Dispatch: After a friend’s death, still loving the outdoors in wind or rain, beauty or pain

Illustration by Ruo Fei Zhang

Illustration by Ruo Fei Zhang

Beauty in Every Moment

essay by Mike Sparks

Most of my friends refer to me as an adventurist, but I don’t think of myself that way—I just love to be outdoors. My three most common modes of transportation are biking, running and motorcycling, and I’m happy whether the sun is on my face or my cheeks are wet with rain, snow or sleet. There is a story of John Muir climbing into the high pines in the Sierras during a storm so he “could feel what the trees feel.” Yeah—I can dig it. 

I’ve gone to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro. I’ve climbed Mount Washington in the summer and in the winter. I’ve paddled my inflatable kayak from Philadelphia to Baltimore, ridden my bicycle from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh and hiked my kayak 6 miles up the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey just to paddle on Sunfish Pond. 

On a mid-March weekend in 2015, I was hiking and camping with two friends on the Appalachian Trail in western Maryland. It was later in the winter season than we would have liked, but we did get some sleet that Friday night that forced us into the shelter for the evening. We joked about how at least we got “a little bit of winter,” despite the weekend’s above-average temperatures.

For the next two days, we happily hiked along a little section of the Appalachian Trail. We prepared dinner at a backpackers’ campsite along the trail on Saturday night, where we were visited by a goat we dubbed the Western Maryland Mountain Goat. We finally hiked back to the shelter just in time to swap trail stories around the campfire, and boasted with pride at being the only ones to have spotted him. Though the camp was cramped that night, we all had a great time. 

As we were preparing to hike out that Sunday morning, winter kicked in again and a strong gust of wind brought down a dead tree near the shelter.

As the tree fell, it hit and instantly killed my friend Jason. 

It was an unexpected and radically life-changing moment. I think about Jason every day. 

But this singular experience hasn’t kept me from loving the outdoors. No way. Our friends, my family and Jason’s family wouldn’t want it that way. He is in nature now. That sun, rain, snow or sleet on my face—that wind in my hair—is my friend.

I cherish every moment of this life that I still have, indoors and out—but outdoors maybe even a little more. I listen to the birds sing and appreciate it. I listen to children laugh and appreciate it. I even listen to the wind blow through the trees and appreciate it. 

And I try to be as kind and friendly as I can—you never know who most needs that kindness. If you come across me on any trail, you are going to get “Hello! How are you? Have a good day!” Without even knowing it, you, too, are now my friend.

I’m often asked what I’m going to do next. My answer? Whatever it is, it will be outside. Like others who have come before me and some who will come after, the outdoors have broken me. But they’ve healed me, too.

Mike Sparks is an outdoor enthusiast who lives in Philadelphia.