It’s Just a Phase

The last known picture of the author paddling a whitewater stream. Shortly thereafter, the river tried to kill everyone involved. It was the final time their group ever paddled together. Photo by author.

If you’ll pardon me, I’m a tad busy: I’m in the middle of “a phase.”

The other day I had a few hours to think about this because I was driving three hundred miles to participate in an activity that many would consider a trivial waste of time in the outdoors, much like golf. As the endless highway rolled on, I realized that not only was I firmly in the middle of another outdoor phase but that such unhealthy behavior was common among my other outdoor buddies.

The term “going through a phase” is often used to describe the recalcitrant teenager who acts on changeable whim more frequently than he or she changes apparel during the course of one afternoon. It was my ex-wife who first used the idiom to describe sportsman who had likewise fallen prey to some kind of wild, all-encompassing passion that involves considerable time, money and effort, only to be abandoned when the next hottest idea strikes. Sometimes these phases last only 15 minutes, such as when you realize that amateur snake wrangling is a bad idea while sometimes they last long enough to become a full-fledge hobby.

When you are trying to identify the victim of an outdoor phase, you must first consider the impact the current infatuation is having on the hapless sufferer. A phase is considerably stronger than a mere fancy or pastime; these things happen nearly every day in the life of outdoor enthusiasts. Psychotherapists consider a phase to be the close relative of the fetish.

It should also be noted that most sufferers are male. It would appear that women somehow resist such stupid, irrational obsessions and maintain a healthy perspective on new endeavors such as fly tying, dog training or logrolling. On the other hand, women frequently act like crazed badgers when redecorating the living room so it is apparent that both genders have their own unique vices.

A prime example of our topic was my “whitewater phase.” About 20 years ago, after taking one whitewater-rafting trip in West Virginia, I was suddenly struck with the urgent urge to become a raft guide myself. This is a rather stupid idea for someone with normal middle-class tastes because raft guides are lower on the socio-economic scale than most salamanders. However I would not be dissuaded in my yearning for whitewater adventure, regardless of the fact that I lived 400 miles from a steep creek and was much older and heavier than the majority of whitewater shredders.

The typical symptoms of a serious phase were all present. I bought books and videos, paddling apparel and even committed a serious marital sin: buying a whitewater kayak on my credit card without even mentioning it to my aforementioned ex. As you can see, the blindness inflicted by a phase can lead to all sorts of horrible consequences such sleeping on the couch for a week after buying that whitewater raft to go with the kayak.

Looking back, it seems fairly silly that I risked the lives of my friends and family members, my credit rating, thousands of gallons of gasoline, scores of three-day weekends, the resale value of my vehicle and a healthy functioning liver simply for the joy of swallowing gallons of highly-polluted Appalachian river water.

However, those are the hallmarks of a primary outdoor phase: complete disdain for logic or reason, intentional ignorance of the sacrifices and a totally insane investment of resources for something that can only be practiced after driving eight hours.

To the outdoors spouse in the audience: is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

There is really nothing that can be done when someone is suffering through a phase. Scientific research has been done on possible treatments but unfortunately the lead scientist in the study went through a hang-gliding phase and never finished the study.

The best hope for a sufferer’s family is to let the problem run its natural course. Eventually, the victim will realize that the effort required to pursue the activity is simply not worth the time and trouble invested. It is a sad day when the dream comes crashing down like a landslide, crushing fantasy under the harsh boot heel of reality, but those who survive realize it is for the better.

We emerge from the phase older, wiser, more experienced and with a bigger stock of cocktail party stories. The intellectual part of our brain knows it was silly, juvenile and wasteful to pursue our passion with such vigor but our emotional side had a great time running amok while the fantasy was still in full bloom. For that, we can be grateful.

For those who don’t learn from past mistakes and continue onward with the obsessive pursuit of new passion after new passion, there is still one hope: they probably have a future as an outdoor writer.


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