Near the rural Mexican fishing village of Yelapa, I move through yoga poses beneath the palms and bougainvillea of a jungle retreat. After yoga practice and a brief meditation, I grab my notebook and pen and words pour out. Forty minutes later, the bell signals the end of the writing session, and I feel as if only moments have passed.
I am on a creative-writing and yoga retreat, led by Patricia Lee Lewis and Charles MacInerney. This unique retreat gives me the opportunity to stretch both my muscles and my creativity (all the while enjoying the outdoorsy experience of staying in a palapa, an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter).
I’ve returned to this retreat three times over the years to recharge my creative batteries. Why? Maybe it’s the tropical climate in winter. Maybe it’s the magic of writing by candlelight (the retreat center has no electricity). Maybe it’s my strong, relaxed muscles gained from doing yoga and trekking over steep hills to the beach. Whatever the reason, I’m hooked on what I think of as an “artistic adventure,” one that blends a physical challenge and creative inspiration.
Creativity blossoms where nature, art and movement intersect – and it can happen in any landscape. A hiker-artist might be inspired by willow boughs sway- ing beside a lake; a kayaker–marketing consultant might mentally chart a course for starting her own business while she paddles. A wild-berry-picker–chef might brainstorm a delicious dessert to concoct when he returns to the kitchen. All the creative adventurer needs to do is head out with an open mind and a sense of possibility. The combination of natural setting, physical activity and creative energy do the rest.
Artistic adventures can take several forms: Someone else can sweat the details (like my yoga-writing retreat) or you can organize your own. Either way, you’re investing in wild creativity – with big dividends in adventure, inspiration and fun.
Finding New Focus
Creativity is all about seeing things differently, whether you’re a rock climber seeking hidden footholds or a photojournalist capturing storm clouds on film. “The camera is a tool for personal growth and self-discovery,” says professional photographer Karen Gordon Schulman, who leads outdoor photo tours through her company, Focus Adventures. “It’s not what’s in the viewfinder, it’s how you’re looking at it,” she explains.
Schulman encourages people to develop their unique vision during camera safaris such as her Galapagos Islands tour, in which the group swims, snorkels and hikes to places to observe and photograph iguanas, birds and turtles. “I coach people on technical, left-brained stuff like aperture settings, but what they really want from my trips is excitement and some right-brained fun making images.”
Artistic outdoor adventures refresh us and stir our sense of play, in part because they place us in challenging situations and new surroundings. “Adventure, exercise and creativity all help us get out of the box and enrich our creative spirit,” says Schulman. “Whether you’re photographing the Moroccan desert or the woods near your home, you allow yourself to get lost in the magical moment and press the shutter from a more intuitive place, the way a jazz musician gets lost in the music.”
Nature as Muse
Spending time outdoors arouses your senses and awakens your creativity, which is why Banff, Alberta–based artist Wendy Bradley packs up her easel and hikes for hours into the Canadian Rockies to paint en plein air – French for “in the open air.”
“The wonderful thing about painting outdoors is the influence of the sights, sounds and smells of nature on my work,” says Bradley. “When I return to my studio, my plein air sketch transports me back to the mountain or lake. Suddenly I can remember the smells of the trees, the cloud movement, the bird calls – even if it’s weeks later.”
Bradley’s company, Artistic Journeys, lets her share her backcountry knowledge and watercolor- and oil-painting expertise with both experienced and beginning painters. A sample adventure: Painters backpack their food and bedding to an alpine hut in Canada’s Yoho National Park. Once there, they hike with their art supplies to an inspiring view of Lake O’Hara and the surrounding region, and pull out their brushes and paints.
When mixing adventure and art, you must prime yourself for the unexpected, advises Bradley. “Be ready to take down your easel quickly in case of rain or to keep gusts of wind from blowing it away.” But don’t let the weather dampen your artistry; it can add spontaneity. “Facing the elements heightens your connection to the landscape,” she says. “After a storm, painting makes you feel so alive. That complete emotional, sensory experience is something you can’t capture by paint- ing from an inanimate photograph.”
The Body Electric
As Michael Johan digs his paddle into the Colorado River in eastern Utah, fighting the current, he’s intent on the white water and on avoiding rocks. An hour later, in the calmer water, he settles into easier strokes, and his concentration moves from the river currents to his creative passion: poetry.
“When I’m navigating between Utah’s red canyon walls with the blue sky above me, everyday life disappears,” says the Boulder, Colo., construction con- tractor. “It’s just me, the scenery and the rhythm of paddling. Words come to me – usually inspired by nature and often influenced by the tempo of my arms dipping the paddle into the water,” he adds. At night, after pulling into shore and setting up camp, he grabs his notebook and lets the words pour into a haiku: “Movement of the core / Unobstructed vital force / No separation.”
