I have been home from Utah for 13 days, and discover that I am stricken with an incurable disease. I’ve named it Wildophilia, although doubtless its victims throughout history have given it other names. It is relentless and progressive. It starts out harmlessly enough with a liking for the outdoors, and a deep appreciation for natural beauty. Sneakily, it triggers the release of a goodly amount of endorphins when some outdoor activity is particularly enjoyable: the beginning of the addiction. (Rather like the tobacco companies lacing cigarettes with nicotine.)
Signs and symptoms are subtle at first. Mowing the lawn is more pleasant than washing the floor. You may acquire a dog just so you can walk her. When you read a book (about adventure or the outdoors, often), you sit in the lawn chair or hammock instead of indoors. You choose a house in the woods rather than in a treeless development. You fix up your old bike and use it for exercise, rather than the treadmill in your basement. You are drawn to bird-watching, and love a good hiking trail. You find yourself requiring more natural light than your companions need. Your camera’s photographs are of nature instead of people.
As the insidious disease takes hold, you may find yourself taking up running, a sport you’ve never tried before, just to get you outside. Any invitation to a river or lake beats out the nicest golf course, tennis court, or bowling alley. You drive with your car windows open rather than sealing yourself into an A/C-controlled environment. A two-mile hike may take an hour or more, since you stop to investigate every new mushroom, spider web, fern frond, cool cloud formation, tree root, rivulet with water striders and minnows and crayfish. If you paint, you find yourself with your brushes and canvas en plein air, in the open air. You turn off your beloved classical music in order to hear the April spring peepers singing their hearts out. Patients may find themselves sympathizing with archetypal animals of the wilderness, such as wolves.
In later stages, you realize that you are different from your friends. You find yourself sleeping outside at every reasonable opportunity; your sleeping bag on the cot on the porch becomes home each night. On a moment’s notice, you find yourself throwing gear into your vehicle willy-nilly so you can get away to a new place to explore, a place without creature comforts, but with nature in its best and most beautiful forms. Maybe you become a trained weather spotter, since you are thrilled by storms and marvel at their power. You buy a star chart and start seeing the night sky in a new way.
The physical signs include breathlessness and heart palpitations, either when outdoors in a special place, or when prevented from experiencing wildness. Sighing is frequent. Perceptual irregularities include hallucinatory tendencies in which the sufferer perceives indoor environments in black and white, and outdoors in technicolor.
There is no cure. Wildness has worked its way into the colloidal network that holds every cell to every other cell. Once the disease takes hold, it is permanently in the patient’s body/soul/spirit. Treatments are aimed at ameliorating the unpleasant symptoms of Wilderness Withdrawal, and include regular doses of nature and exploration, in a variety of forms and places, sometimes solo and other times with other sufferers. The disease can be contagious, spread through close contact and shared activities.
I’ve got it bad.