I left base camp at dawn, leading my horse through a sparse forest and across the plains. The sun is already high and hot by the time we reach the foothills. The horse is dusty, so we trot upstream through the creek instead of following the trail alongside it.
I’m actually not horseback riding toward a majestic mountaintop in the wilderness. I’m playing Red Dead Redemption 2, in which the player guides cowboy-outlaw Arthur Morgan through an alternate version of 1899 America. Since I’ve been cooped up in my 1-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, avoiding the coronavirus, this action-adventure Western video game is the closest exposure to real nature that I’ve gotten in months. The year 2020 has been a long slog through one disaster after another. I’ll take any escape I can, and riding a horse through the Wild, Wild virtual West will do just fine.
I suppose I’ve covered a lot of ground, but the passage of time in the wilderness always takes me by surprise. There are no clocks out here. No meetings or schedules or read receipts. Time is not something I anticipate in the great outdoors. It’s not forward-looking; it washes over me, and I bask in it. I should eat something, so I set up camp.
Arthur’s open-world is at my fingertips. I could follow the missions through the main storyline, rob trains, steal stagecoaches, and assault or kill whomever I want. Those are the main selling points of this massively popular game. But I’m not doing any of that. I’m setting off to the mountains for some solitude and exploration, with a treasure map to guide my search.
There’s nothing written on this map. The worn parchment just shows a small island in the middle of a lake at the base of a distinctive three-peak mountain range.
I break down my camp. I’m in the foothills, with a winding path ahead of me. I’ve gained some elevation already, and as I look back at the plains stretched out behind me, they sing. Prairies don’t bellow; they rustle and murmur. The wind takes shape over the long grass.
My mind is empty, in a good way. The wilderness is a salve that loosens leech-like worries and anxieties that bounce around up there. There’s just no need to impose my own brain-words on the beauty I see. Away from the city, out here in nature, I am stripped down to the core. Not a civilized human, but a primal one. I am not my job or my Ikea dinner plates, I am a hunter, a forager, a surveyor of the land. I am one with the meat I cook on my campfire. I am the consciousness inside of me that sees a mountain and is inspired by it. I’m not a religious person — the mountaintops are the closest I come to god.
Video games are written off as time-wasters. I think I was supposed to spend my quarantine writing the next King Lear, not leveling up a virtual cowboy. Still, I’ve needed a crumb of the outdoors escapism enjoyed by everyone who decided to flee New York City for their cabins and ranches. I don’t have a car, or camping gear, or family nearby, or a vacation fund, so leaving for greener pastures felt complicated to me. With little choice, I decided to hunker down in the city where I’ve only just begun to feel settled.
Time in nature is time well spent. The great outdoors is a noble hobby; video games are lazy and antisocial. How dare I waste away in front of a screen! So what, then, of a video game about spending time in nature? If I crave real mountaintops as a spiritual pilgrimage, then is this 2D representation of them on my PS4 a false prophet? A bastardization of the real thing? Or am I really getting a sliver of the benefits that my mind and body would get from real earth beneath my feet?
The terrain is loose and scraggy, so it’s best to stick to the switchbacks. My horse will slide if I try to cut straight up toward the mountain pass. It takes a couple of hours, but we’re making good time, judging by the distance we’ve put between ourselves and base camp. The foothills fall away; the trees thick and imperious. We crest the ridge, and the trail begins to dip down on the other side of the mountain into a basin. There it is — the lake is before me, and behind it, the three-peaked range from my treasure map. I hitch the horse and wade out to the small island in the lake, barely the size of the living room in Brooklyn from which I am navigating this expedition.
This living room is where I’ve spent most of my quarantine. For over four months, I’ve barely left my house except for walks in Prospect Park and biweekly grocery hauls. I’ve been all but cut off from my communities, trapped in my building, my borough, my now-barren city that I moved to for the very purpose of opening up a new world for myself. I moved to New York City from California, where I grew up between the sea cliffs and the redwoods on what felt like the western edge of the world. I knew I was giving up easy access to nature by moving here. Sheltering in place has compounded how cut off I feel from the natural world that used to surround me in the Bay Area. Ironically, I’d usually only welcome this type of isolation if I were alone in nature. I moved here for people-watching and networking and serendipity and the energy of New Yorkers who make this place uniquely what it is — but I’ve been cut off from that now, as well. The New York City I love is on hold. Buffering to reconvene in 2021.
The desolation was beginning to get to me as I attempted to connect with the outside world through screens. The mere sight of a friend’s Instagrammed lake day would push me to the verge of tears. I don’t have a means of escaping the city, so I dove into my Playstation.
I scrape around on the rocks. They are slippery and I fall back in the water a few times as I investigate the nooks and crannies. The water is freezing cold up here and I have to be careful not to let my stamina fall too low. I pull out my treasure map several times to verify where the X-marks-the-spot spot is. Finally, there, on the lower flat corner of the island, is something to inspect. I’ve found it. And good timing, too. The sun is falling lower in the sky and it would be smart to get back down to the foothills to camp for the night.
We scramble back up to the ridge and make our way down the other side from whence we came, the sun on my back as it sinks toward the three peaks. I didn’t shoot any bad guys today or loot any trains, but I feel accomplished. I feel at peace. Recentered. I’ll arrive back at base camp tomorrow with my newly acquired treasure and sacred knowledge of these mountains.
I’m not sure when I’ll smell real wilderness dirt again. For now, this high-resolution, low-latency sunset that beams down onto my virtual horse and I will have to do. It’ll do just fine.