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The Summer That Ruined My Life

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I am a photographer and writer passionate about the outdoors, meaningful travel, and living deliberately. I hope to use my platform online to show the beauty and complexity of the world we live in, and to encourage genuine connection to the outdoors, culture, people and wildlife.

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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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  1. Hal says:

    Hey there, been following your blog & IG for a while and I love this post. It certainly resonates – back in 1986 I took my first steps as a NOLS student and it changed my life forever, for the better. You describe it so well, so I won’t go into my story except to say that it gave me the confidence to pursue a life where I could apply my natural aptitudes to a career that I believe makes a positive difference for the environment. It wasn’t a clear path, there were many leaps of faith along the way. Thanks for your writing, keep up the great work, you have a wonderful voice. You are doing something honest, real, and unique.

    • Hey Hal! Thank you so much! Love to hear that your NOLS experience was similar to mine. The path isn’t clear, I agree– happy that NOLS gave you the confidence to take those leaps where they mattered. Thanks again!

  2. Gariele says:

    Erin, that last paragraph had me almost in tears. You and I are so similar in our thinking it’s uncanny. But the thoughts mean so much more to me when someone else says them instead of when I try to convince myself. Yay for you being so introspective and mature about life and it’s struggles 🙂

  3. Brooke says:

    Dude. Thank you for being so real & such a great role model. Stay awesome

  4. Hey Erin, I was unfamiliar with your blog and I just have to say I love this story! It’s really inspiring, and recognizable. I might not have spent time in the bush like you did, but I think a lot of people can relate to the story of growing up, and running into walls as you find out you simply haven’t learned all you thought you did… 😉

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you so much, Nathalie! I totally agree– this story is one that most people experience, happening at different times and in different places. I run into walls all the time! Thank you for reading. xo

  5. Divinika says:

    I’m leaving for my NOLS trip in about 12 days, and this really shifted my perspective about what I’m getting into. Hopefully I’ll be one of those badass sixteen year olds you were talking about :^)

  6. Hadiza says:

    I’m happy for you. I could the same about college, except now when someone asks me how the experience was, I can breathe and say it was good, kinda, because it made me exactly who I want to be now and I won’t change it for anything easier.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Hi Erin!

    I randomly found your blog online and was poking around. I started backpacking around senior year of college a few times each summer. Now 3 years later i planned a huge trip to Yosemite and it was similar to your NOLS experience. I actually felt pretty down about the entire trip (i just got back a few weeks ago) because i thought i planned this trip and failed to have this ‘magical’ outdoor experience i told myself i would. When people ask me how the trip was, i never respond with ‘good’ only ‘it was big, scary, and crazy’ because thats how i felt when i was there. I don’t look back and think ‘i wish i never went’, but i do look back and say ‘look at all of these things i REALLY could have done differently to have had a better trip’. I guess what i’m trying to get at is the things we think we are going to love kind of kick our asses and it really scares us. I’m glad i found your blog – its a huge inspiration for me to get back out there and not stop because i got smacked in the face by nature.

    Thanks,
    Kathleen

    • Hey Kathleen! Thanks so much for sharing. I totally understand where you are coming from, sounds like we experienced something almost identical. I had to process my trip for a long time before I was able to let myself off the hook for not having that “magical” experience. Remember that you have a lot to be proud of. xo E

  8. Steven says:

    Erin – I find your NOLS story and experience very inspirational in how it served as a catalyst for who you are today. I am truly moved by your blog writings and I thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, insights and perspectives. So happy to have discovered you!

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