I have spent years enjoying the wonder of wandering, traveling back and forth across this beautiful country by foot, on the water, and in my truck. I have been asked the same questions over and over:
“When are you coming back?”
“Are you ready to settle down now?”
“What are you going to do this time?”
“I hope you find what you are looking for!”
I grew up in the small town of Gastonia, NC, but I was fortunate enough to have woods, creeks and Crowders Mountain State Park close by. My parent were not outdoors people and we did not go on camping trips when I was younger, so I am not sure where my love for the outdoors come from.
I love sleeping outside (this includes anything from my first tent to the motor coach we live in full time today). I think I slept outside as I was growing up more than I did in my bed. My mom would wake me up to go to school when I would sleep on the back porch. I loved sleeping in the backyard under the stars. As I got older I joined the Boy Scouts and achieved my Eagle Scout rank. During this time the wander lust really hit hard. Growing up, my best friend Louis and I started riding bikes. We learned how to read topo maps and we were off, always planning our weekend rides of 60-100 miles on Saturday and Sunday, studying the maps and wondering what things were out there for us to explore. Before the bikes we were confined to our feet and where our moms would take us, god bless them and all their gray hairs now. Our bikes took us all over Gaston county, the Blue Ride Parkway, and at age fifteen a 215-mile trip to North Myrtle Beach (our moms followed as support team).
My interest and knowledge of the outdoors grew rapidly. Somewhere around age thirteen, I started rock-climbing. This meant adding more gear to the growing pile of camping, backpacking and biking gear that was taking over my room. The 1980s were an exciting time to start exploring the vertical world of climbing. I was blessed to get to climb with the guys featured in the climbing guide book call Southern Rock that I kept checking out from the library.
My oldest sister loves telling the story on how we told Louis’s dad that she was experienced rock climber (HAHAHA) so she could take us to go climbing at Crowders Mountain State Park. We taught her how to belay, tied her to a tree, and we climbed all day. Not long after this Louse got his driver’s license and use of the old wood panel station wagon – we were free!
Outdoor Experiences of all Kinds
I was not only spending time outside enjoying nature, I was learning how to give back and understand the importance of protecting and educating others about our wilderness. I was involved with my scout troop in service projects to protect our lands and educate the public. For several years I worked with the Schiele Museum on restoring the Golden Eagle to the Black Balsam area of Pisgah National Forest. I started working at Crowders Mountain State Park in the summer and on weekends. I spent a week backpacking the AT, two weeks in New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch, did a two-week road trip to climb Mt. Rainier, went on a 30-day NOLS course in the Windriver Mountain Range in Wyoming, and participated in countless other trips, classes, and experiences. I continued to grow, explore and expand my knowledge to earn a degree in Forest Resource Management. I was constantly looking to fill my time with nature.
Wonder of Wandering
I did manage to have a girlfriend for six years in high school and college but in the end, she lost out; my need to wander was too great. Have you ever gone for a “Sunday drive” and keep saying we will turn around after the next bend? Then you go around the bend and say the next one. We have time I promise the next one. Or you are on the trail and say, “It’s just a little further. I promise we are almost there!” or “I wonder what the view is like from over there?” My high school girlfriend just didn’t share in that enthusiasm.
I think John Muir said it best: The mountains are calling and I must go. and My days in the wilderness will live with me always. Everything there was so alive and familiar. Whoever gains the blessings of one mountain day is rich forever.
My mom has always told people, “Nelson will never be rich, but he will die happy.” I disagree – I am rich in life experiences beyond my wildest dreams!
When I finished college, I ended up in West Virginia working in forestry and found myself in the woods every day managing forest land. One of the highlights of the job was discovering old homesteads. Seeing the remote places people lived and pondering on the hardships they must have experienced. Or did they? Today we only have to flip a switch for light and turn a knob for water, hot or cold. To the homesteaders, it was just another day to chop wood to build a fire to heat the clean water they collected from the spring. Yes, I am sure it was a hard life and yet I believe it was simpler. Life was slower, no email, FB, 24/7 connection with instant gratification or ‘free two-day delivery’ conveniences and hassles we have today.
The Questions Continue
“You are going to do what?”
“But what about…..?”
“Go and get it out your system.”
These were the things I heard from family and friends as my love of wilderness and the outdoors kept growing.
By this time, I usually had my own page in my friends’ address books (this was before we stored everything electronically in cell phones). Friends and family wrote my contact information in pencil.
Raft Guide with Hoods in the Woods
One year, I stored some things at my parent’s house and moved into the back of my truck to become a raft and outdoor education guide with a “Hoods in the Woods” program in the New River Gorge of West Virginia. I took youth-at-risk on four-day rafting trips, caving adventures, and climbing and hiking adventures. A tent in the woods was my home and the 20-foot oar frame gear boat carried me down the river. I had nothing but time. Trip after trip, the river supplied a new adventure. My “time off” was spent with other guides exploring other rivers, caves and rock walls in an endless journey to see what was around each next bend.
Trying the Typical “American Dream”
After several years of 24/7/365 cold, hot, rain, snow, and maybe a weekly shower I decided it might be time to chase the typical “American Dream” – you know the little white house with the white picket fence, dog in the yard, 9-to-5 job, wife and 2.5 kids. I managed to get all that (except for the kids). I had a great house, owned a very successful landscaping company, found a wife, and still traveled. Problem was, my soul was not being filled during this time in my life.
My wife and I move to Alaska hoping to fill the void, but we divorced shortly after with lots of life lessons learned. I continued to live in Alaska for four years working for the Division of Forestry. I was the Intern Coordinator for a summer work program for high school and college kids. This was a very rewarding job that got me back to my roots and allowed me to pass on my knowledge and experiences to our youth.
After one brutally dark and cold winter in Alaska, I decided to move back to North Carolina and try the American Dream again. I started Yellow Dog Construction Inc. Not sure what the hell I was thinking, but it was a quite a ride and I learned lots of life lessons. About five years into running my construction business, I reached the point in my life where it was just me, my dogs, and a truck that could take me anywhere (yes I lived in the back of this truck also for six mouths). I thought I was happy but ahead I only saw an endless string of roads with bends for me to go around. I wondered what it was all for.
Then it happen – I wondered/wandered around this bend and there she stood. On our second date I made her show me her kayak, hiking boots, backpack, and countless other outdoor gear (all well worn and often-used). And she drove a Subaru, LOL! Three months later we moved in together, and today you know her as my wife, soulmate, best friend who goes by the nickname Bean.
So to answer the questions the questions so many people have asked me over the years as I’ve wondered and wandered:
Yes, I have found what I am looking for. I will be back to visit. I have settled down (though it doesn’t look like most people would expect). And I am not sure where we are going next.
Where would we be if Christopher Columbus didn’t sail his ship? If Louis and Clark stayed at home? If John Muir ignored the call of the mountains? What if Martin Luther King stayed in his church?
Bean and I are now are wondering/wandering together in hopes to inspire YOU to go outside and see what waits for you around the bend.
I have found my American Dream. Have you found yours?
I will be sharing photos to hopefully inspire you to get out and explore. To fall so deeply in love with outdoors spaces and places that you want to protect them. We must protect our natural world for all to enjoy for generations to come.