Long Live the Lubber

Fun before mastery.

Let me be clear: I am a landlubber. Dweller of solid ground; denizen of rock and soil; habitant of earthy matter; a landsman, through and through. The liquid realm, where river rats, surfers, mariners, and fisherpeople thrive, is simply not my jam. I have neither gills, nor webbed feet, and a waterlogged body of anecdotal evidence suggests a distinct lack of buoyancy. One might (accurately) draw the conclusion that water is not a safe or welcoming environment for humans of similar size, shape, and density to myself.

The problem is that some of my friends disagree, and insist on playing in water with alarming regularity, specifically in colorful coffins known as kayaks. So, from time to time, into the cold, roiling, intimidating water I go. And when I lower myself into the cockpit of a kayak, I’m a lot like simple Donny in The Big Lebowski: completely out of my f*#&ing element.

The interesting thing is that despite my utter lack of skill and confidence (not to mention gills), I always have a great time. Let me repeat that: I am a terrible, awful, no-good kayaker, who swims as much whitewater as he paddles—and it’s always super fun. It’s often as much fun, in fact, as things I’m very good at. Being challenged and humbled is good for the soul, and leads to powerful, experiential learning—which happens, whether I like it or not, each time I find myself topside-down in frigid runoff.

So it’s alarming to me when I see and hear people—my friends and associates and fellow Bozemanites—reluctant to try something fun and new and difficult because they’re afraid of looking and feeling silly. Maybe it’s a symptom of my age (hey, early thirties are the new mid-twenties, okay?). Maybe it’s that with families and jobs and IRAs, the playground bully known as Responsibility is strangling the inner children in all of us. Maybe it’s that Bozeman is brimming with Very Serious Outdoorspeople, who are so wrapped up in Eddie Bauer personas that they’re missing the point of playing outside: play.

These things we do in the mountains and on the rivers are not serious. It is not necessary. It is play, pure and simple—lest we all forget how privileged we are to live here, and make play a priority in our lives. But strangely, some of us make it into something more, and the unrestrained whimsy of play is lost to the tunnel vision of mastery: the ridiculous concept that in order to enjoy something we must be masters of it.

As an outdoors writer, guide, and educator, I’m essentially paid to observe people playing outside, and what I’ve learned is that there is great joy in mastery. People who are very good at something specific, tend to enjoy that thing immensely. But when there is little expectation of mastery, there is also great enjoyment. Young and old people have no problem with looking silly, because there is little expectation—hell, just being out there is usually pretty damn impressive. The trick for the rest of us is to toss off the insidious burden of pretense. Embrace the suck. And don’t be afraid to look silly—we’re playing, for crying out loud.

This spring, I’m going to jump into a kayak, and I’m going to be terrible, as only a landlubber can be. I’m going to be frustrated, and I’m going to be humbled. And I’m going to enjoy every damn minute by embracing the challenge and laughing at my ineptitude, while celebrating the small victories (like not drowning). Long live the lubber in us all.