WHY OUTDOORS?

Sunrise; near Munsyari, Kumaon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sunrise; near Munsyari, Kumaon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The question launched an expedition in the mind.

Why do I frequent the outdoors?

For a couple of months, the required articulation got bogged down in bad weather. Metaphorically, that is. Then one day, you are gifted with clear skies and off you went for the summit you sought, the high pass you wished to cross or you simply saw the landscape for what it is. The skies cleared the other day as I watched the John Ford classic ` The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’

We live in times bombarded by media. The bulk of the movies we see have contexts more complicated than a growing settlement called Shinbone and what happens when a lawyer, a violent outlaw and the only man in town the gunslinger avoided, meet. Even with two of those men fancying the same woman, Ford’s movie was still devoid of clutter. Its clarity appeared enhanced by old world black and white. Film making is an aesthetic. I am not going to refer the dictionary to tell exactly what `aesthetic’ is. I will go with my understanding – it is a balance; an elegant equilibrium.

I remember a day in the Upper Rupin Valley. It was 2008, I think. A friend who was veteran of the outdoors and I, someone yet to fathom his need for the outdoors, were camped there. It was just two of us – two human beings in vast mountainous landscape. A nearby trail brought an occasional villager who paused for conversation and tea. Otherwise, it was just landscape and you.

Years ago, after finishing studies (rather, leaving some of it incomplete) I had left home to make a career. I worked my butt off. Over a decade later, I seemed to be doing well. That was the least expected of you – you had to do well. Nobody asked what you did. But you had to do well. Men disappeared to reappear years later, `doing well,’ prerequisite for next step – being well settled. They sported designation; importance, money and were expected not to have time for anything but career. Women, it seemed, liked their men so. It reinforced the urge to do well. My focus was always on several things. Actually, I lacked focus. But then I also knew that while you can’t have a good photograph without focusing, a photograph isn’t everything the photographer saw. The camera misses more world than it captures. Isn’t that true of human focus and life as well?

In late 2006, I was around sixteen years old as journalist and approximately ten years old as outdoor enthusiast. They were definitely two separate schools of thought and experience. Something snapped in me. I resigned my job and stopped `doing well.’ Two years afterwards, recast as freelance journalist and in the Rupin Valley, I was still a Doubting Thomas. What had I done with my life? I was free of the traditional parameters measuring life. But equally, I felt alone. Well settled and majority are brothers in arms. It was lesson well learnt.

My first day in Rupin Valley was a trial. Although I was already years old in outdoor activity by then, I had been trekking to gain a certain fort or pass, climbing rock to accomplish a certain route or mountaineering to reach a summit (in my case, any easy summit). As in the urban rat race, quest in the outdoors too, was an objective. Without objective, there is no conquest. How can you tell yourself you did well if there is no conquest? Life was a minor detail compared to discussions on route, particular climbing moves, gear specifications etc. It was like going to office.

The view from a little used road en route to Lansdowne in Garhwal, part of a 2013 cycle trip-route (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The view from a little used road on the way to Lansdowne in Garhwal, part of a 2013 cycle trip-route (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Rupin Valley, the biggest challenge that confronted my friend and I was to keep a fire going for it was raining. We were short on fuel and therefore needing some assistance from the twigs and driftwood lying around. Much of it was wet. Without fire, there would be no food. Without food there would be no energy and without energy, no Rupin Pass to cross. Each was an objective no doubt but certainly not the sort of objectives that defined the `doing well’- paradigm.

Back home in Kerala, it was common to say that if you didn’t study and turned loser, you could end up running a tea shop or a hotel in the nearby junction. In the Rupin Valley, exactly those talents mattered. A cup of hot tea in cold weather felt good; if you were a good cook, the talent kept you alive. What was all that `doing well’-thing? – I thought. Eventually when I reached Rupin Pass, walking leisurely through high mountains and snowfields with none of the urgency and panic of doing well-world, I was one happy man. I never forget the cup of coffee I had atop that pass. The 2008 trek stripped my life to the uncluttered aesthetics of John Ford’s movie.

A delicate balance characterizes the outdoors. Much before we enter the frame, we see the scene from far. Right from start, what subconsciously drew me to the outdoors was a simple equation – the vastness of space and the limited supply of people in it. It took camping in the Rupin Valley and a genuine feel of the slow life along with it for the sub conscious to speak above the clamour for outdoors as conquest and apartness, which was how the urban rat race preferred it. In the years since Rupin Pass, the outdoor aesthetic, now no more ashamed of being a voice in me, sharpened further. I now have limited fascination for the politics of human clusters; the money and the competition it can’t live without. I am not a fan of giant population and population laundered to seemingly benign interpretations like `market’ and `tomorrow’s workforce.’

I have come to believe that what we call life is a perception by aesthetic. Life needs space, not the over-crowding we have done in India. Life needs space for our thoughts in the mind, not the daily schizophrenia we unleash with too many people breathing down our necks. Life needs to be felt, not overwhelmed by consumerist excess, competition or the struggle to survive as is the case today.

The outdoors is the refuge of a clarity that is not needed if your objective is to win in the rat race.

I like that clarity.

That’s why I frequent the outdoors.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly altered, longer version of an article originally published in the Economic & Political Weekly.)

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