Learning to Walk on the Wild Side
By KEEN Fan Vanessa Algotsson
There was a time, not so long ago actually, when I wouldn’t be caught dead rocking socks with sandals.
No amount of comfort was worth the head-scratching I was sure I’d endure from my fellow city-dwellers. Yes, that is just as stupid as it sounds, I know. But I cared. And luckily, I’ve learned to care… less.
I’ve always loved the outdoors in theory, but it was usually from afar. My heart beats for animals and I’ve always been a champion of environmental protection. My father is a born and bred Swede, with forest, wild blueberries, and frigid freshwater in his blood. For the better part of my life, I’d classify those genes as recessive.
My father is a born and bred Swede, with forest, wild blueberries, and frigid freshwater in his blood. For the better part of my life, I’d classify those genes as recessive.
As Carrie Bradshaw said, “I’m what you’d call a bonafide city girl.” My go-to mode of transportation was the subway, my favorite sounds were loud, my preferred pace: as fast as possible. For years, I dreamed of New York and a career in the fashion industry, and I managed to bring those dreams to life.
But sometimes the Universe just knows better.
Within the span of a year and a half, I suffered two major losses: my relationship with my live-in boyfriend imploded in a most spectacular way and my dream job became an actual waking nightmare. And just like that, I was lost. I left the career I’d been so sure I was meant for, and began the process of freelance writing and getting my head straight. But in a city full of options and endless possibilities, somehow I felt more clueless than ever. I needed out. Not forever, just long enough for a breather, to collect myself and get away from the memories and my ex who had decided to move into a new apartment right down the hall (yeah… I know).
Escaping the city to reset
So on July 21, 2016, my dad and I took off on a trip that changed everything: from New York to Toronto to Vancouver to Whitehorse to Dawson City, the town where he embarked on his own adventure in his younger years together with his best friend and his brother. We would be spending two weeks bonding in the remote Northwest corner of Canada together with my cousins, aunt and uncle. I arrived in a tiny airplane with every outdoor essential I could think of (purchased just a few days before in a tornado-like shopping spree at REI) and a fresh blowout. Yeah, you read that correctly. I rolled up into the wilderness with a blowout. Let’s be clear, I was ready to disconnect, but wanted to look really good doing it.
The thing I noticed first about Dawson City was how few people were around, despite being its busiest season. Even with its crunchy backpackers and Airstream caravans, the town’s central streets were no match for a sleepy Sunday morning in my Queens neighborhood. My dad and I slept in a trailer next to my uncle’s one-room cabin. For showers we drove to my aunt’s home in town. The wifi was spotty, the evenings were calm, and by the third day I’d given up on makeup and embraced a no-fuss routine of face wash and sunscreen. This. Was. Perfect.
In the moments between the day trips and wowza-moments, the downtime between the adventures, that’s where I found myself.
We filled our days with outdoorsy adventures, like a road trip to the Alaskan border, panning for gold with my miner cousin, David, canoeing, a jaunt to Forty Mile, and helping my uncle track the growth of the salmon spawn population (so cute!).
But in the moments between the day trips and wowza-moments, the downtime between the adventures, that’s where I found myself. On a picnic bench at dusk, shooting the breeze with my uncle and dad. Mornings in the trailer eating a bowl of cereal and an apple. Drinking tea with a racing heart in a grey drizzle right after my very first grizzly sighting. Floating down the river and spotting bald eagles. Quiet that didn’t feel bizarre or rare, but constant and soothing. I got it. This was why people loved the outdoors. Not for the Type 3 fun and not for the stories I’d be able to take home. But with the relief, came an unexpected regret? How had I managed to waste so much time not enjoying the outdoors? I felt like I’d lost out on so much!
Bringing more escape to city life
My time in the Yukon didn’t make me want to leave New York, but it did help me value the importance of frequent trips to the Hudson Valley, or my favorite spot in my hometown of Philadelphia, Valley Green. An hour here or there surrounded by nature began to lower my stress levels and refocus my energies. I immediately started following outdoor enthusiasts on social media, particularly other women, brown folks, and city dwellers that inspired me to continue stepping outside of my comfort zone and into more green spaces, even if they were local parks in the Bronx or Long Island. I set a goal to visit every National Park in my lifetime and began to donate to environmental charities and causes. And less than a month after my return, I went on a camping trip with some friends and a new man I’d started seeing (a longtime outdoorsman, as luck would have it), and started learning everything I could about lightweight packing, starting fires, and leave-no-trace etiquette. By the following summer I’d made my first trip to the desert (Joshua Tree), and had backpacking adventures in the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone.
When I’m on the trail or in the water, I’m not lingering in the past or worried about the future—I’m present and at peace. I can forget the noise and accept myself, just as I am.
Then the unthinkable happened. That new guy I went camping with? We moved to Southern California together, on the edge of Los Angeles, where the mountains are my backyard and the Pacific Ocean and Mojave Desert are just a day trip away. My time in the outdoors helps me appreciate and feel good about who I am in that very moment. When I’m on the trail or in the water, I’m not lingering in the past or worried about the future—I’m present and at peace. I can forget the noise and accept myself, just as I am. It’s a perfect balance and some days it really feels like I can have it all. In socks and sandals.
Vanessa wears KEEN Newport all-terrain sandals on her Southern California adventures, with and without socks.
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Get out there. In socks and sandals.