When I was little, my parents used to describe what seemed like magical childhoods. They talked about running through the streets, unsupervised. They got lost in the woods and played until dusk and scraped both their knees and no one cared. Their idyllic times in upstate New York felt very distant from my suburban years in Virginia Beach, and especially different from the very urban upbringing I had when we lived in Italy. I didn’t have the luxury of that wildness, that freedom. My escape was always in books, and as a result, I probably spent far too much time inside reading than I should have.
Now let’s all just admit it: REI has always been one for clever campaigns (I’m personally a huge fan of the #ForceofNature movement happening right now) and their one particular 2015 campaign was simple, but ingenious: #OptOutside.
REI tried to get people outside, and away from the insane spending and consumerism that we all inevitably fall into around the holidays. In 2016, Americans spent $655.8 billion on Black Friday. That’s BILLIONS we’re talking about. A day after a holiday that encourages gratefulness and time spent with loved ones, most of us were sprinting through malls, fighting for the cheapest flat screen tv.
In response to this, the outdoors community embraced REI’s #OptOutside campaign, which encouraged would-be-shoppers to go outdoors the day after Thanksgiving, rather than rush to the nearest shopping center. They opted to step away from the chaos, away from the malls, and take a break from it all. A marketing campaign that returned no profits, but committed their audience to a lifestyle that guaranteed they’d be coming back for more (after all, everyone’s a sucker for those hip REI stickers to put on their water bottles).
Lately, I’ve been applying the #OptOutside hashtag to not just that spending-spree-day after Thanksgiving, but to my entire life. Compared to most people, I’ve got it pretty good, but things inevitably pile up. Stress about money, doing a good job at work, and balancing personal relationships can take a toll.
Distracting myself turns into a constant game of trying to trick my brain to shut off. Netflix doesn’t do the trick, as I’m constantly watching outlandish scenes from CW shows and inwardly screaming Oh God, it’s me! That’s my life! Even though my life in no way parallels the plotline of an ironic portrayal of telenovelas.
I’m a social media manager, so you would think that I revel in jumping on Twitter, filling my brain with the latest topics and funny quips from my friends as a method to decompress. But since Twitter is my job (and because my Twitter feed is dominated by ugly politics), that can be exhausting. Facebook has become overrun with constant life updates from friends I no longer talk to. Instagram is my absolute favorite social media platform, and the pictures of far-off destinations are their own version of escapism, but even this tends to lend itself to comparing your life to others’, and that’s never good.
Even when hanging out with friends at happy hours, our lives are constantly being filtered by how we’re portraying our time on Snapchat, or discussing what we’re doing to advance our careers, or that latest, ground-breaking NPR article. We are always talking about what we’re doing, what we should be doing, what we plan to be doing, instead of going out and actually doing things. Discounted happy hour margaritas are great, but they can only do so much to quiet the constant humming in my own brain.
Now that I’m a (pseudo) grown-up and the toll of adulthood is getting a little heavy, I find myself spending more and more time thinking about my parents’ stories of childhood freedom when trying to “turn my brain off.” I think of getting your hands dirty and breathing in air that wasn’t given an F-grade by the American Lung Association (great job, D.C.). Of focusing on the right here, right now – not just how my life looks online, or the endless to-do list in the Notes section of my phone. I love working in social media and marketing, but on hectic days, I find myself thinking of how my parents stayed outside until my grandparents screamed their names down the streets and they came running back in time for dinner. How their lives were not always tied to screens.
So because of this, and despite the fact that I’m a mosquito magnet and still frantically Google “what to do during a bear attack” before I head out the door, I’ve turned to hiking. I #OptOutside. I get away from the news and from my buzzing phone and from the people in my life that make my stress levels skyrocket and I just…get out.
Although my family and I spent most of our summers outdoors in upstate New York, Maine, and Switzerland (pretentious, I know, but I did grow up in Italy), I’m not a professional hiker by any means. I’m still not great at reading maps, and I check obsessively around me to make sure I don’t have an audience when peeing in the woods.
But boy, do I love it. I love the stretching of sinewy limbs, of struggling to catch my breath, of scraping against rocks. I love the smell of sweat and the feeling of mud drying in the lines of my hands. I love the way sunlight filters through the trees and how there’s no concrete in sight. I love all the green. Do you ever think about how much green you see in a day? Not enough, I bet. Not by a long shot.
I love knowing that when my ribcage feels like it’s closing in, when the emails are piling up and the unanswered text messages are looming, that I can take a break from it all. I can opt outside.
This past Friday, the National Park Service opened its doors, so to speak, and made entrance to all national parks free to celebrate the National Park Service’s 101st birthday. I sacrificed one of my long-hoarded vacation days and took the day off work. I convinced a few friends to join me. We laughed on the drive to the Shenandoah and traded embarrassing stories from high school. We stopped looking at our phones, and focused on the trail ahead. We didn’t talk about our jobs. My bad knee shook on the ascent because I’m a little out of shape, and the water in the pools was just a smidge too cold.
The iciness of that first jump into the water knocks the air out of your chest. It’s sharp. It pulls you away from thinking about all the chaos waiting for you back home and says, look here, be here. Inhale, exhale. Stare up at all the green around you. Be outside.