One summer, I went to the woods. It changed my life.
Like so many young, aspiring outdoors-people do, I went on a 30-day backpacking course with The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I had dreams of finding myself, of becoming an inspirational leader, of basking in the glorious sunshine, and of getting skinny and ricidulously hot from carrying a 50lb backpack for 30 days.
NOLS crushed all of my dreams. Ok, most of them.
The Wind River Range treated me to 8 days of nonstop rain and sleet, and greeted me with a frozen-shut tent on the summer solstice (when I really had to pee). And the mosquitos. So. Many. Mosquitoes. My pack looked like it was dipped in them. I wore head to toe rain gear, a head net, and gloves in retaliation. It sucked.
Shouldn’t I be having some deep thoughts doing yoga on a mountain right about now? Why am I not feeling inspired? Why do people LIKE this? Sure I knew it would be hard work, but shouldn’t I be basking lakeside looking outdoorsy while I write beautiful poetry?
As Leader of the Day I had a breakdown and cried as I led my group down a mountain in a very indirect manner (read: LOST). I counted down the days in my journal. I had dreams of going home. And to top it all off, I got a B-. A B-?! I couldn’t wait to get back to daily showers and Facebook.
When friends asked me how NOLS was, all I could say was “it was crazy”. It’s what I still say. It took me a while to properly reflect on NOLS.
It was the biggest learning experience of my life. It was hard. The Winds challenged me and I didn’t fight to enjoy the wilderness. People always made it seem to me that wilderness was a magical fairy-land where everything is sun-drenched, the air is crisp and the ambient temperature hovers around 75 degrees F. They forgot to mention the parts where sideways rain is pelting you in the face from every direction. But honestly I don’t blame them.
NOLS was my first wilderness experience, and it blew my freaking mind. It showed me that in life you can’t always just ride the wave, that leadership is challenging, that communication is vital, that solutions can be created for any problem and that the ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is one of the most valuable skills you will learn, in the outdoors and everywhere.
I went into the woods that summer with no real basis of what to expect. Growing up, I didn’t have mountains in my backyard. I had never really been camping. I had never been in a situation where so many things were out of my control. I had never been in a place that was so astoundingly, amazingly and magically beautiful. Up until that point, my soul had never been captured so deeply or fully by anything.
To be wild is to be raw and harsh and gorgeous at the same time. I left the wilderness with a hugely bruised ego and an equally open mind. And I keep going back for more.