An interview with Ron Lizzi, author of the book Go Outside and Come Back Better

Go Outside and Come Back Better

What was the inspiration for writing this book?

I began adulthood as a homebody. I spent vacation time working on my house in Connecticut. But my job, designing watches for Timex, forced me to travel. On business trips to the West, I decided to visit some national parks while I was already out there.

I had never experienced places so amazing and was completely overwhelmed by what I saw and felt. I resolved to dedicate more vacation time to seeing such places. Over time, I recognized that these trips weren't merely nice vacations; they were actually improving my life as a whole, something I never expected. I was having some of the best days of my life simply by deciding to go and explore America's wonderful parks, and this was a revelation for me.

Somehow I had gotten far into adulthood without understanding how spending time in nature could improve my life. I figured that there had to be many other people like me. That inspired me to write Go Outside and Come Back Better. I wanted it to be nature's brochure, a book that would showcase America's incredible diversity of scenery and explain how spending time in nature can inspire, teach, and improve lives.

Can you elaborate on your concept of "matterdays"?

Once I recognized that my trips to the parks were changing me, I tried to understand what was happening. I concluded that the days I was spending in the parks were so good, so significant that they were improving the quality of my life overall. In short, those days mattered, whereas most days didn't. I call them matterdays in my book, and I define them as days that impact the quality of one's life. Matterdays can be great or terrible or anything in between.

I also reasoned that great matterdays, like those I spent in the parks, had more impact than matterdays that were merely good or bad. This led me to envision a balance, like a see saw, with great matterdays as stones placed near the positive end, where they affected the balance more than stones nearer the middle. That yielded the book's concept of the day stone balance, a measure of the quality of one's life, where all of one's matterdays were represented as stones on the balance. The important lesson for the reader was that great matterdays weren't limited to life's rare milestones, like graduations, promotions, and marriage; they could also be created with visits to spectacular parks.

For someone who doesn't understand how park visits can change a person, how do explain coming back better, as your book title says?

If you watch the news, you've undoubtedly seen interviews with people who have experienced horrific events, like war or natural disasters. Those people invariably say that they'll always carry the horrible images and feelings with them. Well, I'm on the positive side of that coin. I've witnessed breathtaking beauty, inspiring scenes, and I always carry those images and feelings with me. Now, that's not to say that one look at Yellowstone is as impactful as witnessing a tragedy, but I've accumulated hundreds of images and experiences, and they add up to a very positive view of the world.

In your book you describe how nature can provide both emotional and thoughtful inspiration. Do you think people can cultivate meaning through a connection with nature? Have you experienced this?

Absolutely. One of nature's biggest lessons for me was the joy of exploration and discovery. Before, my goal was to find a comfortable rut and stay in it. But my approach to life is better now because I'm more open to adventures that foster learning and growth. As the book trailer video says: "You live in the greatest museum imaginable. Isn't it time you left the lobby and took a look at some of the incredible exhibits?" I'm no longer content to remain in the lobby.

Of course different people will find other forms of inspiration. One of my book's lessons from nature is that loss is frequently an opportunity for renewal, and a reader recently cited that as something that resonated with her.

What is "awezure"?

Awezure is my word for the unique emotion one feels in the most magnificent parks. It's a combination of awe and pleasure (the Z clarifies pronunciation). Some people describe the feeling simply as awe, but since awe can include fear or dread, as in the military's "shock and awe," awe literally isn't good enough. Awezure is a purely positive feeling that one might get upon entering the gates of heaven or landing on another planet.

You compare interactions with nature with developing relationships with people. The more time we spend, the more meaningful the connection. In retrospect do you think your journeys were an effort to develop a better relationship with nature?

I wish I were wise enough to have had such a plan, executed it, and reaped the rewards. But the reality is that I had no plan, stumbled into the benefits, and later wondered what happened. I hope that readers can benefit from my hindsight, though.

Anyway, treating parks like people has served me well. The time I've invested in exploring parks has yielded great dividends. A park is constantly changing, as the sun moves, as the weather varies, as the seasons pass. So, like a person, the mood and character of a park change over time. To appreciate the various sides of a park takes time, maybe multiple visits. Those who see parks as bucket list items to be checked off sometimes miss out.

John Muir played a significant role in your book. What is your favorite John Muir quote?

I have several favorites, but I'll pick one that relates to your organization's mission. Muir wrote this about what would later become Montana's Glacier National Park: "Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven."

Time (and how we spend it) is a theme throughout your book. What brought about this awareness of time for you?

In the book, I briefly mention my life-changing trip to California's Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, my first trip to a national park was actually a quick visit to the Grand Canyon ten years earlier. I've asked myself, "Why did the Grand Canyon visit have little impact on me, while the California trip's impact was huge?" My answer is that I didn't invest much time in the Grand Canyon. I didn't learn much about the park, didn't go hiking, and never got the feeling that I was part of the park, only that I was just looking at it.

That's the beginning of my awareness of importance of spending time in the parks. The common touristy behavior of stopping at a viewpoint, taking a selfie, and buying a souvenir doesn't yield the kind of lasting benefits that I discuss in the book, so I try to encourage readers to invest some time.

How do you engage with nature now?

I continue to take trips and explore the country's parks. I've now visited nearly 500 parks.

I recently went to Yosemite for the third time, but it was the first time that I hiked in the park's higher elevations. It was wonderful, and I have an even greater appreciation for the park now. I have some photos in the gallery of the book's companion website