The first time you visit a new wild place is ripe with opportunity and fraught with high expectations. You don’t know when or if you’ll ever be back, so there’s the temptation to “do it all”, to cross it off the checklist — but nature’s not something you can cross off. It’s never complete, never fully understood.
We’ve all asked it — “What’s the one thing I have to do before I go?” While this is useful for prioritizing, it can be a dangerous mindset.
I spent a summer working at Muir Woods National Monument as an intern interpretive ranger. The park, just north of San Francisco, is visited by over a million people each year, many for only an hour as a stop on a tour bus. Tourists would gush from the bus door with the admonition to be back in an hour. We rangers were tasked with helping them appreciate the forest as much as they could in that time by presenting short talks, strolling around the park to answer questions, and staffing a naturalist information table.
Muir Woods is a redwood forest tucked away in a small valley; I cannot count the number of visitors who demanded to see the tallest tree. “All the trees are tall,” we’d tell them; yes, one tree was the tallest, but we wanted people to focus on the forest as a whole. Highlighting the tallest tree would transform it into the park’s “attraction”, drawing traffic and attention to the detriment of the rest of the forest.
On your first visit, everything is new — this is both opportunity and risk. Every turn offers a new wonder – but the onslaught of amazement can cause shell shock that numbs you to the wonders you’re seeing.
It’s a human conceit to imagine that we could see all of a place at one time, to think we could know a place after one visit. Biologist and nature writer David Haskell randomly picked “mandalas” of forest — 1 yard circles — and spent a year visiting each spot. In just one small place, a segment of no particular note, he observed the small motions of nature, building his understanding of the forest through these deeply experienced tableaus.
Next time you visit a new wild place, try on his mindset — in the smallest piece of the wild there is enough to spend a year observing – and focus on richly experiencing and enjoying the part that you have time to see. Note the details. Don’t let yourself be rushed.
This year, after four years stymied by cancelled trips, late season snow, and failed planning, I finally made it to Mount Rainier. I was tempted to pack the weekend with excursions to all corners of the park, but I remembered my days at Muir Woods. I didn’t need to be the tourist who “saw it all” in a weekend. I could trust that I would return, and that I could focus this trip on one attraction: the wildflowers. I let myself focus in on one main hike, immersing myself through photography. A taste of the mountain was enough to inspire me to make sure my next trip will be sooner than four years from now.