…their faceless identities empowering the subtle more than the substantial… Their tours were not actual but virtual!
It’s been a ‘trying’ time for most of us. I mean in both parts of speech. Exhausting and experimental. I was losing a semblance to my preferred self and succumbing mostly to domestic drudgery and at times to depression and distance. Then one evening, almost a month ago while I was talking to my brother (referred to as Big B going forward), he introduced me to a WhatsApp group. Initially, I was not really keen on joining it as it sounded like something unusual and not-really-heard-of-before. After all, a Taurean to the core, I am stubbornly resistant to change and take a while to accept the unconventional.
‘National Park Challenge,’ the name by which the group goes, is an international group consisting of members with shared interests, to say the least. My first thought…it’s just a group of fitness aficionados. Then working around it, I tried to figure out the real reason for the assembly. The association began with a group of friends based out of Richmond, Virginia, who one day, maybe just like that, decided to tour the National Parks in the USA. “Hey, are you kidding me?” Yes, they were travelling and trekking at a time when everyone in the world was like the caged bird in Maya Angelou’s poem “stalk(ing) down his narrow cage,” confined and coping. By the way, this group too was coping, but guess how? Their tours were not actual but virtual! In fact, they were putting to use the only viable vehicle and singing their songs of “freedom” as veridically as the poetic counterpart (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).
Let me explain how that works. Every week an American National Park is chosen and the ‘Destination’ along with the ‘Weekly Goals’ is officially published in the form of a ‘Newsletter’ or a digest in the group. Once the gauntlet is thrown (wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that), the participants accept the challenge and thereafter begins the journey of exploring and experiencing the beauty and bounty of the selected park, all the while enjoying the ride towards it and back home. On this excursion, however, there is a weekly goal to focus on and adhere to. It is here that you get to fix the main piece of the jigsaw and soon you get the key for the conundrum. The pursuit of activity to maintain or improve health and fitness is the predominant objective. But there is more to it as well.
I became a member of the group and the Weekly Goal Chart started bothering me. Within the enclosure of the four walls, how on earth was I supposed to do it? To alter every ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ takes a push and that unwaveringly comes from Big B, every time. In that same chart, he made me see the well-devised plan that was neither overwhelming nor unattainable. In fact, the activity goal was pragmatically partitioned and consisted of categories like Cardio, Strength Training, Yoga and Meditation. Further, each set offered options and alternatives. For instance, Cardio included choices like walk, run, swim, hike or jog, and you could easily have your pick. Here the leader of the group, the Ranger as he is called, needs a special mention considering the clarity with which he chalks out the Chart. After all, simplifying the task at hand into an easily digestible bolus has to be credited to him. And then there was my ‘Friend-in-Law’ (my sister-in-law who is my college BFF) helping with the needed enthusiasm and mutual cribbing. So while the tours were near enough and still not there, the sweat and the pants thoroughly compensated for it. See the numbers to believe it!
Once the work at hand is known, enjoying the expedition is the next coherent step. Right from Day 1 as every participant begins her journey towards the National Park, she describes her surroundings, relishing every moment on her way till the destination for that week is reached. And by the time the participants enter the park, photographs and information start flooding the group till the make-believe wall dissolves and you are caught in the act! Every tripper plays along, sometimes by dropping a bijou line and sometimes by sharing the morning breakfast! So while the body is physically engaged through a specific activity, the mind is busy churning too — collecting information and images about the Park, assimilating and experiencing them and then sharing it with others.
I am reminded here of a children’s story, though the source eludes me at this moment. It goes something like this. There was once a King who had two sons. Like any father, he wanted them to be educated and equipped so as to become his rightful heirs. But unfortunately, his sons were averse to any kind of fruitful occupation till one day, the King came across a Pundit (an expert in a subject or field). He appeared to be an unusual man and the King, impressed by his singularity, decided to appoint him as the Guru (teacher) of his sons. In no time, the disciples were fond of their tutor as he was teaching them, not the wonted way but through guise and games. Before the princes were even aware of what was happening, learning had become a part of their lives. I find the ‘National Park Challenge’ an attempt of that sort. For the indolent like myself, the mental hunt aligns you for physical exertion while for those otherwise, the somatic challenge offers the necessary stimulus.
Humour and feelings of camaraderie, in my opinion, are an integral part of any beneficial gathering and this group too is no exception. Visuals and emojis play a vital role in fostering them. For instance, once in a while, you get to see the tender simmering chicken curry that you will devour for dinner, and on another occasion, you get a glimpse of the leaping salmon that you could catch and make a meal out of.
Such is the humour that the group exudes and as you are cherishing it, you are also imbued with the aura of positive vibes that propel you to push yourself forward and further. So on a day when you are ‘under the weather,’ literally or idiomatically, you decide to get up and get going to meet your goals. Of course, you are bolstered by the buoyancy of your boho buddies. Something in you has changed and your journey towards self-discovery has been initiated much like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Like the young man in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we can hope that our future will hold us “in good stead.” Into the fifth week of the challenge, I am consciously calculating my steps, measuring my miles, treading, though with uncertainty, into the domain of strength training and also trying to practice mindfulness through meditation. My friend-in-law has also initiated me into Yin Yoga, more as a means of relaxation than anything else.
It is the meticulousness of an undertaking that adds veracity to the process. In this touring challenge, we have a designated Reporter, who offers vivid pointers to the day ahead, relevant information about the Park and the correspondent activities that it offers. That’s a nugget I shared when I got to be a reporter. (A sample report pic) As the mood is built up, to accentuate the experience, a Photographer, again an assigned one, keeps furnishing views and visions till you are actually meandering through the wonderland of biological diversity. The participants are generous in their contributions as well. Nothing is grafted but is holistically incorporated into something that is deeply meaningful.
Perhaps the road is the best place to make friends. So while those in the group whom I already knew, got closer, there were some with whom I bonded along the way. And then came the good feeling of looking forward to hearing from people across the world, their faceless identities empowering the subtle more than the substantial.
After all, as Goddard said, “Feeling is the secret,” and the virtual has the potency to feel viable. So wish me luck as I continue to travel through time and space, tapping into the recesses of my body and mind till the “I” dissolves and the “eye” emerges. All the time, the happy hormones oozing and the looking-forward-to growing through the physical and the cerebral presence.
Now is it your turn to divulge your tryst with virtual vicinity… :)
By: Promita Banerjee Nag
Content and Photo courtesy: National Park Challenge Group, Richmond VA, USA
Originally published at https://www.quotidiantales.com on Nov 9, 2020.