You need to go camping. It is essential. Does this sound like the ravings of a fanatic? Sometimes it does, but I insist that you need to go camping. You need to go regularly. It can not be just a one off thing. You need to go often to stay whole and healthy. It is as necessary as bathing or getting some exercise. It will not kill you right away if you do not but, life will not be as it should be.
If you do not go camping something nebulous and undefined will be missing from your life. Unless you are an exceptional person that has taken steps to deal with this, or a particularly boring person, you are aware of this hole in your life. It comes to you in those dark moments when you are alone and quiet and feeling introspective.
My apologies. I need to be clear. When I say you need to go camping, I am talking about real camping. I am not talking about pulling up to a campsite with your car trunk full of gear, setting up a tent on the tent pad, setting up a barbeque next to the picnic table, cranking the tunes on the radio and quaffing cold beer around the fire pit in your camp chair all weekend. For those of you who were with me and thinking, “Right on! This guy knows the truth of it! Preach it brother! My wife needs to read this!”, But thought that was what I had in mind, sorry. If you enjoy that kind of down time, great, have a blast and enjoy yourself. It is just one of many ways that people can 'get away from it all' and have a good time. All the more power to you, but your life will be no more complete for the experience. Perhaps it will be a little more tolerable or even a great deal more tolerable, which is why we love to embark on these diversions now and again, but absolutely everything will remain the same. The chances of experiencing anything are remote.
The kind of camping I am talking about can only be experienced in the back country, away from the haunts of men, where you have to be prepared and self sufficient and cut off from the outside world.
Not only do you need to go camping, not only does it need to be in some wilderness, but you need to go for more than three days. This is absolutely essential.
If you are not a camper your reaction will probably be, “Are you crazy? All those bugs! Sleeping on the ground! What happens if it rains? No way! If I'm going to take some time off give me a five star hotel and pool side service any day of the week. ” Yes I have heard it all many time before. For many the idea of roughing it is repulsive. They recoil from the whole idea. As one person told me, “You're talking about my worst nightmare.” I suspect those are the people that need the experience of going back country more than anyone else. If that is your reaction, you are pretty typical – and I understand completely.
I head out into the wilderness every chance I get, which is not enough. Sometimes I will travel in wilderness for a month and I am loath to return, but almost inevitably the first three days are not a pleasant experience. The state of mind I am in does not fit my environment. I am still in the state of mind that is required to navigate modern life, and that is a problem.
Then on the third day something quite extraordinary happens. I used to think that it was a unique personal experience that I had, but after reading many wilderness travelers travel journals I came to realize that it is a common experience. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. It is typically on the third day people say, “It suddenly hit me. Other times the tone of their journal takes a great change. They stop fretting and become exuberant about the world they find themselves in. Some say it is as if suddenly time has slowed down. Professional wilderness guides observe it in their clients all the time. I watched a bunch of boisterous, and exuberant, out of control kids on a summer camp canoe trip experience a third day transition. While paddling through a canyon on dazzling blue water, as vultures swooped overhead on the updrafts and the heat shimmered off the cliffs, the whole group became utterly silent for hours. They were not the same for the remaining six days of the trip. They were awesome!
It has been referred to as the “third-day syndrome” and became the subject of articles and academic study. The May 2012 issue of Backpacker includes an article by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan called, Making Makes You Smarter, which follows the work of Neuroscientist David Strayer, Ph.D. Elisabeth calls Strayer, “… something of a rock star in the world of brain science.” She goes on to say, “His pioneering, 15-year work on the dangers of distracted driving helped spawn public awareness campaigns, dozens of state texting-while-driving bans, a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The New York Times. ” In the Backpacker article the “third-day syndrome” is described as, “the optimized cognitive state you reach after spending at least that much time [3 days] in the backcountry.”
Other references to Strayer's work and the “third-day syndrome” can be found in the August 15, 2010, New York Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain. Except it has nothing to do with computers. I experienced transitions long before the digital age.
The way I can best describe what I experience is with a metaphor. It is as if there is a shell around me and it shatters. Suddenly I am there. I have not been fully present up until that time.
The world becomes expansive and viable. I can see things in greater detail. My field of view widens, so that I notice things well out on the periphery of my vision. Colors become alive. Smells, sounds touch, everything becomes more intense. I experience a heightened awareness. I feel connected to the universe. I have arrived. I am home. Relief.
Remember The Matrix where Neo becomes conscious and aware of what his real life is like – that he is a battery in a power array? Except I wake up in a beautiful place. From that point on my time in the wilderness is nothing but pleasure. It is where I belong. I am more alive than it is possible to be at any time in the city. Life is as it should be. This is substantial and a deeply spiritual event, and this is why you need to go camping; to wake up.
You have no idea as to how sleep you are. That is the strange thing about states of consciousness. While you are in a particular state of mind you think that that state is a perfectly normal, base line state. It is not until you experience a sudden shift do you realize what a stupor you were in.
Have you ever been in shock? Remember the time you got that wicked jolt while putting up the Christmas lights and you fell off the roof? Then suddenly you came up with what you thought was a fabulous idea.You just had to try on your daughter's tutu. You could not understand why the ambulance attendants would not let you off the stretcher so you could bake them some brownies, and you've never baked a thing in your own life. Through it all you thought you were brilliant, did not you?
Did you know that, according to most jurisdictions on the subject, the average person spends four to six hours every day in a natural state of hypnosis? Do you notice when you are in this state and when you come out of it? Probably not. Slipping from one state to another is quite natural and normal. We all do it without realizing that we have. The only time we notice is if the shift is abrupt.
Personally, I think the shell I find I have been wrapped in is a defense mechanism, and the fact that so many people go through the same type of shift when they are in the back country means that the mechanism is commonly and potentially invoked and possibly universal. It defends us from modern life.
