Today I got up early to stand in a field and watch the sunrise. Barefoot, amongst the sparse grass and hard packed dirt, I watched the sky fade from deep blue to the soft pastels of a rising sun. Rose colored clouds drifted in and were gone before the first glints of gold peaked over the eastern ridge. The first rays of true light were filtering through the canyons long before the big ball of fire made its morning appearance.
The apprehension of a moment like this is indescribable. It’s a daily event I only rarely experience, especially in this manner, not in a car or from a building window, but a true to form, all in, experience. There was a line of trees I had no names for in front of me. Unfamiliar mountains built my anticipation with a fade in better than any movie. It was life.
I grew up in the city, in Los Angeles, where Hollenbeck Park was nature and the sun rose over the rich neighborhoods in the hills. It was a different experience. I was blessed in that my parents made it a priority to show us other places. They both grew up in the city too. They were conscious of knowing only concrete and glass. They wanted their kids to see beaches, deserts, and mountains. They were also lucky enough to have jobs that allowed them to afford the gas and the time off.
My first camping trips were up to Big Bear only a few hours from our house. We left before dawn and watched the sunrise through the car windows, that was a new marvel then. We missed traffic and arrived early enough for bacon and eggs over a campfire. The smell of burning wood accompanying the sizzle of bacon still brings me a sensation only described as a smile in my soul. It was family time. It was life.
Now that I am older I take trips on my own. I work to save money, go to national parks on the weekends, camp with friends, hike local trails in the evenings, whatever I can do to get beyond city limits on a budget. Most local parks are free and have marked hikes for short to medium lengths. I’d carpool with friends to split gas for farther destinations, take blankets instead of sleeping bags, bags of precooked spaghetti and leftover carne asada, fill old two-liter bottles with water and swipe one of the house flashlights for the weekend, whatever worked.
I had one tool, above all else, that enabled this though. It was a present my father gave me when I graduated high school, a recreation atlas. It was a $12 sale buy with the sticker still on it but it still serves me better than any GPS ever could. It came complete with maps of my entire state with all the hiking trails, recreation areas, public beaches, camp grounds, rv parks, state parks, national parks, golf courses, back roads and vista points anyone could ever want. It’s battered and torn now, with my own print-outs and inclusions marked in ink, proof of its service and my thanks. The atlas has become a sort of outdoor bible, leading me to more sunrises and unexpected understandings than I ever could have imagined.
I didn’t have the rancho of my grandfathers youth. I never knew the fields he did, never worked with the animals, or had to wash in the river. I didn’t know what that was like. I grew up in the city seeing my father leave for work with sleep blurred vision and my mother dropping us off early to get to work on time. Their struggles were different. Still, they were able to show me the value of being outside, the gift of nature.
My grandparents knew it inherently. That is how they survived. The land offered them everything they needed if they were will to work hard enough to obtain it. My parents knew its worth through years of absence, knowing not through what they had, but the experiences they lacked. My generation has come full circle. I have experienced nature through moments of beautiful clarity. Sunrises in unfamiliar territory. Shortcuts that turned out to be the scenic route. Forgotten tools that led to making due. Resilience and resourcefulness through self-study. These are values I hold in highest regard now.
The love of nature is in my blood. City life could not stamp it out. There is an anger and frustration I see in my fellows sometimes. It’s a animal inside with nowhere to run, no quiet place to retire to, no vast open space to let you know exactly how little you are. It may sound odd in those terms, but if nature did anything for me, it checked me. It let me know exactly how fragile life can be. The importance of food and water. The ability to improvise. The glory of a sunrise when you have no idea who you are.
Frank Thomas Cardenas is an LA based writer and media producer. His work examines the intersections of race, gender, class, and their relations to community, politics and the environment. You can see more of his work atchicanotraveler.wordpress.com or contact him at: FTCard7@gmail.com