Earlier this evening, I followed a particular routine that has proven ever-present since the second week of May. It usually starts every night around 5:27 when I look at the clock and let my jaw drop.
My jaw has grown accustomed to reacting to the lateness of the hour in such fashion; I try to manifest myself closing my laptop at 4:00, gearing up and being on a late afternoon run by 5:00. If I had it my way, I’d run seven or eight comfortable miles (which would take me 15 minutes, naturally) and then I’d jump right back in my truck, cruise home, take a fast shower and help cook dinner.
The leaves are now changing colors, apples are almost in season again, and I have yet to actually follow such a compact timetable. Instead, I close my laptop reluctantly at 5:30, take too long tracking down a clean sports bra, get stuck behind one of those rare speed limit observers, and first hit pavement or trail around 6:18. Four or five rather uncomfortable miles later, I cool down, stretch, drink, look at the trees and sunset, speed home to spite the limit observers, drink a beer while in a shower that makes Niagara Falls look like a one-hour dishwasher cycle, and I slide into my seat at the dinner table in time to cheers my ever-supportive family.
You could set your watch to this routine. I could drive to the trailhead using just my elbows whilst crosseyed. And while the weather has been beautiful, and the drive features some lovely views and farm properties to ogle over, I miss being unfamiliar or just recently acquainted with the outdoor spaces I visit.
I miss being a tourist.
For the people who crave the shiny new unknown, the prospect of visiting a place for the first time and not knowing a single soul or sight within a 200-mile radius, COVID-19 has delivered a crushing blow. There is this euphoria associated with being in a new place. Maybe it’s the fact that, by definition, if your surroundings are unknown to you, you are unknown to them as well. And we all could use a little solitary anonymity these days.
But the risks presented by exploration, far-flung travel plans or whole-life relocation aren’t worth the simple reward of a new view from some new place right now.
When I moved to Missoula, I never thought I would spend so much continuous time in my hometown in Connecticut ever again. East coast transplants convene in mountain-west towns and connect over shared awe at the endless opportunities for adventure. A weekend warrior-type could live in western Montana for years and still have an untapped bucket list, complete with an extension dedicated entirely to western Canada. I thought the days of picking between the same three state parks and forests were behind me.
But on my drive home from the trailhead tonight, as golden hour was hitting and I was feeling endorphins flood my system, I saw the same small gravel parking lot and gated property that I had driven by hundreds of times in the last 16 years. I had always wanted to see what laid beyond the gate. I could tell there was open land, but wasn’t sure if it was publicly accessible. I was already running late for dinner, and if I didn’t break up my evening routine somehow, soon I would start resenting it.
So in the process of turning on my blinker, pulling off the road, parking the truck and walking to the gate, I transformed into a tourist. My feet walked across ground they had never touched before. My eyes landed first on the “public land” sign posted on the tree above the gate, then on the gentle way the sunset grazed on the open field of wildflowers beyond that gate. I was a newcomer, with curiosity strong enough to meander into a new corner of an extremely familiar world.
Sometimes, research and planning are the enemies of this type of tourism. I could have dug up the ownership status of that land online somewhere, or read reviews of the accessibility on AllTrails, or used Google Maps to look at a satellite image of the field to determine that goldenrod was indeed flourishing. But those measures play out just as poorly as snooping for birthday presents does.
I don’t mean to wax poetic about the woes of ruining surprises in the wilderness. In reality, those surprises could mean endangerment, discomfort, frustration or just a complete lack of excitement. Those realities are simply woven into the fabric of being a tourist; lacking knowledge means things could go worse than expected. And while routines become mundane after some time, they are highly sought after because they are comfortable and reliable.
But to take simple risks is to give yourself access to simple rewards. And if the only thing on the line is your commitment to routine, your punctuality to family dinner, your dignity as someone who doesn’t almost unknowingly trespass on private land, the rewards of a fruitful meander are well worth the potential costs.
Tonight, for me, it was five minutes of luxurious calm and peace on new ground. That field turned into a foreign country, the gate at the end of the parking lot a customs officer stamping my passport, the wildflowers some delicious corner cafe or a niche museum with few visitors. And while it was such a small and simple gesture of self-care and wanderlust, I returned to my car feeling a little more worldly than I was when I parked.
There is always unfamiliar to be found in the familiar. Maybe tomorrow I’ll really shake things up and leave the house on time.