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A Midwesterner Reconnects With The Outdoors

by Sophie Shemas

“I think the real question here is, do you know how to camp?”

At first I just laughed because it seemed ridiculous. Of course I know how to camp. How could I work here if I don’t know how to camp, right? But that question didn’t go away. It sat in the pit of my stomach, carving its own little corner out of my self-confidence because I knew that I couldn’t quite convincingly reply “yes”.

Growing up in Ohio, my exposure to outdoor recreation was limited to summer camps and whatever heavily sanitized field trips my teachers planned to nearby parks and ponds. I wasn’t all that great at fishing, though my mother tells me that I did, in fact, catch a fish on my first outing with my Girl Scout troop at Camp Ken-Jockety. Along the way though, I found a love for digging in the dirt and rolling in the grass. I learned the best techniques for making dandelion bracelets, and I even grew an appreciation for plenty of creepy, crawly things, as long as they had less than eight legs.

Driving through the rolling hills of eastern Ohio to visit family, I also developed a longing for the solitude of open spaces, something I couldn’t find in my suburban hometown. I stared out onto acres and acres of tree-studded farmland with melancholic envy, thinking how peaceful it must be to escape from the noise and sit in the middle of everything, with the cows, the corn, and even the bugs. As I grew older and traded away much of my time outdoors for academic extracurriculars and eventually, college in a big city, I noticed that feeling would never truly subside.

There are countless reasons I feel grateful to be living in New Mexico. Number one on that list—with green chile coming in at a close second—are our public lands and the endless outdoor recreation opportunities they provide. I’ve been given a chance to rediscover my childhood passions and finally enjoy the solitude of our open spaces. But as I start this journey, I’m realizing how much I still have to learn, and I’m hardly alone.

This summer, we held a handful of outings to fish, hike, and camp with students from Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Though simply living in a state with extensive public lands has given these kids a leg up on the outdoor knowledge I had at their age, many of them had no access to the guidance or opportunities needed to become immersed in outdoor recreation. Some hadn’t even touched mud before. So it gave me pride to not only provide what will hopefully be a formative experience for them, but to learn alongside them as well.

As for my individual journey, I’m slowly becoming an amateur nature photographer (heavy emphasis on the word amateur) and though I’m still not sure I have a knack for fishing, I’ve discovered that for some reason, I really enjoy putting worms on fishing hooks . I’ve made some mistakes along the way—most notably, the 4am chill of a night in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument taught me that I do indeed sleep cold enough to justify splurging on a 15-degree sleeping bag. I’m hardly a sportswoman, but in me, New Mexico has unearthed a newfound appreciation for our nation’s natural landscapes and sparked a quest to explore them.

I’ve always had a love for nature and open spaces, but as I approach one year of living in New Mexico, I’m thankful for the places and the people who have helped me fall in love with outdoor recreation. I’m excited not only to grow this new passion, but to inspire it in others who may also be asking themselves, “Do I even know how to camp?” After all, we all start somewhere, and I couldn’t be luckier to be starting here.