Ryan Waters, of Boulder, and his partner Cecilie Skog, of Norway, celebrate their completion of the first unsupported, unassisted crossing of Antarctica on January 21.
Ryan Waters, of Boulder, and his partner Cecilie Skog, of Norway, celebrate their completion of the first unsupported, unassisted crossing of Antarctica on January 21.

Fluorescent lights. Gray cube walls. Non-descript linoleum.


Three days and nights outdoors left me in such a state of sun-soaked, star-infused bliss that I couldn’t deal with my return to work. (And rush-hour traffic? Ugh!) Sure, that first shower felt good. My bed was comfy. But I itched to go back out, and I got itchier staring at my computer.

I needed, but didn’t want, to re-engage what river guide Andy Hayes calls “civilization tunnel vision” — focus amid flashing city lights, crowds, or in my case, a full inbox.

“Outdoors, everything is just flowing and moving at the same purpose, it’s you and whoever you’re with, you’re all doing the same thing,” Hayes said. “But you pop into a city, and people are going everywhere.”

Hayes has worked as a rafting guide on rivers across the United States and on Africa’s Zambezi — so he’s spent many summers living outside, in flip-flops.

Whole summers out. If only three days out had this effect on me, what happens to people like Andy, or those who go on big expeditions or hike the long trails, when they come back in?

“There are a lot of hikers who just freak out going back to society,” my friend Jeff Chow told me (calmly). Jeff hiked the entire Appalachian Trail a few years ago.

“They don’t like the structure, they don’t like the noise, and they keep hiking the trail year after year. I’m not one of them, though.”

(I doubt Jeff is capable of freaking out. He was a peaced-out Confucius on the trail, long beard and all.)

Jeff said he never spent more than 15 nights out at a time, but over 10 months of hiking, he didn’t log much indoor time. At home between sections, Jeff slept on the floor, in his sleeping bag. Showering, shaving and cutting his hair became unnecessary hassles (“Why is society making me shower so often?!?”)

Other things were less bothersome.

“In city life, you have control over your immediate environment, the temperature of your house,” Jeff said. “When you’re outside, if it’s been raining for two weeks, it gets annoying, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“It’s OK for things not to be exactly as you want them.”

My friend the Appalachian Confucius found a balance of perspective on the trail; he continues to fine-tune it off the A.T. But while Jeff makes me feel lame for my tiny freak out, talking with another Boulderite about this forced my own balance of perspective.

“You’re looking forward to being back in civilization, but when you are back, the stuff you crave so much, it is great, but it just doesn’t have the same bang,” said Ryan Waters, an explorer, high-altitude mountaineer and guide who completed the first unassisted, unsupported crossing of Antarctica earlier this year.

The expedition took 70 days; he generally spends 150 days a year without a roof over his head.

However, Waters still enjoys city life: vegging out in a movie or wandering a bookstore with hot coffee are simply city pleasures you can’t get at base camp. Though transitions can still be challenging, he seems to have mastered the secret of satisfaction, whether outdoors or in, through a deep appreciation for both.

“In the end, it really helps you realize this really positive feeling on both sides,” he said. “You’re psyched to be out in the wilderness, and as you’re there, you’re like, I love this, but I can’t wait to see this friend, or have that cup of coffee, and you appreciate that as well.

“It’s a cool thing to realize that. If people have never done that, they might not have that appreciation.”