Thomas Porter: One Fateful Day - a return to nature

Hi. I wanted to tell you a story if you had a little time. It’s a short story, it won’t take long. It’s a story about a guy - a ‘guy’s-guy’...

I used to be the guy with the nice house in suburbia, the double-car garage, white picket fence and two dogs. I was proud of my accomplishments and believed whole-heartedly that I deserved the ‘things’ that I had – things like a boat, a camper, a 4WD truck and a dirtbike. I believed they were necessary in order to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment from my precious weekends.

In spite of my things and my urban existence, I always felt more connected out in nature. I experienced emotions there I seldom felt in the city. I was drawn to it, it was primal and I felt alive.

I grew up in nature and it was part of my heritage. For me, being out in the wilderness was kinda like going to church. It was the closest thing I had to a spiritual experience in my busy day-to-day life. Getting out in nature with my friends and family was what brought me joy and gave me peace. I wanted them to experience and enjoy nature with me, after all they were my community.

That said, it made sense to have some of the toys out there to enjoy nature with. My friends were of the same mindset and over time we developed quite a collection of stuff. We’d fill the tanks, ice the coolers and head out on the weekends to fish and go for a rip. It was who we were, it was what we did. It was an integral part of our identity.

Although I never realized it at the time, our things had a lot to do with our feeling of self-worth. They were in part responsible for how we viewed ourselves and each other. With my things I was more than just my job - I was an off-road rider, a hunter, a fisherman, a boater. These things became how I chose to define myself…at least for a time anyway.

One fateful day my world was turned upside down and the things that defined me seemed to disappear. I wasn’t myself anymore. Lost my wife, then my job, the house and my precious things soon followed. It was like that country music song we scoff about where the guy loses everything. The up side of this song though… I still had my dog.

It was tough at first, depressing. I felt like a total failure in life because I could no longer go and do the things I did before. My remaining friends went out and did those things, just without me. Sure, they’d ask me to go along and let me use their things but it wasn’t the same. My pride was gone along with my stuff and I just didn’t feel like I fit in anymore.


Fortunately though nature kept calling…like a quiet voice asking where I’d gone and when I was coming back. I would daydream about getting out of town while I was at my crappy job and would dream about it at night while I struggled to sleep. There seemed to be a hole in my heart that only fresh air and sunshine could fill. I knew I needed to move on.

After a year of wallowing in my own self-pity I dusted off an old backpack from my storage locker and strapped on some vintage boots. My dog and I piled into my beat up Dodge and we headed out west. Little did I know it would be a turning point in my life. It was a day that would shape a new identity.
We went to a place I had spent many weekends in my youth. It was a sacred place, one that my childhood was built upon. The Castle River area of Southern Alberta was where I went to summer camp as a boy, where I learned to fish, to float a canoe and where my dad taught me about plants. I wanted comfort and this place was safe, familiar. It was a sanctuary for a Prodigal Son.

My black Labrador Mona and I set out to do something I hadn’t done in decades. I was going to stand on top of a mountain and see if there was still a man inside what felt like a hollow shell. I wanted to prove my masculinity in the only way I had left. If I couldn’t get to the top of this mountain I would die with my boots on. I was hoping to find a bit of peace at the top of Barnaby Ridge…what I found was something much greater.

My feet burned, my back ached and I was drenched in sweat. The salt dried on my shirt like tree rings with each push up the trail. It became painfully clear I wasn’t a young man anymore. If not for my trusty sidekick straining at the leash I might have given up altogether. Pretty glad I didn’t though because at the shores of a blue green lake I had an epiphany.

I was still me.

Even without my truck, my motorcycle, without my camper or my boat I was still me and nature was still there. It embraced me in a way I had forgotten, like I was a lost little boy returned to his family. There was a purity and honesty unsullied by exhaust fumes or rock and roll music. The sky was bluer, the air was cleaner…and I’d earned it.

I had conquered two mountains at once.

It was this moment that would change my mind about backcountry use. I had nothing with me yet had enjoyed it better than I ever had. I felt accomplished, I felt my body doing what it was designed to do. I saw things from a new perspective thanks to a slower pace and I was richer for it.
I realized for the first time in my life who I actually was and that I had been brainwashed for four decades. I was lead to believe that the things I accumulated would determine my quality of life. I had been taught possessing things was the key to being ‘somebody’.

Herein lies one of the roots of the OHV and random camping debate. Erosion, environmental degradation, water quality issues, whatever…these are all symptoms of a bigger problem. We all yearn to be closer to nature, it’s in our soul. Unfortunately, our need to possess things and showcase our success have come to define our identity.

Any threat to the ‘things’ we have become accustomed to, any challenge to the way we define ourselves, is unacceptable and met with fierce opposition. If we define our identity by the things we have, and the activities that revolve around those things, we will fight tooth and nail not to lose them. To lose them might mean losing a bit of ourselves. We are, after-all, a mosaic of our interests, our hobbies, our experiences and our relationships.

The crisis brewing in southern Alberta isn’t new at all. It’s been around for a long time, even before recreational machines were invented. As North Americans, we sometimes don’t know who we are. We don’t have a clear definition of our values or why we value the things we do. We are easily influenced and do whatever it takes to fit in and be part of a community, to be accepted.

To add insult to injury we are constantly bombarded by advertising saying “your life would be better if you bought this.” As a result, we equate an ability to possess things with a sense of pride.

You know what they say, “Whoever has the most toys at the end wins,” right? It’s said in jest, and most people know the statement to be false, yet we continue to define our value and our identity by our stuff.

What we have right now in this community is a spiritual problem, a problem with our souls. The only way we can deal with this problem is to get to the heart of the matter and start defining ourselves by other measures than material things, objects or devices. But depending on where you are in life and who you hang out with this fact might be hard to accept.

Losing it all was the best thing I think that could ever have happened to me, although many times I wanted to die. It was so hard to come to grips with the fact that I had been duped my whole life, that I’d been wrong about what I put so much energy into for so long. It hurt my pride, my ego was destroyed. I had no idea who I was anymore and felt like a fool.

But life isn’t about success now is it? We learn nothing from our successes. The wisest men I have ever met agree…life is about learning from your failures, admitting your faults and growing every day.

I’m more introspective now, hopefully a little wiser. I look for quality in relationships over quantity of them. I gravitate to people who are thoughtful, genuine, those who know who they are and don’t try to be anyone else. I hang around folks I want to be more like - those with content of character, integrity, humility, those who are selfless and those who have traded their egos for a shot at real happiness.

It’s been tough but I have no regrets. Well, maybe one…seems sad it took half a lifetime for me to learn some of these lessons. I’m told wisdom doesn’t come cheap, quickly or without some degree of suffering. That’s why there are very few young wise men.

For now, my boots and my dog wait by the door for the weekend. My hair is a little greyer, my pockets a little lighter but I’m happier and most certainly healthier in spite of it all.

Thomas Porter