I dig through a wall of boxes containing Christmas ornaments and old papers, cursing the cold and my fumbling fingers. It irks me that I cannot find a single compass even though I have owned three or four in my lifetime, but rifling through a box for three seconds unearths a single-draft essay on Macbeth I slapped together in one overnight writing-session and earned a ‘B’ for. Whereas a compass may save my life where I am going, or at least make me feel better about going for a hike after so long indoors, another essay on Shakespeare won’t do anyone any good. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I could write another paper at a moment’s notice and have it turn out halfway decent, while I can’t be sure I could find my way out of the woods even if I had my old path-finding equipment.
I never was much of compass jockey back in the days when I was a Boy Scout and a Royal Ranger. A Royal Ranger is a Pentecostal version of a Boy Scout whose primary difference from the Scout—other than the fact that he has to memorize the 16 Fundamental Truths of the Assemblies of God—is his willingness to use the earth to his own ends. For the most part, Tilton-Northfield Boy Scout Troop 248 used camp stoves to cook their meals and avoided altering the environment in any appreciable way. Praise Assembly of God’s Royal Ranger Outpost 36, on the other hand, ate meals cooked over real, wood-burning campfires. We also dug trenches around our tents to prevent flooding and cut down trees to use for camp crafts and burned plastic when the adults weren’t looking. Royal Rangers were entitled to use Mother Nature to meet their needs. As a result, I often had more fun in the out-of-doors as a Royal Ranger than I did as a Boy Scout.
The reader may infer from the preceding paragraph that I was a devoted outdoors enthusiast as well as a possible religious fanatic—what other reason is there to have been a member of two scouting programs? However, while I have made a point of attending church at least once a week for the last seven years, I haven’t gone hiking or winter camping or ice fishing or canoeing or snowshoeing or backpacking in that time. Instead, I’ve nursed a dream to be like Steven Spielberg, the Eagle Scout who made it big in the movies. Now that a few short films are in the can and no phone calls are forthcoming, I have taken to watching movies and writing about them.
Lately, one particular sub-genre of film has captured my thoughts. I call it “Inside the Outside.” It started when I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In Stalker, a trio of men navigates the strangely verdant radioactive “Zone.” The Zone is presented in the fecund hues of green and brown while the non-wasteland world is rendered in sepia tones. This causes the viewer to think of the Zone as a space separate from the outside, so the characters have to go inside the outside.
I started to notice a pattern in my viewing habits when I couldn’t get the outdoor images from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma out of my head, either. Charisma is a movie I assiduously avoided for a few years because of how it was described on the Netflix sleeve:
A washed-up detective becomes obsessed with a supernatural tree in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s existentialist eco-thriller. After botching a hostage situation, a dishonored Tokyo investigator (Koji Yakusho) retreats to the wilderness for some alone time. Instead of solitude, he encounters a sinister tree both feared and revered by the locals. The confused detective soon finds himself caught up in a fight over whether to protect or destroy the tree.
A movie about whether to protect or destroy a tree sounded a little too much like an episode of Captain Planet or the plot of Fern Gully, but after viewing several other of Kyoshi Kurosawa’s films, I finally rented Charisma.
Kurosawa has said that he tries to create the feeling of the world extending outside the framed reality of his films. Even before I heard him say this in an interview, I noticed that he often framed characters twice, first with a doorway or a window, and then with the camera.
This leads the viewer to think of the screen as just another window that shows only a select portion of the world of the film. The frame becomes a door that allows the viewer to go into the outside. While watching Charisma, I became hyperaware of the forest. I wanted Kurosawa to pan over to the area just out of frame, so I could explore.
It was Charisma that made me feel as though I may have matured enough to properly enjoy the outdoors in the way all of the adult leaders of my scouting youth did. And so I’m in my crowded garage trying to remember the list of Scout Outdoor Essentials. I know that there were at least ten items, but I cannot remember all of them. So far, I have found matches, a flashlight, some extra batteries, an emergency rain poncho, and a candle (which is not on the list but is somehow comforting).
The Scout motto is “Be Prepared” (the Royal Ranger motto, “Ready,” is reduced but roughly the same). The one thing I could never ready myself to be prepared for was the cold of a New Hampshire winter (see also: late fall, early spring). I know people who love being out in the snow for a weekend, people who bound through drifts like big, dumb Labrador retrievers, tongues hanging out to catch flakes of the purest whiteness, and it makes me sick. After hiking for a day with a gigantic pack on their backs, they can stand tall on a mountain top and look out at a magnificent vista and spout platitudes about “getting off the beaten path,” as others among them wonder how they will ever get off the mountain on frostbitten and bloody stumps that barely hold their boots on anymore.