Modern life is harsh. It can be overwhelming. We have advertising, news and information blasted at us all the time. We scream around in loud, jostling vehicles. We hustle and bustle around on schedules and time tables. Our entertainment is sensational and aggressive. We are subject to claims, claims, demands. We have all kinds of things vying for our attention. Is it no wonder that we build a protective wall around ourselves. We have to meet with it all. We need to tone things down or we would be so frazzled we would lose our sanity.
It is not until you get well away from the typical modern day environment that you realize how dulled down you really are. We all dwell in this groggy, semi conscious state so that we can meet with the barrage of modern living. I know, you are totally cynical. When you are dashing around yacking on smart phones, up loading, downloading, acting, reacting and oh so busy and hyperactive, how can you be described as being groggy? But you are. If you were wide awake it would be so overpowering it would etch an indelible impression on your mind and soul. Each moment would be vivid and stay with you forever. Yes there are occasionally wonderful, salient moments, but for the most part it is all mundane and not the stuff you want to carry around with you forever, so you protect yourself.
In the wilderness it is OK to let the universe in. You want to carry the experience with you forever. I am always astounded at how beautiful everything is. There is nothing that I do not want to drink in and have with me for the rest of my life. Even as you crouch under an overhanging rock and watch in awe as a thunderstorm of roiling green clouds lashes the trees, drenches the land and slams it's forks of fire into the planet, it is beautiful. But what if it rains? You will, some how, be richer for it.
Modern life creates an extraordinary paradox. Life should be a vivid and intense experience. It should be rich and exciting. We all want that. We all want to feel so alive. However, because there is usually so much going on that is harsh and abrasive we can only survive if we protect ourselves and dull the impact. Unfortunately we inevitably dull the impact of everything, including all the things that enrich our lives. We are left too groggy to really experience our own existence.
So what do we do? We pump up the volume to break past our protective barrier; to penetrate the numbness. We are always seeking, bigger, faster, brighter, louder, wilder, more sensational, more razzle and more dazzle. We are wonderfully innovative and create all kinds of excitement for our selves. Unfortunately all the abrasive stuff is intensified too. More hype, more aggression, more demands. Life gets even more overwhelming and our defense mechanisms numb us even further to help us cope. So again, what do we do? Again we seek even bigger, faster, brighter, louder, wilder, more sensational and even more razzle and more dazzle than before. We are trapped in a viscous cycle. Great for those in the world of marketing, but not so great for the rest of us.
That is why you need to go camping. Let the shell break away. The way you are experiencing life now is skewed. The real experience of living has become obscured. We are all probably in a state that evolved so that people could cope with being under attack, but it is not a normal state. You will never experience life as it should be until you get away from the assault.
This is why I feel sorry for people that will never get away from it all, and I mean really get away from it. They will probably never know what it is like to experience life in its most natural, meaningful state. They will always be in the groggy, rolled down state that seems to be an inevitable part of modern life.
Part of the paradox that is our existence, as we strive for a richer more extraordinary, larger life experience, is we tend to inundate ourselves with more and more things – a bigger TV screen, wild computer games all with bigger and better sound, sometimes a racier car, a smarter phone – when the answer is getting away from all of those things.
Also, in the mad scramble for all of these artificial things, that might give us a kick now and again, we end up destroying our wild places as we mine them for their resources. These are the very places that can give us the thing that we all hunger for – life as it should be.
I can just hear the critics saying, “Ya it might be life as you think it should be, but it is not necessarily life as I think it should be.” which is absolutely missing the point. I do not know what you are going to experience in the wilderness. That is entirely subjective. What I do know is you need to clear your mind to experience anything, and a clear mind is what you experience in the wilderness. There are other ways to make this transition, but a camping trip in the wilderness is the most effortless and natural way that I know of.
This is just one of many reasons why we need to preserve our wilderness places, and not just the really remote and isolated ones. Wilderness places are important for our sanity and spiritual well being as a race. They need to be protected and accessible to everyone.
As I said before, when you are in a state of mind you may not be aware of what that state is until you experience a shift. On a long trip you can start taking your wilderness state of mind for granted, but what you experience for the first three days when you return to populated areas assures you that you are indeed in an alternative state.
Once I was out on a canoe trip for three weeks. My wife and I had leisurely traveled about 160 km. Friends picked us up at our predetermined rendezvous spot. We feasted on fresh food and spent the last night of the trip in the woods with them. The next day we had a long drive back to Toronto. None of my friends liked to drive and I am normally extremely comfortable behind the wheel and love long drives, so I grabbed the keys. Just getting into the vehicle was strange. It was a new van and it felt tiny. The speed was extraordinary. We were flying down back roads at all of 45 kp / h (27 mph) and it felt like the speed was going to strip the body panels right off. The noise and vibrations were horrific. Someone turned on the radio and the cacophony of sound drove through me and raked my brain.
We came to a small hamlet. After a long trip you tend to crave things like really ice cold drink, so we stopped into a variety store. I walked in and the ceiling seemed like it was going to scrape my head. All the packaging of the typical products you see on store shelves looked garish. The fluorescent lights throbbed and pulsed. They were extraordinarily green. Everyone looked hideous in the artificial glow.
As usual, as we got closer to the city the smells of exhaust assorted my nostrils and the noise got even more grating. The air felt dirty. The traffic around me seemed frantic. It was all very uncomfortable. The state of mind I was in did not fit my environment.
When my wife and I come back from one of our long excursions we know we are going to be in our wilderness state for three days. We go to see a big, block buster movie that is full of special effects, dine at a really exceptional restaurant, sometimes go see a good band. Without the protective shell it is all very intense, vivid and thrilling. Of course this all probably works to dull down our senses and return us to the groggy state that is an inevitable part of modern living.