There was a time when anywhere inside was the least likely place to find me. Spring, summer, fall, or winter, I was outside, in the woods or on the water, kicking up leaves or tunneling through the snow.
I grew up in Michigan, not far from the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and just a few miles south of the Au Sable State Forest. For a Boy Scout who loved nothing better than camping, canoeing, and horseback riding — in general just disappearing into the woods — it was nirvana.
Fast forward a few decades. There I was, more than 900 miles from my winter wonderland, staring into a computer screen with the air conditioning on and wondering why I felt so miserable.
I will be the first to admit that I made poor choices along the way. But losing touch with the great outdoors — the oldest touchstone in life — that was the worst of the lot.
My saving grace arrived in the form of a friend prying me out of my chair and hauling me up to the Blue Ridge Mountains one autumn.
“All right, Jaz,” she said. “You’re always whining about how you wish you had spent your youth learning the hiking trails of the American Southeast, instead of the bars of East Bay Street, and becoming a humble chronicler of the natural world, yeah?”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” I said.
“Well, here’s the natural world, and here you are — in the middle of it. So what excuse do you have?”
Damn. The truth can slap down hard, can’t it?
It was a come-to-Jesus, moment — I’ll give it that. All at once, I remembered how I used to walk for miles when I was a kid; how I used to follow rivers and watch the water eddy around rocks and speed up or slow down wherever it narrowed or widened. I remembered the ease of mind I used to feel.
And I felt like a fool for letting that slip through my fingers all those years ago.
How do you fix something like that? I tried sending a message back in time to my younger self, but apparently that only works in science fiction flicks.
So I made a decision — no more wasted time — and began working my brain over ways to support my rediscovered habit. The light bulb flashed on: by pitching travel and outdoors articles to my editors, I could fund more and more of these trips.
This came as a surprise to editors who were expecting clever Jaz to return from his vacation, not the new Bill Bryson. “Easy, tiger,” said the hand that signs the paychecks. “You want to write what now?”
Okay, so life immediately after my great awakening didn’t look a whole lot different than life before, only now I had subscriptions to Backpacker and Outside, hiking boots in my closet, and a plan rattling around in the back of my skull.
I started seeking out people in Charleston whose lives revolved around a passion for the coast and writing those stories, tales that spoke not only of the natural beauty all around us but also of how precarious the balance between preservation and progress can be.
I began hitching rides on shrimp boats in the wee hours of the morning not only to learn about the economic troubles facing the local shrimp fishermen but also — I’ll admit it — just to see the stars and the sunrise on the water, just to see the pods of dolphins up close and taste the salt in the air.
I started walking the Ravenel Bridge and attending yoga classes on a regular basis — all conditioning and training for the trails. It keeps me honest. It reminds me that the picture of who I want to be will only come into focus if I work toward it every day.
Everything from the Cherokee Foothills to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is only a short drive away. Charleston County Parks and Recreation has a calendar chock full of activities. The Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is just up the road. The list goes on and on.
The simple fact of the matter is that all of these things have always been here. All I had to do was get off my butt and out of the house in order to appreciate them.
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