The summer I was 19, I went on a thirty day wilderness trip.
It wasn’t like I was outdoorsy. I never went to summer camp as a kid. I was in Girl Scouts, but I only lasted until we had to sleep in tents. Then I was out. I was not the kid playing in the dirt.
Me at age 13: memorizing the words to Britney Spears songs, begging my mother to take me to Abercrombie & Fitch, and spending most of my free time on the computer if I could get away with it.
Over the course of my teenage experience, I went from wannabe popular girl to the artsy loner chick with blue hair. I loved photography and raiding my grandmother’s closet. Wearing sunglasses in class was my preferred method of showing that I did not give a fuck.
As I embraced my weirdness and my subsequent daydreaming, I developed this huge and constant sense of wanderlust that seemed to follow me everywhere. I often brought school trip opportunities to my parents, who responded with “We’ll talk about it,”– which directly translated to “nope.”
College. I came home after my freshman year of art school not having planned for summer. I didn’t really think about it, because my life had been pretty cushy and I was used to having things sorted out for me. After the dust of final exams and projects settled, I thought to myself, what should I do for the next few months? And yes, I can own how much I sound like a privileged brat.
I worked at a summer camp. I thought it would be fun. But I went back to college with a new perspective: one where I now valued mentorship, where I gave myself more credit as a leader and more weight to my own decisions. I did more experimenting. Wanderlust still floated over my head like a fine mist, so I looked up to it and said, “okay, what can we do about this?”
I heard about a program called NOLS. NOLS stands for National Outdoor Leadership School, and synonymous with wilderness education, outdoor skills and leadership. Basically, you go into the woods for a few weeks and come out a total badass. That’s actually not how it works at all, but it’s what I thought when I was 18.
I made NOLS a must-do. I applied early. I was set to hike into the Wind River Range for thirty days starting mid-June of 2009.
My sophomore year of college ended, and after months of anticipation, I was on a plane to Wyoming carrying a duffel bag of gear I didn’t know how to use. I was 19, and it was the first time I had ever flown alone. I remember pretending really hard: to know how to transfer planes, to know where to pick up my baggage, to know where to get the bus.
My head stopped spinning– sort of– when I arrived at the NOLS base in Lander, Wyoming, and found myself in a circle with twelve 16 and 17-year-olds and three twenty-something dudes in trucker hats grinning from ear to ear. These were the people I was going to spend the next thirty days with.
I was a solid two years older than everyone else, but I would learn, and later accept, that some of these 16-year-olds were more mature than I was. Some of them were amazing leaders, problem solvers and communicators, and their skills in these categories far surpassed mine. When I was crippled by fear and frustration, they collected their emotions and got shit done.
After a day of packing, we hiked into the Winds. By the time we got walking, it was afternoon. My instructors were energetic, organized, and bright-eyed– the Day-One feeling I now know well as an outdoor educator.
I was so exhausted that night that I slept fairly well, a backcountry rarity for me even now. We learned how to break down camp and use our stoves and got on our way. Then we got on our way the next day, and for 28 days after that.
There was a time when I remembered every single day of my NOLS course. I don’t anymore.
But I do remember hiking an extra three miles in the snow because we had misread the map. I remember our instructor allowing us to fail, because that’s how we learn. I remember bruises on my hips from carrying my 60-pound backpack, something I hadn’t thought t0 train for.
I remember eight days in a row of sleet and rain, and putting on my frozen boots every day, hoping for sun. I remember hiking in head-to-toe rain gear, gloves, and pants tucked into socks because the mosquitos were so thick. I remember dealing with knee pain from hiking miles I had never hiked before. I remember breaking down on the continental divide because it hurt so badly, and there was no way to get out of it, no escape route, no option to undo it.
I remember the smile of one of my peers, at age 16 in his vintage Oakleys, being the natural leader he was, as I crumbled under my fear of walking across a boulder field.
That summer ruined me. Being in the wilderness, something so vast and unapologetic, something I had never experienced before, humbled me and said to me, “You’re not in control of this.” I couldn’t be passive. I had to cook, clean, lead, follow, communicate. And I didn’t.
I complained. I cried. I say “ruined my life,” because at 19, that’s how I reacted to anything in my life that was marginally difficult. There were times I shut down and gave up. I constantly dreamt about home, about a hot shower, about not sleeping on a goddamn piece of 1/4″ thick foam anymore.
One night I got up in the middle of the night. I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag, and the stars were so bright I could see my shadow. There was no moon. Just me and the stars. The sky was purple, beautiful, vast. It was cold. It felt like the first time I had ever looked up in my life. And there were moments like that. There were moments of pure exposed beauty, of laughing, singing, and storytelling that were not fleeting, but instead meaningful and formative. But in those moments too, that summer was ruining me.
It ruined me because it pushed me in ways I couldn’t even understand yet. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t a good leader. I was used to being good at things, and I wasn’t good at this because the wilderness doesn’t just let you be good at it without work.
That summer ruined who I used to be. It showed me a path of ambition and compassion, and asked if I was going to get on it. It told me I couldn’t do things halfway anymore. And I haven’t always loved it on that path, but it’s so damn magnetic that I can’t step off it. My feet simply won’t go in any other direction.
Thirty days in the wilderness ruined my life. My old life– the one where I was comfortable, where I didn’t ask questions, where I let things be handed to me and didn’t try too hard– and opened me up to challenge, hard questions, and what it truly means to try.
When anyone asked me how my NOLS trip was, I responded with “crazy,” or “wild,” but never “good.” That summer taught me that I have so much to learn, and that I always will. Nearly seven years later, I’ve led adventure trips on four continents and worked with teenagers from all over the world. I’ve made a ton of mistakes and I’ve done my best to learn from them.
That summer cracked me open, so light could get in. The things that ruin us, the things that crumble our perceptions of ourselves, the things that have us looking up at a star-filled sky asking, “Why am I doing this?”– those are the things that spark who we were meant to be.
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