Born to Be Wild

Wildness is all around. Photo: Katie Arnold

Last week, I was hiking with a friend on a trail in town. We’ve been doing this once a week for two years, and in that time, we’ve developed a system: On the way up, we hike in silence and apart—each at our own pace. Halfway up there’s a granite ledge notched into the side of the mountain, where she sits and meditates while I hike higher before rejoining her for the hike down. The ritual itself is like a meditation. I know what is around every bend, so I’m free to let my nattering thoughts sail off into the air and focus on my breath, the crunch of my footsteps on dusty ground.

On this day, though, I’d been unable to settle into my usual rhythm. The trail seemed too beaten down, too wide and dry, too familiar. It was a dazzling day, the first of November, and freakishly warm. The pine needles were glittering in the sun. It could not have been a prettier, or luckier, day to be outside. But I was bored and restless, craving something less predictable, more remote. I sat down on a rock to try to calm my mind and ground myself in the day. That’s when I saw the fox.

Actually, the bird caught my eye first, a grey jay flapping in the shadows of a pinon tree. Something else moved, and I shifted my gaze left, downhill. It had a long fluffy tail and a pointy nose. It was too long for a coyote, too small for a mountain lion. It scuttled behind a scrubby juniper tree, then ambled downhill into view again, snout to the ground, sniffing. It was a grey fox. Then it was gone.

Back in the summer, a strange thing started happening to me. The word freedom kept nudging itself into my subconscious. “I want to be free,” I’d say to myself when I was least expecting it. They just came out. I didn’t know what I meant, but I didn’t think I was referring to my family. I love them, and we get out a lot—together and on our own. Now that my girls are getting bigger, I have a longer leash to travel and explore, to spend a week at a silent writing retreat in France and then to raft a wilderness river with my kids. My husband and I have built our life around these choices, and they’re essential to us as a family. We gladly trade fancy cars, designer clothes, a big home, and five-star resort vacations for the ability to play outside and have fun almost every day.

But even when you make a conscious effort to embrace adventure, you can still fall into a rut. Things become tedious. The grass is always greener. You hear stories about parents taking their kids around the world and wish it were you. You daydream about moving to the British Columbia bush, where your kids will grow up immune to texting, drugs, sex (if only!). You imagine running a safari camp in Kenya or raising goats in California or decamping permanently to Costa Rica. Just the other day, another friend of mine confessed that she fantasized about leaving Santa Fe with her family to buy a small homestead in southwestern Colorado and growing all their own organic food. We all feel these urges to let go, be wild, break the norm. They just look different.

When I saw the fox, suddenly I understood. What I crave is wildness. This is the freedom I want. I mean this literally: I want to hike and run more remote trails and new trails. I want to go on adventures. I want to learn to climb and sleep outside more often. I want to roam with wildlife. I’ve always been afraid of bears and mountain lions when I’m out on the trails alone, but about a month ago I ran the Mount Taylor 50K trail race on a sacred Navajo peak in western New Mexico. During that race I found myself practically willing a mountain lion to appear. The forest seemed alive with them; this was their mountain, surely they must be lurking behind the huge ponderosas. I did not feel afraid. Maybe I was delirious—please, lion, put me out of my misery! But the feeling has stayed with me, and I realize that something shifted inside me that day. Now when I’m out alone before sunrise I sense that I am traveling with animals, moving through their space. I’m in their midst, and sometimes—like the fox—they reveal themselves.

The fox on the mountain was actually my second fox. I saw my first fox three weeks earlier, not long after the race. I was sitting outside on our back terrace before sunrise, stretching my legs when a red fox strolled past, less than five feet away. It didn’t seem in any particular hurry. It barely looked my way. Foxes are common in some places, but in 17 years in Santa Fe, I’d never seen one. Now, two in a single month. I Googled Native Amerian fox totems (healing, treachery) and Zen Buddhist fox koans (waayyy too complicated to understand), shamanic fox images (symbolizing profound emptiness, the good kind) but only halfheartedly. I already knew what my foxes meant to me: In seeking wildness, I’m on the right path.

Go wild: Stop and hug a tree! Photo: Katie Arnold

I also mean it metaphorically: a break from the sameness and what’s expected of us, the freedom to be creative, the chance to really wake up to the world around us. Even if we’re lucky enough to live in remote, wild places, we can’t be wild every second or even every day. We have to work and take care of kids and coach soccer practice and make lunches and wait in line at the gas station. This doesn’t mean we crave wildness any less. There’s a reason Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, about her 1,100-mile solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail burned up the national bestseller lists. Deep down, we all want and need wildness. The only difference is that most of us don’t have the space or time or freedom to do something as radical as she did.

Yesterday I ran into a friend at the farmer’s market. We raft together in the summer, but seldom cross paths off the river. “How is your family?” I asked. “We’re trying to keep it simple,” he replied with a smile. He looked content. Whatever he meant, I could tell it was working. Simple is wild, too.

When my friend told me she wanted to move to the middle-of-nowhere Colorado and grow her own organic food, I thought for a second. That did sound nice. But then, where would the kids go to school, she wondered. Would they all be lonely? I thought about the fox, the two foxes, really, and the animals that shadow me on every trail, and about choosing in our lives what we need most. I told her I thought maybe she didn’t have to take such drastic steps. You don’t have to move to the wilderness to find wildness. If we make a conscious effort to choose the less-traveled routes, keep our feet on bare earth, slow down and open our eyes, we can find it in our regular lives, every day. Wildness is all around.

Even if you live in the city and have limited access to trails and nature, here are a few simple ways to bring more wildness into your everyday life. They are pretty basic; you probably have your own strategies, too. Wildness is personal. It's a state of mind, not a destination.

Bike to work, ride the kids to school if it’s safe. Even it takes longer, set aside time once a week to use a different means of transportation. Instead of planning a play date take them on an unstructured nature walk around the block. Look down a lot. Pick up pinecones or rocks. Getting around under your own power, in the fresh air, is simpler, and it awakens you to the world right in front of you.

When you have too much on your plate, you become a slave to your schedule and wildness gets crowded out of the equation. Don’t book up every free minute. Leave unstructured time for daydreaming, playing, or just going for a walk. Take a cue from your kids: Don't only do the things you should or need to do. Do what's fun. Especially with young kids, it’s so relaxing not to have to rush out the door to be somewhere. Be where you are.

Life is always simpler in the summer because our kids play outside, not with toys. Also, I rarely listen to the news and don't check my email every five seconds. Each fall, I always try to figure out how to make summer last all year long. This is one way: Purge your house of stuff you don’t use. Kids can get by on a few games and puzzles; an art station stocked with pens, crayons, and paper; a couple of balls; and some books. Clutter traps us into thinking we need stuff to be creative, when actually it’s a distraction. Put your computer to sleep and limit news-gorging to once a day.

If you hike, run, or ride for exercise, deviate from your usual route or time. This is easier said than done—we’re all such creatures of habit. Do the route in reverse, or take a trail you’ve seen but never explored. Go at sunrise, under a full moon, or after a new snow. If you take the kids to the same park after school, mix it up. Visit one in a different neighborhood, where you don’t know anyone. Instead of standing around gabbing with the other parents, check out the trees and the jets streaking across the sky, your kids playing in the sand pile. You notice more when you're someplace new.

Take a cue from the kids: play more. Photo: Katie Arnold

This one in easy. Breathe fresh air into your lungs. Go off-road. Get dirty. Move your body. Jump. Have more fun. Maybe you’ll see a fox.

—Katie Arnold

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