I have never hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon nor climbed past Yosemite’s Vernal Falls. I have not camped out in the wilds, ridden rapids or climbed steep canyon walls looking for petroglyphs. But I have stood in dinosaur footprints, waded in the Colorado River, and walked through the ruins at Chaco National Park. As I see it, such wanderings qualify me as a naturalist, even though I don’t often stray far from the roadside. What matters is that I seek Nature’s comfort and spirituality.
Fortunately, this quest is not difficult. At the beginning of every summer, I take off for a Nature and Solitude Retreat, just to rejuvenate my soul. On those trips I head for the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or maybe Canyon de Chelly. One year I toured the Acoma Pueblo; this year I visited Monument Valley. But I could just as easily delight over a drive along Route 66 or down the Big Sur Coastline. Where I go does not matter—as long as I focus on Nature.
I don’t even have to go on a trip to experience that refreshing connection. At least once a week, I spot a red-tailed hawk circling over my morning commute. Any weekend I can breeze through the Los Angeles County Arboretum, finding peacocks on display or some new flower in bloom. On the morning of the Northridge Earthquake, at about 6 am, most of us from my Chatsworth apartment complex were still sitting out by the cracked pool, avoiding the shattered darkness of our homes. But as the morning brightened, there it was: a tree in bloom, offering a silent protest against the morning’s jarring destruction. Even the mocking birds were chattering away like it was any other day. How could my spirits not be lifted?
But being aware of my natural surroundings is not automatic. I am often rushed and pre-occupied. If I can forget a loved one’s birthday, I can certainly block out the Wonders of Nature without much effort. Therefore, I try to remind myself to stop and smell the roses. Although an obvious cliché, it’s still good advice. For a start, I try to consciously put nature on my agenda. At night, instead of watching the same old reruns again and again, I take a walk and notice the moon and the stars. It’s best to make a wish! Or I try to get up fifteen minutes early to feed the birds outside the window or to notice the bright blue sky before the smog settles in for the day. The colors and sounds and textures of Nature are always there, if only we take the time to notice. Even the little things help, like putting a fresh flower on my office desk.
Whenever I do plan activities away from home, I always keep Nature in mind. It’s easy to do; after all, Nature is just waiting to be explored. For example, for me, a trip to Las Vegas is not complete unless I also visit Red Rock Canyon that lies about 20 minutes outside the city. On my last trip, I was lucky: I won $20 and saw a herd of wild mustang that calls that area home. Another time, I ventured a bit further—maybe two hours—to the Valley of Fire. Yes, it is as spectacular as it sounds. I especially like the rock formation called Elephant Rock.
The point is that everywhere has some natural setting to escape to. Whenever I travel, I check for parks through cities, counties, and universities. For example, there’s a great arboretum at Washington State University in Seattle and some extensive rose gardens in Portland, Oregon. Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon, is a wondrous place. Perfect for leisurely strolls. If you get there early enough, you may awaken the many ducks and swans that make the ponds their home. Bring bread crumbs!
Finding such places to visit is easy enough by checking tour books and maps of the area. Of course, AAA is a great source for such materials. But I also contact the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, since “birders” tend to know the prettiest areas to visit. In fact, any locals you can talk to will often give great advice. Without it, I never would have discovered a back road to Gold Beach, Oregon. But is proved to be a stupendous drive, full of gorgeous wildflowers and numerous butterflies.
Knowing where to find Nature is not the only thing that allows for a grand adventure. I also need enough time. Time to wait, to notice, to watch. It’s hard to really enjoy Nature if you have to watch the clock so you can rush off to an appointment. To allow a leisurely pace, I usually figure I need a four or five hour block of play time. The plan usually includes watching a sunrise or sunset, but such scheduling is not always possible.
I do try, however, to schedule times during early mornings and late afternoons because I am interested in more than just scenery. Those are the times when more animals and birds are active. For example, outside Tucson, Arizona, I once shared an evening picnic area with a large covey of quail, some persistent jays and a squirrel.
Anytime of day, however, can give me a slice of Nature to make my own. For example, it was about noon on a hot desert afternoon when I say a coyote. He was too hot to care that I was following him along the road for a mile or so. Eventually he slowly wandered away into the brush, but he was forever captured on the pages of my journal—along with the yellow-headed blackbirds I fed at a parking area in Yellowstone National Park, the bear I saw at a distance at Yosemite National Park, and the golden eagle I watched along the highway as it soared against an azure sky in New Mexico.
Finally, to make the most of my sojourns into Nature, I always bring along two things: a camera and a journal. Binoculars are a nice addition as well. These items help me capture my thoughts, ideas, and experiences for later reflection. Besides, sitting quietly for the few minutes it takes ti write that journal entry or to contemplate the best photo angle is often all it take to entice birds and animals back into action. Sometimes right at my feet. For example, on an afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park, I took the time to entice a prairie dog out into the meadow with me. This species is an endangered animal that lives only in Utah, making the encounter all the more special.
Patience is such a great companion. But perhaps the best tool for an effective Nature Adventure is simply a fine-tuned sense of Wonder. As Albert Einstein says, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead, his eyes are closed.” When I look with my heart as well as my eyes, I am never disappointed.
I invite you to be a Roadside Naturalist whenever you can. It is a great adventure!
Where are your favorite places to travel and enjoy Nature?
*END NOTE: I first wrote this piece about being a Roadside Naturalist 18 years ago. This year, when I once again took a long driving trip into Nature, I was still contemplating Nature, Wonder and Spirituality. Thus, I decided to share my earlier musing via my blog.