Free on the Outside

A sense of elsewhere and that feeling of dislocation—why the imagery of the great outdoors has endured.  
Editorial 6
Photo by: Buena Vista Images/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The great outdoors, around which our November edition pivots, is a deceptive catch-all, as such phrases tend to be. In day-to-day conversations, anything from after-school camping trips to sailing in the waters of Papua New Guinea risks being lumped in the same breath. But whoever put their mind to the term was no doubt thinking of great with a capital G. They were dreaming of outdoors that offer as much dislocation as possible. Where snow peaks rise out of clouds and canyons plunge the recesses of the earth.

Geoff Dyer, one of travel journalism’s finest exponents, calls this a “sense of elsewhere.” Writing of an aunt, who sent him postcards from the southwest of America when he was in school, he recalls, “Hilda sent me brochures from places like the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest and Monument Valley. These were landscapes I had glimpsed in Westerns, but the fact that someone I knew had been to them—had proved that they were real—gave me my first real sense of elsewhere.”

My elsewhere memory from childhood doesn’t conjure anywhere near the same eloquence but it was just as resonant. One of my father’s favourite films was David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps a result of spending over a decade in the Middle East. He often sent long letters from his travels and, in one of them, he mentioned setting eyes on the desert for the first time, and feeling as if he was having his own T. E. Lawrence moment.

Years later, watching the classic was an equally transporting experience. Each time, Lean’s camera dissolved from close-ups of Peter O’Toole’s mysteriously phlegmatic Lawrence to the sunlit sand dunes, bleeding out of the 70mm screen as it were, the impact was transcendent. For me, the desert was as elementally stark as outdoors got, Martian in its unfamiliarity and removed from all modern signifiers of life.

Narratives dedicated to the outdoors must, therefore, pin down what it is like to be swept up in the enormity of nature. In this issue, trekkers will identify with one writer’s exultations at the end of her journey to the Everest Base Camp. A mind-expanding immersion in Australia’s Northern Territory is peppered with characters who gave up urban comforts for a life in the wild.

In the less-frequented parts of Yellowstone National Park, another solo traveller descends into solitude. We also encounter a different Hong Kong, hiding green bounty beyond its skyline. Somerset Maugham believed that the wise traveller only travelled in his or her imagination. It’s true, the latter is unmatched but even a fevered imagination can only be nourished from being in the great outdoors.

  • Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

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