Photo Courtesy of Devon O’Neil
No matter how good you get at something, it’s important to remember when you sucked at it. Both for your sake and others’.
As a mountain biker, my period of sucking is boiled down to one very vivid memory. It was June 2004. I had just bought my first pair of clip-in pedals, and I went for a ride to test them out. The switchbacking trail behind my home gained 200 vertical feet before you could catch your breath. I was almost at the top when I came up short on a rock, couldn’t complete the pedal stroke and my bike stopped. I tried to unclip with both feet but failed, all the while sloooooowly teetering over like a Jenga tower.
I hit the ground and immediately felt an uncomfortable warm sensation on my right wrist. I looked down and saw the dog poop at precisely the moment its odor filled my mouth and nose, which, as I lay on the ground, hovered about four inches from the still-steaming pile. I gagged. Somehow the vomit stayed down.
I picked myself up, used a pine branch to clean my arm, turned my bike around and rode home, humiliated. I glanced around on my way down the hill to gauge whether anyone saw. As far as I could tell, no one did.
After briefly considering whether to find something else to do with my time, I stuck with mountain biking and grew to love it. Now I ride five days a week all summer and fall. I write about the sport and its colorful characters for magazines. Some of my favorite adventures involve pedaling a full-suspension rig on a remote trail, hungry, thirsty, beat up from crashing, kind of screwed in the mind, wondering how and where the day will end.
And inevitably on days like that, I come across at least one tourist, sometimes more, who looks like he just got off the bus from Amarillo and has a hundred questions but is too proud to ask them. This, in mountain-town-local parlance, is a “gaper.” (Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker that reminds fellow locals to “Love thy gaper”?)
I have never liked that term. It sounds negative to me. Plus, I have been the guy in the foreign place, gaping, literally, at the new and interesting sights, probably while driving like a grandmother. I don’t mind being a gaper, but I don’t think I should be chastised for it either. That’s why I have a problem with the term as it’s used in resort towns, no matter how well the stereotype fits a certain percentage.
The problem is that as human beings we’re wired to impose our will wherever we can. It’s instinctive, on some level, to claim superiority, and the outdoors is not immune, which is really too bad. Nature deserves better.
I refer to this as the outdoors relativity complex, and it goes beyond just calling tourists gapers. In fact, it exists in strikingly parallel form in towns across the country and throughout the world, bridging languages and cultures, sports and stereotypes.
The relativity stems from the way we get so concerned with where we stack up in nature that our competitiveness—trying to outdo the next guy—drains the experience of its actual benefit. I’m 35, so maybe it doesn’t sound so curmudgeonly when I say it baffles me to see a runner or biker going so fast down a trail that not only does he not have time to say hello to someone going up, but neither to yield.
The line between instinct and intent gets blurry, but it’s easy to take oneself too seriously. It happens to all of us, myself included. The ego is built into the brain. It gets hungry. So we feed it. But in doing so, we drift from the beauty of coexistence and develop a less compassionate grasp of what being outside is all about.
This tendency exists in the rest of life too. For as long as I’ve understood socioeconomic class structure, I have wanted to end up stranded on an island with Donald Trump, armed with more survival know-how than he, and observe him gradually come to terms with how helpless such a rich man can be sans credit card and communication. Wouldn’t you pay to watch that?
Overzealous outdoorsmen often fit familiar molds: the über-competitive guy or girl who can’t just go for a casual run or ride, no matter what they say at the trailhead. The climber who chides someone who’s still dialing in his rope work. The skier who heckles beginners from the chairlift.
Funny, isn’t it, how we focus on whom we’re better than, instead of who’s better than us? Why else do so many average athletes enter races if not to see how many people they can beat? The psychologists at Strava know this. If you only cared how fast you could do something, stopwatches would still be in vogue and king of the mountain would still be a game kids played on snowbanks in the schoolyard.
What those who draw their entire self-worth from their place on a results sheet miss is that there is only one person on earth who’s the best at something, and only one who’s the worst at something. Everyone else falls in between—each of us is faster than some, slower than others. Yes, you may rank substantially higher on that list than your fellow local trail users, but it can help to remember there are plenty of people elsewhere who would crush you. As one of my ski chums says when he hears people brag about their conquests, “Don’t be too proud. Somebody probably did it decades ago in leather boots and on skinny skis.”
The outdoors relativity complex doesn’t consume everyone, of course. Plenty of men and women exhibit a genuinely humble attitude, including elites who win races. But for those who do get consumed, the complex can drive everything they do, sapping the fun and beauty.
It is also related, indirectly, to the “how long have you lived here” status symbol—a misguided favorite in resort towns, whose communities are built around residents’ shared interests, not tenure. Plus, longevity is relative. How do you think the elk feel when they hear some 25-year-old get all puffy because he’s been here six years and someone who’s only been here four is trying to tell him about the trail network?
Stifling pride, as it were, takes conscious effort and doesn’t feel as good. The ego wants.
Let it want.
Sometimes we need to simmer down, gape at our surroundings like tourists, and remember that we’re in the greatest place there is: outside.