On Going Nowhere

Kayaking mountain lake

By Tony Cross

So much of life is about progress. Think about it. Pick apart your day and try to come up with a part of it that doesn’t represent progress in some way. You get up, shower, drive to work. The entire point of work is forward movement and accomplishment. After work, you may be rushing to meet any number of deadlines - meals, kids’ sports practice, a movie starting time. There are always bills to pay, meals to make and then clean up, clothes to wash and then wear again. Progress.

What if you were to tell a friend that you stayed home all day and did nothing? How would they respond? They might ask if you were ok.

The outdoors are thought of as a place of respite from our daily lives, a retreat from the demands that burden us, from the constant forward movement. How many times have you felt, or heard someone say, that you need to go to nature to recharge or reconnect with yourself? It’s where many people go to abandon their daily lives, responsibilities, technologies. Not so many generations ago, human life was fully integrated with nature; the two weren’t separate. Now, much of “first world” humanity is segregated from nature, so it has become our exception, a hearkening back to a self that existed long before all of our memories. Nature: the place we go to find ourselves.

But as the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” We still carry ourselves with us into the outdoors, and with that, our constant hunger for progress. We plan backpacking trips around the accomplishment of mileage and elevation. We climb in order to summit peaks or pitches. We bike, run, ski, camp, all with our accomplishments in mind. And when we return to daily life, we tell the story of the quantities we’ve achieved in our retreat. Think of what it would be like to tell a friend, “I just hiked the John Muir Trail,” but not mention that it was 220 miles.

The very act of paddling is about going forward, about travel. For this reason, I often find myself in awkward conversations about paddling. When I tell people I have a boat, the only questions they ever ask are about quantifying the experience I have with it. What class rapids can it handle? Have you been down this or that river? How far have you paddled comfortably with it? How much gear can it fit?

Those are all really smart questions to ask about boats and paddling. But when asked where I plan to go in my boat, I’m met with furrowed brows when I answer, “a few hundred yards at most.”

I’m lucky to live near a lot of lakes; and those lakes are all situated inside national parks, national forests and other public lands. Many of them are surrounded by miles of untouched land. And what I like to do the most in my boat is paddle out to the middle of a lake, drift, and do nothing.

Kayaking alpine lake

Which leads me to the second type of awkward conversation I have about paddling. When asked why I only drift and go nowhere, my answer is that I value being transported. But I don’t mean being delivered from one place to another place.

In my experience, what’s hard about modern existence is a whole host of things that can be distilled into one word: noise. This could be literal noise, like a garbage truck at 2 am or an inconsiderate neighbor; but it also means the noise of technology, of daily life; the noise of bills, car repairs, doctor’s appointments. The noise of information. And there are good noises too: music, the excitement of a personal connection, the roar of a crowd.

When you paddle to the middle of a lake and do nothing, there’s no noise. Or rather, you can discover a different kind of noise.

Try it. There’s the lapping of water against the boat or the shore. Listen closely and you will hear that water is not just one sound, but rather a collection of constantly changing sounds, which the Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan calls, “symphony.”

Kayaking mountain lake

Maybe there will be birds or animals. Instead of only noticing a fly when it lands on your nose, you might hear it coming from yards away. There might be the voices of people, or other sounds of civilization that you can hear at astonishing distances (once, sitting in a forest in the middle of the night, I heard motorcycles that were at least 10 miles away).

If you’re lucky enough to have wind, the air will bring even more sounds to you: rustling leaves, a different tonality in the movement of water around you. Sometimes when I’m floating on one particular lake near my house, I can hear small rockfalls in the mountains thousands of feet above me.

It may not be accurate to even call it listening. I’m not trying to hear things. I just open my ears and follow along.

One of the benefits of listening like this is that it transports me out of the trappings of daily life. But it also dislocates me from the most common and pervasive noise of all: my thoughts. My entire mind focuses on, or perhaps surrenders to, a singular task: drifting and listening, for no reason, and to no end. Going nowhere.

Kayaking mountain lake

What I’m describing might sound like meditation, or what some call “deep listening,” and it is certainly based in those ideas. But you don’t need to go to a meditation class, or read a book designed to train you how to listen deeply and feel the most educated and practiced peace in the wilderness. You can just paddle somewhere on a boat, lift your oar out of the water, and follow your ears.