“Outdoor experiences open windows to creativity,” says Johan. “Even if I’m not working on a specific poem, the artist space is there when I’m canoeing. I think it’s intensified by the energy generated by a day on the water.”
A canoe on the river is a perfect metaphor for creativity: When we’re inspired, we often feel we’re “in the flow.” We feel we are being carried along by a creative current that originates somewhere outside of us.
That burst of imagination we get from paddling, horseback riding or hang-gliding spills over into real life, too, often in unexpected ways that make our everyday lives richer. For instance, Johan has taken his boys on annual father-son canoe outings for 15 years. “My sons are in their 20s now, and our trips are a highlight of our relationship,” he says. “When we’re together, paddling on a river, I feel more creative and invigorated as a father, plus I’m renewed physically, which gives me more energy to take home to my family and work. Then my life feels like art.”
Whether you book an international tour organized around a particular art form or you head out with pals on an impromptu camping trip, you can turn virtually any trip into an artistic odyssey. Just pack along a journal, watercolors, crayons or a camera (or whatever helps you welcome the muse) right alongside your active gear. Set aside some time for contemplation, observation and expression.
Then, with fresh air filling your lungs, the sounds of nature in your ears and the caress of the elements on your skin, prepare to enjoy an exhilarating outdoor adventure – and ignite your creative side in the bargain.
Creating with Nature
Looking for ways to combine creativity and activity? You can make it happen on a weeklong retreat or a two- hour break. Start with these suggestions, then come up with some ideas of your own.
PEN AND PAPER. Put a journal or stationery in your daypack and go for a hike in a local park. Record your reflections, or write a letter to a friend and include pressed leaves between the pages.
SNOW, SAND OR ROCKS. Make snow sculptures in the forest or sand sculptures at a beach, adding rocks, shells, driftwood and feathers. Stack some stones where you find them – then leave them for others to discover.
MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. Join nature’s symphony. Grab your flute, ukulele or harmonica and head for the hills. Sing harmonies and make improvised rhythms with friends around a campfire.
PAINTBRUSH OR PENCIL. Bike to botanical gardens or a beautiful vista with watercolors or a sketchbook. Let yourself respond to subtle shades of color and the play of light.
MUSCLES AND VISION. Take a mat to a field or dock in early morning and practice yoga to nature’s soundtrack. Afterward, partake in a period of stillness. Set intentions, visualize an ideal day, imagine the outcomes of a goal completed, or just let your mind wander.
Explore Your Creative Side
Fully Organized Artistic Adventures:
Adventure High. Combines kayaking with carving, painting, sketching, photography or yoga in Grand Manan, New Brunswick; 800-732-5492; www.adventurehigh.com
Artistic Journeys. Hike the Canadian Rockies and other scenic areas for outdoor painting and sketching, photography, and creative writing with artist Wendy Bradley; 403-762-5528; www.artisticjourneys.ca
Focus Adventures. Photo tours of Ireland, Morocco, the Colorado Rockies, mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with photographer Karen Gordon Schulman; 970-879-2244; www.focusadventures.com
Patchwork Farm Retreats. Writing and yoga retreats in Mexico, Guatemala and Wales with Patricia Lee Lewis; 413-527-5819; www.writingretreats.org
Smoothwater Ecolodge. Canoeing, kayaking and hiking getaways with art and cooking in Temagami, Ontario; 888-569-4539; www.smoothwater.com
Strabo Tours. U.S. and international photo excursions that include hiking, walking, swimming and snorkeling; 866-218-9215; www.phototc.com
The Colorado Trail Foundation. Outdoor workshops in photography, oil and watercolor painting, and storytelling; 303-384-3729; www.coloradotrail.org
The Women’s Wilderness Institute. Wilderness writing workshops while you’re backpacking or canoeing; past workshops have featured award-winning author Pam Houston; 303-938-9191; www.womenswilderness.org
Retreat Centers with Arts Programs: Devise your own artistic adventure with an outdoor element by finding a rural retreat center with arts classes. Plan to hike, cycle or swim outdoors during free time.
Esalen Institute. An alternative education and personal growth center in Big Sur, Calif., that hosts a variety of workshops from blacksmithing to dancing and drumming. Plan your own beach walks or hikes; 831-667-3005; www.esalen.org
Hollyhock. An educational retreat center with workshops in singing, dancing, writing, drumming, cooking and gardening on British Columbia’s Cortes Island. Hiking, swimming, kayaking and yoga also available; 800-933-6339; www.hollyhock.ca
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Offers yoga, meditation and other activities in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, in addition to workshops focusing on music, dance and drumming; 866-200-5203; www.kripalu.org
Omega Institute. Presents workshops in music, dance, crafts, writing, cooking and more in New York’s Hudson Valley. Optional: swimming, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and nature walking; 800-944-1001; www.eomega.org