I've always had a somewhat difficult relationship to nature. I don't do terribly well outdoors except within a narrow temperature/humidity band and under tightly controlled circumstances. I don't even like to eat at a sidewalk cafe unless I am (a) in Europe; or (b) it's precisely 76 degrees with no wind and plenty of shade, and the seating area is far enough from the street that the food doesn't end up tasting like exhaust fumes.
When I was a child, we were a camping family. We went on lengthy hikes with heavy backpacks and spent long weekends sleeping in tents under the stars, eating GORP and singing around a campfire. I seem to recall enjoying these trips, except for the one when I was about five and we got hopelessly lost on a miles-long hike (my dad maintains to this day that he knew exactly where we were at all times but that the trail did not appear where it should have according to the map -- in any event, I recall slogging through enormous fields of shoulder-high grass (was it wheat? I don't know) in deadening heat and knocking on the door of the first house we came upon to ask for directions or a ride back to our campsite). I learned to cross-country ski in the front yard of our house in Illinois when I was two or three, using broom handles as poles, and at some point before I was six we skiied around my aunt and uncle's orchard in the bitter Midwestern cold. We didn't downhill ski, but in college I dated a boy who was into downhill skiing, ergo I learned to ski. I spent some school breaks out West shussing through powder, freezing my butt off and praying that I wouldn't blow out my knee or break a wrist.
I love beaches for the most part, but if it's too hot or too buggy, I'm out, and I prefer a beach that has a nearby pool so I don't have to risk stepping on or being stung/eaten by any living creatures. So really, my preferred beach scenario is one on a secluded stretch of sand (preferably floury white sand that doesn't burn the dickens out of my feet or stick all over everything and get in the potato chips) where someone sets up a padded lounge chair for me with an enormous shade umbrella and periodically brings me frosty beverages and a cool towel. Also if I sit out in the sun too long, I break out in full-body hives that itch more than anything could possibly itch. I am literally allergic to the sun.
As far as hiking, two of the most memorable hikes of my adulthood have been one during college in the north Georgia mountains when the aforementioned skiing boyfriend and I took an 11-mile out-and-back trail and in the middle of our trudge back to the trailhead a storm opened up and it absolutely poured rain and started lightning all over the place. We had to sprint the several miles along a root-filled ridgeline trail and I about had a heart attack from the fear of being struck by lightning or a falling limb. Then, in 2009 when Joe and I went to Hawaii, we elected to spend a day hiking some crazy 12-mile trail in the state park over near Waimea Canyon on Kauai. It truly was a spectacular route and we only saw maybe two other people the whole day (which itself made me nervous), and for the first half of the time, we were energized and awestruck, marveling at the views once we got out to the promontory from which you could see the coastline and the thousand-foot-plus drop-offs on either side. At a few points, I had to crawl along the trail because it felt too precarious to stand, and then a portion of it along a sheer cliff face turned out to be impassable, so we retraced our steps back along the way we'd come in, and we ran out of water with many miles left to go, and it was hot and uphill and a few times I just wanted to hole up among the roots of a tree and decompose into the earth rather than continue.
Oh, and there was also that time in Costa Rica when I was convinced I heard a mountain lion/panther growling at us and was certain that I was about to get my face ripped off by a savage jungle cat and I sent us tearing through the rainforest trail in a hot panic, but in fact it turned out to be...a hummingbird.
All this to say, running every day and taking long family strolls in Central Park, where I can enjoy the seasons changing and even see some benign wildlife (raccoons, the occasional possum, at least one feral cat over the years, ducks and geese and herons and cormorants and...other birds, and of course rats), and never be more than an hour's walk from home or a five minute's walk from an ice cream vendor, suits me perfectly. So when we go to a place like the Grand Canyon as we did for spring break this year, even hewing to the most populous areas with paved trails and plentiful snack bars, I have to spend some time outside my comfort zone.
The best preparation for a trip to the Grand Canyon is to read the series of postcards from Swistle's mom during her trip there in 2009. I had not re-read them before our trip, but I remembered much of the content and pulled up the actual posts during our first hour or so in the National Park, then read them to my husband because they captured the whole scene so perfectly. Fortunately, we went at a less crowded time of year (mid-March) but we soon understood why: it was about 30 degrees for most of the time and during the course of 48 hours, we endured hail, sleet, snow, wind, fog, rain, and lightning.
Nevertheless, the canyon is truly spectacular. Many people described it to me as surreal, and it is. You cannot really comprehend how vast the thing is, even when you're standing right at the edge of it. The light plays tricks depending on the time of day, so some of the vertical surfaces look almost flat, and the distances are difficult to figure. From most viewpoints, you can't see the bottom. What you can see, though, is a lot of fools standing RIGHT on the edge of a SHEER CLIFF with a three-thousand foot (or more) drop, taking photos or dangling their feet over the edge as if their lives are not in utter peril. I nearly had a nervous breakdown in the first five minutes after our arrival, and I actively contemplated buying some sort of tether to connect Felicity to my person at all times. She is a very obedient, careful child, but even so the lack of railings or fences or walls or any safety precautions whatsoever along the rim made me wish I could actually put her back inside my body somehow.
We hiked the Rim Trail both days (one look down the Bright Angel trail, which is not even a technical hike and people of average fitness can handle at least a mile or two of it, and I said, "NOPE!"). Much of the trail was a healthy distance from the edge, but in one direction it was much steeper and closer to the rim than I was comfortable with. I ended up gripping Felicity by the shoulders and walking directly behind her. I had to do extremely stern self-talk to keep myself from spiraling into a panic attack. We walked at a shuffle at the worst parts and I am not ashamed to tell you that I almost cried a few times. So it seems that I am afraid of heights. Now we know. I'm just saying that a shoulder-height retaining wall would do a lot of good at the Grand Canyon. (We also bought, pretty much first thing, the book in the gift shop that tells the myriad ways that people have died at the Canyon over the years. In the month before our arrival, another poor soul had been lost while taking a photo and a few months before that, a woman had fallen off the Bright Angel trail to her death when she moved aside to let another hiker past. I am just saying, my fear is quite rational in this specific instance.)
The second day of our stay, I started to come down with the virus that Felicity had had for the first leg of our trip (more on that another day). I was not at all sorry to spend the afternoon lying in bed reading and not risking life and limb. Our room had a direct view of the Canyon, after all, so I wasn't really missing a thing.