Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Great American Outdoors

The heart of a country lies in its landscape. When I was a kid in elementary school I learned about all of United States of America’s vast range of geographic features: rolling hills and forests and grasslands and prairie land of Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, all from ‘sea to shining sea’. This famous phrase comes out of the song from Katharine Lee Bates’ 'America the Beautiful' (1893), a patriotic song familiar to most Americans, to which today I still know by heart the tune and lyrics:

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties. Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea!

But for all the wonderful natural landscapes that I learned as a kid growing up in America, I have never had the opportunity to see them firsthand. Most of my life is spent in the urban metropolis of New York City, and studying/working in San Francisco, Hong Kong, and the last five years in Paris. Bubbled in concrete buildings, mazes of people, mixed noises of cars, and mass transportation, I rarely know a time that is quiet, or a view that is empty. So used to urban life, I sometimes wondered if I could ever be anywhere else. Now as I get older and am settled in one location, it occurred to me, as I’m a filmmaker making films on both the man-made and the natural environment, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to learn more about the latter. Thus this is how I started my quest to discover the Great American Outdoors.

This weekend a group of us embarked on a day winter hike and it was ensured to me that it would be a one-of-a-kind experience. Mount Monadnock, the chosen destination is most climbed mountain in North America, and the second most climbed mountain in the world after Japan's Mt. Fuji. Located at 3,100 feet in southwestern New Hampshire, the word "monadnock" originally comes from the Abnacki Indian language meaning "mountain that stands alone." As a filmmaker needs her camera, a Tour de France cycler needs his bike, a chef needs his wok, a soccer player needs his ball - - a winter hiker needs her gear. We made a quick stop to REI, the #1 chosen retailer for quality outdoor gear to get the essential items. Once I entered the store I understood why it is haven for outdoor enthusiasts; they have everything! Snow pants, long underwear, heavy jacket, neck warmers, hats, boots, etc. Somehow felt compelled that this first hike is going to be the beginning of a lifetime of outdoor adventures, I signed up to become a lifetime member. The membership immediately gave me great discounts on my rented crampons. My curious reader may ask: What is a crampon? I would eagerly reply: It is a spiked iron/steel framework that is attached to the bottom of a boot to prevent slipping when walking or climbing on ice and snow.

Winter hiking on Mt. Monadnock is truly unique. The amazing tree-free views stretch far into the distance into surrounding New England states of Vermont and Massachusetts, because the mountain "stands alone”. Because of the winter weather and the snow, it discourages most people from coming. During our hike, we saw very few people and really got to enjoy the view of the natural landscape. Water running through the stream. The vast sky. The fresh air. The white snow. Not a sound at all. I was in total awe of where I was and felt utter joy. I now can understand how the snow, the trees, just Nature, have inspired so many great literature and poetry. I was also pleasantly surprised to find how comfortable I am at hiking and climbing and strategizing how to move through the snow in my crampons. I was at ease being in the middle of nowhere – to get away from the civilization, that of cars, buildings, people, Internet – even the cell phone had no reception. I had time to think and ponder my place in this world. And at times, I would just stand still, not do any thinking at all, and just enjoy the view. Just those moments are so precious. Coming downhill, we decided to let go of our crampons and just slide down in some parts. The thrill! The turn! We laughed so much! For a few moments we group of adults felt just like kids.

The winter hike on Mount Monadnock is a discovery into myself. I realized how comfortable and at peace I am with Nature. “REI is helping build a lasting legacy of trails, rivers, and wild lands for generations to come, supporting programs to help people of all ages and experiences participate“. Environmentalists would also applaud the need to preserve the beauty of Nature for the next and future generations. I, as an environmental filmmaker also agree. But I, as the new outdoor lover, want the natural environment to be protected not just for the next generation – I want it protected for our present generation too. Nature offers us so much beauty to discover and to experience; it would be great tragedy for us to lose it in this lifetime.

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