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Giant sequoia trees photographed from below, at Sequoia National Park in California

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This year I want to touch more grass

Ballad of an inside kid

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

In 2020, against my will, I discovered that many of my loved ones considered me “indoorsy.” During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I got texts from pals asking for advice on what to do while stuck inside. I assumed this was because I’ve chosen a career in writing that has me frequently playing games and watching TV. It was, apparently, an identity marker too. “You’re really an inside person,” a friend texted me. “This is your time to shine.”

That isn’t entirely wrong. I do love games — and even more than that, I’ve loved seeing people I’m close to trying new indoor activities these past few years, both through quarantine and as they’ve gotten more used to staying in. I got to be the one who blew friends’ minds with simple tips like Stardew Valley keyboard hotkeys and recipes in various Legend of Zelda games.

But I have also always loved spending time outside; I love the alien architectures of the rocks out in Joshua Tree as indiscriminately as I love charting the fruiting season of my neighborhood loquat trees. (The tree two blocks away ripens earliest.) Nothing recharges me faster than wandering around on foot. Even in city blocks, there’s so much to see: a single blush rose bursting through pruned branches, little tufts of cumulus clouds threaded through LA’s characteristically sunny skies, or a set of three tiny picnic tables that a neighbor stuck to a trunk of a tree for the local squirrels.

Three miniature picnic tables in red, yellow, and cyan affixed to a tree. A squirrel is on the yellow table. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

I just have a body that cannot handle the exertions of more demanding outdoor activities like camping or long-distance hiking. I’ve long struggled with chronic pain, and it became worse in 2021 after a back injury left me briefly bedridden. After more than two years of physical therapy, I’m the strongest I have been in my life. Even so, my physical limitations mean I need to take things slowly. It’s a matter of pacing and listening to my body’s signals instead of blunting the pain and pretending it’s not happening.

But it’s also an internal change. It’s about reframing myself as “a person who walks to the park more often” instead of “a person who hikes and camps.” It’s also about being willing to speak up when a group physical activity is too challenging. I want to spend my year cultivating the habit of being outdoors at a speed that works for me, without apology.

The world outside is wondrous. It is so thrillingly alive; never static, always rich with something new. And yet it’s easy to fall into the fallacy that enjoying nature is a hobby and practice that requires going to a specific place, or buying specific gear. But nature is everywhere around us — we need only step outside to observe and embrace it.

Reading both helped me understand this and made me intensely crave the outdoors. Perhaps these books can serve you too. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights will awaken you to the beauty and responsibility of a small garden. Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal can stick a notebook in your pocket and encourage you to observe. When poet Ada Limón writes “it’s the greening of the trees/ that really gets me,” we nod and understand spring as renewal. We itch to witness its unfurling.

So I’m starting small and trying to weave more outdoor time into my existing hobbies. I already often walk around my neighborhood. Walking is free, and easy to build into a daily habit. I’m also typically happiest when I’m out walking. Los Angeles isn’t known for being a walkable city, but my apartment is in a fairly walkable location right near a metro stop, and the bike paths work well enough for roller skating short distances. I’m as happy reading a book in my tiny neighborhood park, basking in the sun, as I would be sitting inside. There are also urban paths and beginner-level hikes not far from where I live that I keep putting off. I’d like to see the downtown skyline from the top of the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, and try some beginner trails at the Angeles National Forest.

I also aim to visit more national parks, which is something I’ve put off for years, waiting for some imagined version of myself who would spend hours traversing uneven terrain before sleeping under the stars. This black-and-white way of thinking — assuming I had to clear some level of skill — has kept me from visiting beautiful places in ways that are more accessible and comfortable for me. I’ve internalized a lot of anxiety around “glamping” based on dismissive images in the media that made it seem inauthentic or elitist.

But in 2023, I stayed at an Airbnb at Joshua Tree. Getting the quality rest I needed and being able to bring and safely store my physical therapy equipment meant I was able to handle some flat, low-intensity trails. Also, sleeping in a bed at night was just more comfortable and cozy.

I would eventually like to work up to some of the more physically demanding stuff. It’s particularly hard when it’s a newer hobby. Many of us run into the same obstacles when we’re pursuing hobbies in adulthood: Learning a new skill means being bad at it for a while, maybe even for a long time. It’s an uphill battle, choosing to be bad at something for pleasure — eschewing cultural values around excellence in favor of joy and slowness. It’s even more intimidating when you’re taking up an activity that’s physically demanding and could lead to injury if you do it wrong.

But that’s the value and sense in taking things step by step. It builds in time for you to observe your thoughts, your body’s hows and whys, just as you observe the world around you. It builds rungs into the ladder of where you’re going. These rungs support you as you move sunward, giving you a new perspective on all that you see.

It’s ultimately the decision to invest in myself at this very moment, instead of letting some idea of who I’m “supposed to be” keep me from doing what I want to do. That’s the friction at the heart of so much of what holds us back, isn’t it? If I spend forever waiting for her, this person who has the grit, experience, and also the physical capability to Do It Correctly — whatever that even means! — I will cheat myself out of doing it today. Like so many things, the will to explore is a muscle that grows as you work it out. We just need to get started — and in 2024, I’m planning to.