They say “once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout,” but I was done with scouting long before the award was pinned to my chest. I knew what the Boy Scout brass thought of those who took the skills and maturity-building experiences of the program and decided not to instill them in the next generation, but I didn’t care. By the time I earned the ultimate scouting award (and the Royal Ranger equivalent), I was tired trying to tame the elements while somehow still being eco-friendly. (I’d like to see Al Gore try to dry himself over a camp stove after a rainstorm.) After all, the ecosystem wasn’t all that friendly to me. After graduation, I went off to college in Minneapolis in search of an environment that would make me spout platitudes I could believe in.
As a kid from New Hampshire, I was dazzled by downtown Minneapolis. The university I attended had skyways connecting all the major buildings on campus, and I was enamored of them. Walking through them was just like stepping into a future where humans never had to leave climate-controlled space again and winter camping was a thing of the past.
The skyways at school were built in the seventies through donations from Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker(!), and the utilitarian nature of their 1970s architecture made me want to make dystopian films. I fantasized about the scenes that would one day take place in them when I was a famous director returning to the Twin Cities to invigorate the local economy.
Once I settled on a major in English, I started haunting the downtown skyways with an eye on finding the right environment for my writing life. The ideal space would be a coffee shop resonant with echoes of Paris, maybe a few patrons who wore berets and smoked cigarettes with an air of indifference. I never found that coffee shop. They’re all in Northeast or Uptown or St. Paul; in downtown Minneapolis, they make coffee shops for corporate types going to work, on lunch, or interviewing for lateral move.
I was in class one day and looking out a window at an abandoned storefront across the street when I realized that one was never truly outside when in the city. The city was a large building with no roof. This feeling was intensified the time I saw a backhoe digging up a street, revealing not only dirt underneath the concrete and asphalt, but also ancient roots and organic material that had been paved over sometime before I was born. I was suddenly aware of the giant basketball pad that was Minneapolis. In that moment, the “inner city” took on a whole new meaning.
I’m ending my long hiking hiatus so that I can get off the basketball pad and be in the off-frame forest of Wild River State Park. If there is anything I have learned since my last hike all those years ago, it is that there is a relationship between the number of pockets a backpack has and how tempted I am to fill them. This is an important relationship to be aware of because there is another relationship between how successful I am in resisting said temptation and how much I enjoy hiking. Taking all this into consideration, I wonder for a moment if it would best for me not to take a bag along at all. But without the backpack, I’d be on a mere walk, and I want to hike.
Inside the garage, I can see my breath. I find it ironic that I’ve chosen the first really frosty week of the fall to take this hike, the first since bidding farewell to two scouting programs that had backed me into winter camping corners I have since forsworn.
I locate my spruce-green L. L. Bean school backpack and bring it upstairs into the warmth of the house. I shake the chill out of it and make note of the melt mark on the outside of the small pocket intended for pencils and protractors and notes from pretty girls. I don’t remember how the bag came to be burned, but it may have been from a stray spark from a Royal Ranger campfire.
Placing the bag on the table in the dining room, I marvel at how pristine it looks apart from the melted spot. Most of the time, the backpack remained rolled up in my external frame pack, ready to be removed at a moment’s notice for a jaunt down a side-trail that required only some of my Outdoor Essentials. These side-jaunts I prepared for never happened, but I made sure I was ready for them all the same. The outdoors seemed so vast and daunting that I felt I needed to be prepared for any and every eventuality, including the need for a smaller version of my backpack.
Packing anything other than food for this hike will most likely be unnecessary, but force of habit compels me to prepare for emergencies. I used to pack moleskin (not an expensive notebook but a bit of foam to encircle blisters), butterfly bandages (for holding sliced skin together), Ace bandages, splinting materials, and a cup for immobilizing an eye with a stick in it. This time I pack some band-aids, ibuprofen, and Target-brand gas-reliever.
The night before my hike, my wife tells me to wear long underwear the next day. In this she reminds me of my mother, who has such little faith in my packing ability that she would call me the night before I climbed Mt. Everest to make sure I had packed socks. I don’t tell my wife about her similarity to my mother.
On the day of the hike, I turn off of the arterial Highway 35 North onto the arteriolar Highway 95 East and the landscape becomes more and more conducive to a surveyor declaring the area to be Wild River State Park. As the trees become thicker on either side of the road, I think I now understand why my mother cried and said her new house was too small when she moved from New Hampshire to Minnesota—it was the dearth of trees that got to her.
At the time, I thought she was merely ungrateful for the space and landscaping she’d purchased sight unseen. It wasn’t perfect, and she was throwing a fit. But now I realize that because she felt exposed in the suburban prairieland of eastern Minnesota and didn’t know how to express the feeling of rattling around in that kind of space, she said her house was too small. But it was actually that the outside that was too big. She wanted to be hemmed-in by the environment not by her home.
As I pull up to the Park Office, a UPS truck pulls up behind me. I hold the door for the driver who seems surprised to receive this courtesy. After the woman at the desk inside signs for the package, I purchase a day-parking permit. Behind me are versions of what I have in my backpack. I resist the urge to buy a Coke from the humming refrigerator case.
