Caretaking: 5 ways to awaken your childish spirit in the backcountry and at home

Back in May, before heading north to commence my backcountry campsite caretaker training with the AMC, I spent an evening sipping wine and attempting to stir my inner artist at a little up-and-coming studio right in the center of Contoocook Village called Hashtag Art Studio.

“I’m not an artist,” I insisted to Maryann and Julie, the two intimidatingly talented artists leading the class. I hadn’t tried to draw or paint a damn thing since I was a little dweeby homeschooler, and I was unconvinced when they each told me that it didn’t matter.

“Happy accidents,” Maryann kept saying, every time I splattered paint in a particularly unbecoming manner on my little square canvas. The class was called “Mixed Media: Mantra,” and through a series of step-by-step instructions of various little techniques, I managed to whip up something that I didn’t mind too much. The finishing touch was to select a saying, or a mantra, to incorporate into the piece. Initially I was at a loss – what to write? I finally chose the phrase “Be Childish,” mostly because I couldn’t think of anything else. It seemed that even then, something in me was trying to emerge, a thin blade of grass attempting to cut its way through the Spring snow.

Be Childish

Over the past few months, that blade of grass has burst into a flower-laden field and, with the magical clarity that wilderness provides, I have begun to realize the importance of indulging in the novel, the giddy, the moments of unrestrained joy that can often be so very elusive. To celebrate the path to playfulness, I’ve decided to share with you five ways to awaken your own childish spirit, regardless of whether you are pondering in the mountains or trudging through your daily routines right at home.

  1. Yell on Top of a Mountain

This may seem arbitrary and even totally obnoxious, yet I’ve found it alarming how all-consuming the occurrence of suppressive, self-restraint can prove to be. Subtle discomfort with singing in front of others or making loud noises in general are just manifestations of repressed freedom to be as you are. This first came to my attention when I found that I was terrified of the idea of a bear coming into my campsite. My fear had nothing to do with being mauled by a bear—I was afraid of the idea of yelling at the bear. My dread of screaming into the night and being overheard by confused campers was so overwhelming that I slept with one whistle in my pocket and one whistle next to my head in hopes that, if necessary, the noise would suffice over the use of my own voice.

I finally hiked to the top of Guyot one day and hollered into the wind, determined to banish possibly the most irrational, ridiculous and trivial fear I have ever had in my entire life. “Find your voice,” we hear all the time. Here, then, is your first step. If you’re nowhere near a mountaintop and don’t plan being on a mountaintop any time in the near future, then I highly recommend rolling up your windows one night when you’re driving, and screaming at the top of your lungs.


  1. Hike Naked


(Not, of course, while you are theoretically on the clock or representing your employer). I recommend telling anyone who catches you that you’re just a thru-hiker; everyone knows that the folks hiking the Appalachian Trail are a tad bit off their rockers and any innocent passersby who happen to fall victim to your blinding lack of tan in certain areas will probably just nod knowingly and accept it for what it is. The most formidable option is to bushwack off-trail entirely so that you don’t run into the unfortunate problem of explaining yourself. This way, you can focus on the absurd freedom of proudly sporting your birthday suit. If you’re uncomfortable with your body, you might imagine the bears hooting impressed cat-calls at you as you strut by. The bears think you’re sexy. Also, you should definitely keep your boots on. This doesn’t count as cheating, and your feet will thank you.

If you’re at home, there are other ways. You might, for example, start small, perhaps by sprinting naked down the hall to the bathroom on your way to the shower and slamming the door before anyone becomes aware that someone in the house had started down the path of self-liberation.


  1. Skinny Dip (Or Chunky Dunk)

“No one wants to see that,” I often hear people joke about themselves when the topic of merely swimming in a bathing suit comes up in conversation. But it’s not about them. It’s about you. It’s about you, shrugging at social stigmas associated with nudity and bullpucky standards of attractiveness. None of that matters once you’ve giddily slid into the river on a toasty July night, suddenly awash with the tides of subtle rebellion against the webby restrictions of social-acceptableness.


  1. Poop with the door open

A long, rocky path leads to the privy at the Guyot campsite, permitting plenty of time to glimpse any potential arrival of intruders. One day, I decided to go for it. I plopped my little ass down and slowly, nervously, I allowed the door to creak open just a sliver. There certainly didn’t seem to be anyone around. For a split second, I decided I wasn’t going to do it; I wasn’t going to poop with the door open because the prospect of someone walking up on me seemed too ludicrous to imagine. But then a moment later, I was struck with the lightning bolt of warrior-like courage and I flung the door open on its hinges. If anyone had walked up, they would have seen a deranged hiker, giggling on a toilet seat. You don’t need to be in the wilderness for this—you can do this in your own clean little home, and when you do, your soul will erupt with bubbling, giddy awe.


  1. Do something nice for a stranger

One morning I woke up and found this apple waiting for me on my porch. I'll never know who gave it to me.
One morning I woke up and found this apple waiting for me on my porch. I’ll never know who gave it to me.

Awakening your childish spirit has more to do with reducing your learned inhibitions then it does with actually displaying gestures of immaturity. For example, some of us may be hesitant to reach out to someone we don’t know, especially at our own financial or emotional expense. And it’s true that sometimes doing a favor for someone can go sickeningly unrewarded, leaving you with diminished faith in humanity. But not always.

One day, I invited a hiker to have coffee with me on my porch—after all, it was coffee time, and we had been chatting for a while, so I wasn’t going to needlessly exclude him, although I easily could have. I could have, for example, succumbed to my hoarding tendencies and have refused to share the weight of coffee that I had personally hiked all the way up to the Guyot campsite.

A couple months later, this same hiker, Lone Stranger of, returned to Guyot. This time he came with extra Snickers bars in tow in addition to coffee and hot chocolate. Like old friends we chatted on the porch of my tent platform, sipping “cocoaccinos” and basking in the peacefulness that is Guyot—the timing couldn’t have been more perfect; I’d been caught up in the mid-stint blues, and plus, I was totally out of chocolate. And so, stranger becomes friend.

If you’re not in the wilderness where bartering and gifting have magnified, uplifting magical impact, you could do something as simple as paying for the next person behind you in the drive-thru, or letting someone go in front of you in the grocery line. In one way or another, it’ll come back to you. Meanwhile you can relish the cheesy fact that you’ve made someone’s day and committed an act of kindness that required stepping outside of your usual, heads-down boundaries where the focus is your own agenda (the challenge here is to avoid feeling disheartened when your good deeds go unacknowledged. They often do, but that doesn’t decrease their value.)


What do you do to set yourself free, to permit yourself moments of silly, uncomplicated joy?

8 thoughts on “Caretaking: 5 ways to awaken your childish spirit in the backcountry and at home

  1. I play with my grandson, a three-year-old boy named Hayden. We run around, stomping on each other’s shadows, abuse Percy the train, hoard all the Thomases, make elaborate tracks and couch forts. It’s magic to step back to playing like a three-year-old every Wednesday.

  2. You have become very wise on your mountaintop, but be careful how you apply these lessons on your return to “normal” society. Also a big fan of propping open latrine doors when I’m in the wild, I find that when I come home I have to remember the folks here prefer I leave the door closed 🙂
    Grafton Loop next week, but I still have some redlining to do in your neck of the woods. Might stop by for one more cup of coffee in a few weeks if I can make it over South Twin again.

  3. Quinn, I am pretty sure I read somewhere that olden day out-houses were to be built with the doors that swing in, thereby allowing the door to be quickly shut (from the seated position) if someone approaches. If it is swinging out the other way it would require some very long arms or maybe a piece of rope!


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