I think I’ve coined a new term: the sentiment will be familiar to any avid camper, hiker, angler, or just general lover-of-the-outdoors. It’s that pit in your stomach, that headache that comes out of nowhere, that unexplained irritability that descends when you emerge from the woods and are suddenly struck with all the responsibilities of being a human in the world.
I’ve experienced this before, many times. Really, most times I spend a weekend with my phone powered down, surrounded by trees and the smell of moss and the chatter of birds and bugs and chipmunks. Any time I sleep outside for a few nights and then have to return to my comfortable but noticeably indoors bed. My heart gets heavy and my mind gets clouded and just a little grumpier than I can make sense of.
The last week of August, I took a trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I hadn’t been on a proper camping trip in probably a year, which is far too long; I think I experience Woods Withdrawal more acutely when I don’t know the next time I’ll be back. One afternoon, I sat on the bank of a river and just looked at the trees for an hour. There is always so much to see, and the delightful rest of getting to know a new campsite makes the trees in my backyard seem insufficient.
The first proper camping trip I took in college, I almost cried when I got back to campus. It was my sophomore year, and I went to the Smokies on a spring break trip. It snowed and I was freezing but ecstatic. I came back to Grand Rapids and seriously considered dropping out.
My life in the city is full of emails and coffee dates, phone calls and video chats and grocery shopping (though some of those activities have wound down during the pandemic). And that’s all right, I suppose. Really, I do like the friends and fun and absurdity that is city living and having to go buy milk. But when I take my phone off airplane mode after a week of radio silence, I get unreasonably annoyed to see 37 unread emails, missed calls, and a zillion messages in the group chat that I will not go back and read, thank you.
And I know that my country-bumpkin self can be overwhelmed by a three-lane road, so a narrow dirt track to an empty campground makes me feel at home. Maybe I’m not the best litmus test for Woods Withdrawal.
But I tromp through the bushes and choose not to be fazed by a downpour that nearly puts out the campfire. I swat at mosquitos with zeal and am pretty sure I sleep better in a tent than I do anywhere else. I embrace the luxury of being out of cell range and setting an automatic reply on my email; sometimes I say I’ll be gone longer than I really will be just so I can cushion the shock of returning to normal life.
Being outside makes me a better person. I can’t explain it. All the things I love most about myself but struggle to cultivate—creativity, flexibility, gentleness, humor, generosity—those traits are at their best in the woods, where they don’t have to compete with their urban counterparts of perfectionism, productivity, and orderliness. With a history of alcoholism in my family, I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to than trees.
Being outside makes me wonder. I ask leisurely questions that I desperately want the answers to, like What kind of plant is that? How long has this lake existed? Do butterflies have the capacity for language?
So when I emerge from the woods it’s a little like accidentally shedding a cocoon I would rather keep. I slough off my carefree wonder at the world and listen to my voicemails. I feel a knot in my neck that was somehow absent even when I was sleeping directly on a rock, barely softened by my thin sleeping mat. I clean my dishes and replace the tinny, slightly brown water I got from my campsite with the clear, cool contents of the Brita pitcher.
My head hangs lower for a couple days as I wash my camp clothes and tuck my hiking boots into the back of my closet. I know why I feel this way: I miss the wilderness. I wish the smell of campfire clung to me in a murky cloud like Charlie Brown’s friend Pig Pen, but I’ll settle for my usual tradition of not washing my camping flannel. I let the smell of campfires and coffee grounds linger as long as I can, wrapping myself in its cozy goodness when I’m feeling particularly hemmed in by the asphalt and cement.
I stave off the Woods Withdrawal as best I can, reminding myself that I can always plan another trip, I can hop in the car and go fishing any time I please. The smoky smell of my camping flannel is a small comfort as I plan my next trip.
Photo: Yosemite Valley, from a summer 2019 camping adventure.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.