “societal dimensions of climate change.”

I can practically see their heads conjuring up images of a sinking polar bear, and me saving it from its ultimate doom. Which is really not even a tiny portion of what I do, but as long as I never have to be outside when it’s minus 14 degrees, and as long as said polar bear can be saved by using google street view, I am game.

On our ride back from Iron Mountain, A and J tried to explain to me why they hike “for fun”.

“It makes us stronger”, A said. This was true. A is 67 years old, but she skis, hikes, runs, gardens, swims—you name it. J does all the above but he is also a stellar biker. He’s 65 years old. I once went biking with him. We started together at the same time. Within 10 minutes, he’d biked 8 miles, I’d biked 0.8 miles.

They’ve been embracing the outdoors since they were children, and now the outdoors embraces them. I felt a pang of envy because I can’t go back in time to being a child and embrace the outdoors so that I wouldn’t be terrified of it as an adult.

“It gives us stories to tell” J added. Again, true. A and J have the most fascinating repertoire of stories to tell their guests. From horseback riding in Turkey, to kayaking in a storm in the cold Atlantic, to getting lost in Leh and encountering militants who threatened to shoot them—they’ve lived all the stories in the book.

But I’d rather live vicariously through their stories than create my own. Into Thin Air by Jack Kerouac is one of my favorite books of all time, and I continue to seek and read books on mountaineering and skiing and sailing and hiking through all the National Parks of the United States.

But reading and watching and listening is where it ends. This way, I don’t have to buy tick spray. And it doesn’t matter if I forget my bike helmet.

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Vidya Balasubramanyam

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