“You been to the park before?” the woman behind the counter asks me. She unfolds a map for me, pointing out the more developed area of the park, the part we are standing in, and shows me places where I can leave my car for the day. I decide to park near the Visitor Center, about a half-mile into the park proper.
The Visitor Center is devoid of visitors. There is a clipboard dedicated to logging animal sightings hanging near the door. Hikers have seen squirrels, songbirds, and skunks. Also, what looks like might be “a pair of Northern Flickers” but from the handwriting looks more like a pair of Northern something else, which I assume they have around here as well.
There are some stuffed animals behind Plexiglas in one wall and a table with some wildlife information on it. On the table there is a pile of “free bird posters,” which are pictures of birds torn from an out-of-date calendar. There is a snakeskin in a large drawer, also behind Plexiglas. The drawer is almost all the way out before I can see the crinkly helix at the back.
I start on my hike and soon find myself drawn off the trail to look down on a small ravine. Exactly where I think to leave the trail is a sign which reads:
To reduce erosion and
damage to vegetation,
please stay on designated
hiking trails only.
Thank You, Park Mgmt.
I puff plumes of smoke-like condensation as I walk up the trail. The sun has been up for a few hours already but doesn’t seem to be doing much for the temperature, and I am afraid that this day will be like so many others back in my scouting days—cold and miserable. I am wearing several layers of clothing to help stave off the chill in the air, but I’m not holding my breath.
I round a bend in the trail and come out into a clearing of tall grass and few trees; it reminds me of South Dakota. I have had ample opportunities since moving to the suburbs to get out into the natural world through visits to my in-laws’ farm in South Dakota. But as much as farmland works to recharge my wife’s spiritual and emotional reserves, it does almost nothing for me. I look out the kitchen window and see barrenness where my father-in-law sees fertile land. That much open space unnerves me. I do not want a home where the buffalo are able to roam.
But there is something about the stillness in the clearing that banishes my usual complaints about the vast and seemingly empty expanse of the prairie. Maybe it is merely the fact that I am not sitting at my in-law’s kitchen table but out where I can see individual blades of grass and the pattern that frost has overlaid on the trail. From the outside, the outside is very small, no bigger than the place you are standing. When viewed through a window, the outside seems much larger than it does when viewed from the ground, so-to-speak. Kurosawa’s theory of framing works in real life.
I put my pack down on the frosty ground and dig out my water bottle. As I drink from it, I think of scene transitions on Lost and of how, more often than not, we cut back to the main characters as they are in the middle of a water break.
I was several seasons in, and in the middle of re-watching old ones, when I realized that the island Lost’s characters are stranded on was much larger than I’d originally thought. The reason I’d thought it so small is that there’s rarely any sense of how long the characters spend traversing the island. They leave for a place on the other side of the island. We pause for a commercial-break. Then we rejoin them in the middle of one of their many water breaks, and the interval is left on the cutting room floor. What is left the interstice between two pieces of film.
As I knock back more water, I recognize that I am in an interstice right now. Anyone watching the film of my life would skip this part. It is an echo of things I used to do regularly. Indeed, if I hadn’t intentionally come here to see what hiking was like after so much time off, I would have skipped it, too.
A quality of the interstitial is that it is small enough to be overlooked. It is the space between the pages of a book, between books packed tightly on a shelf, between abutting shelves in a library. The interstice is what we come in contact with when we attempt to touch anything; the product of the electrical fields surrounding us and everything else, it shields us from direct interface with our environment. One needs to be inside of it in order to truly come in contact with something other.
I could have entered this interstitial place much earlier, back in my scouting days, maybe, but I was too busy learning how to tie knots and splint broken legs and survive on foraged food to find the spaces in between. Busy people don’t enter the interstice.
There was a time when learning outdoor skills wouldn’t have impinged on one’s ability to slip between and just be for a few moments, but that time has passed. I don’t need to know how to make a snare for catching small mammals to prepare for the day I become stranded in the wilderness. I have spent countless hours in school so that I can spend countless hours at work so that I can earn the money I need to buy a cell phone and an emergency shelter and some granola bars to tide me over until the rescue helicopters arrive (that is if I even chose to go that far off the beaten path and there aren’t signs warning me to stay on the trail). If time spent in the outdoors is only filled with busy work and preparations for future exigencies, the interstice closes.
But I don’t have any knots to tie today. No scoutmaster is breathing down my neck as I demonstrate how to stop arterial bleeding. I’m stopping at the side of the trail and no one is telling me to hurry, to pick up the pace so we can get there before dark, or before the storm hits, or by dinnertime.
Inside the interstice, hackneyed phrases like “communion with nature” sound freshly coined, if only for a moment. As soon as I admonish myself against these clichéd thoughts and the feelings they try to describe, the interstice closes, and I start measuring the miles and minutes until lunch.