by Karen Sullivan
“Today things might be better,” I say to myself each morning as I saddle up the wild rhinoceros for another ride. At least that’s how it feels to reach for what’s waiting online to plunge me into the day’s news cycle whirlwind. In this third pandemic year with a new war, it’s like endless repeats of the Dorothy Parker line, “What Fresh Hell is this?”
We’ve been cooped up all winter under cement skies and atmospheric rivers, better known as “biscuit weather,” because baking comfort food and gaining weight are easy when sheets of cold rain make one’s desire to stay fit wilt like a salted snail. After so much unrelenting dreariness, spring comes just in time to bring us the tonic of the outdoors. The first tentative risings of the year’s garden glories never fail to enthrall. There’s satisfaction in that first hike into the woods, to go, as the Japanese put it, “forest bathing.” And on the water, there’s something almost revolutionary in seeing the world at five knots instead of fifty, or five hundred. Slowing down, especially in nature, gives you the chance to observe and think. In these complex times, outdoor activities are as much a survival strategy as they are mere recreation.
Adventuring with a pack on your back, or by sea, bicycle, or however you do it, even if for just an afternoon, is to be healthier, more self-reliant, and beholden to no one but yourself and your companions. Even if it’s difficult it’s still an accomplishment that can make good memories for the months of biscuit weather. I’ve found that an active life makes me less vulnerable to the despair that can be brought on by incessant political circus.
Ten years ago, my husband and I were two weeks into our crossing of the Pacific Ocean aboard our Dana 24 sailboat, Sockdolager. We didn’t know that the crossing from Mexico to French Polynesia would take us 37 days, or that part of our 58-gallon water supply would go bad (who knew water could spoil?) and that a backpacking filter and a drop of bleach would remove the harmful algae we’d picked up from a water delivery truck in Los Cabos. We didn’t know that the region of calm around the Equator colloquially known as the doldrums but correctly called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) would balloon out to cover 900 miles of ocean, or that for three weeks inside it our speed would average two knots, punctuated by squalls I stopped counting after 48 of them hit us in three days. Definitely Type-2 fun. I never expected to sail backwards for 17 miles one night while crossing the Equatorial Counter-Current. But meeting whales, birds, turtles, and even goose barnacles on our hull thousands of miles from land delighted me. We didn’t know that the fellow sailors we met on single sideband radio net meetups each afternoon to cheer each other on, or commiserate, would become lifelong friends. Or that Ham radio enthusiasts in Port Townsend could hear us all the way to the Equator.
What we did know was how good it feels to live a dream, and how well the memories and the accomplishment would serve us later in life. While we were in mid-ocean, a friend emailed us: “If you had a Chris Craft and a million bucks for the gas, you’d be there by now.”
I replied, “Au contraire! While nothing goes to windward like a 747, the whole point of sailing by the wind means the voyage itself is the “there.”
He responded, “I’m trying to think of an amen great enough to affirm that. The quality of being there is the quality of getting there.”
And that’s the point. The times we’re living through feel overwhelming. The pandemic has shrunk and cut short millions of lives, politics are worse than ever, scandal, intrigue and outrage aren’t going away, and the competition for our attention via intrusive ads and sensational headlines isn’t going to let up. As Dorothy Parker once said, “You might as well live.” When you’ve been outside in the real, nondigital world, it’s amazing how fresh air is an antidote to despair. And we really don’t have to wait for fair weather to enjoy it. Hearing the plop of raindrops on your umbrella while walking when nobody else is around is a simple, contemplative pleasure. Outdoor activity can keep you in the moment. In our third pandemic year, that’s not a bad way of coping.