The Polar Vortex and Nature as Gym

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted with permission.)

I’ve done this; I’ll admit it.

I’ve made fun of people who exercise inside. There was one of those Facebook graphics circulating through the cycling world a while back that said something like, “Have fun driving to the gym so you can ride the indoor bicycle.”

Why, I’ve wondered, wouldn’t you hit the trails, or at least the sidewalks? Why look at CNN with the sound off when you can experience, in person, the winter sunlight slanting through the branches? Why listen to grunting and gasping and that mechanical whirring when there are leaves that crunch underfoot like potato chips? Why smell…gym smells…when there’s that frosty tingle in the nose, or the faint depth of wood smoke?

Like many opinions, this one can veer easily into self-righteousness. And also like many opinions, a little shot of reality, if perceived and processed appropriately, can halt that self-righteousness in its tracks.

On the Mountain, of course, that reality arrived with the polar vortex, bringing sub-zero temps for the first time in decades. As with ice storms, tornadoes, heat waves, or floods, the historic cold gave us pause. Our layering practices, designed for temperatures in the teens, were no longer sufficient. We even had to worry about (some of) our dogs’ ability to cope in the cold.

And so, I found it necessary to take a look at how I feel about where I choose to play.

We’re lucky enough to live where temperate conditions are our gift, and where those who spend time outside can usually relax into the joyful interaction with nature that study after study have shown is so good for us, body, soul, and spirit.

But it’s not the sterile safety of the workout facility. Things can happen out there that aren’t a concern on the elliptical machine, from bites to stings to plants to exposure. Mindfulness is required. So is humility.

There’s something not quite right, really, with treating the woods as your gym. To do so is to be disrespectful of what which we claim to value: the outdoor world, with all its plants and animals, sights, smells, sounds, insights, revelations, joys. It treats nature as our subordinate, as our tool or plaything. It makes nature part of our arsenal of fun, like bikes and skis and boats.

This isn’t just wrongful, in my view. It’s also not very smart.

The recent deep-freeze has reminded me that although we’ve managed to protect ourselves from much of what nature can do, it ultimately has the upper hand. We can be flooded, frozen, or baked right out of our established lives. We might have to run for shelter, knowing that there are some forces we can’t control.

It’s enough to make anyone head for the stationary bike.