Finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Drop my pack knowing it was the last time I’d have to heave it around for more than a quick second. And look back – the trail we’d just traversed faintly visible in the distance. The sun completely risen now, I slumped into a seat of a recommissioned school bus exchanging tired but triumphant smiles with the rest of the group. What would I take away from these 9 days? That was the question that continually ran through my mind as we prepared our return to the frontcountry.
Long after my NOLS expedition through the Wind River Range concluded, I’m still processing what it’s imparted on me. There was no doubt that this was the most physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding experience of my life. But having given it time to digest, I’ve realized that much of what I’d expected to learn differed from the lessons I actually internalized. These were some of my takeaways:
1) Make it about the work.
The first day of the course, our instructors led us on a six-mile hike to our campsite. A heavy backpack coupled with the fact that it was mostly uphill left me completely drained. That night, I wondered how I would get through another week of this. It was the first leg of Winterline and I already felt stuck.
But the next day, these thoughts were swept aside by tasks in need of completion then and there – cooking breakfast, packing the tent, boiling water. The immediacy of the situation left me with little time to be frustrated or concerned for the future. The end of the day came and went and I felt accomplished. Everything I did – whether it be drinking water or scouting for an area to set up camp – became another step in the right direction. I felt like I was getting somewhere.
The day after, I adopted a similar mindset, reminding myself to focus on what needed to be done just as I began feeling demoralized. This repeated the next day and the day after that until finally the week had come and gone. I realized that thinking about the future can be a useful tool but it can also be incredibly daunting. It’s necessary to allow yourself to lose sight of it and remain present from time to time. If you can keep it about the work, you’ll find that there is always something to be done and a path forward.
2) Type II fun
Type II fun is an apt description of the moments that are uncomfortable at the given time but are appreciated in retrospect. This was an idea introduced to me by Jerrick, one of our instructors. Throughout the hike, we had plenty of these – twelve-hour trekking days, long stretches spent bushwhacking through the forest, and crossing frigid rivers all come to mind. Just as it can be beneficial to stay in the present when you feel anxious, imagining your future self having moved past your current situation can also be crucial. This was a great coping mechanism when I ran out of dry socks late at night – imagining my future self reflecting fondly on the memory. And sure enough, that’s how I look back on it today.
3) Trusting yourself and failing publicly
I’ve never been an outdoorsy person. I wasn’t great at any of the skills that the course seemed to require to be successful (navigation, cooking, heavy-lifting, etc.) and I didn’t trust myself to try them. I was afraid of holding my peers back. Inevitably, I had to put myself out there to do quite the opposite and propel my group forward. I realized that much of what I had been scared to foray into was easier than I had imagined. Nothing was perfect or ever handed to me – setting up our tent was regularly a process of trial and error and the meals I cooked were often crude at best, but it was refreshing to be reminded that if I took a risk, more often than not I could exceed my own expectations.
4) Recognize, plan, and act
In the wilderness, you run into problems – the kind you can’t ignore. For example, we once failed to anticipate running into another hiking group camping in our planned resting point. There wasn’t time to worry about deviating from our initial plan or where we’d be spending the night. We simply picked up a map, plotted a new route, and were off within minutes.
Before NOLS, I often accepted the discomfort of having problems or fretted about how they had arisen. Now I’m trying to be more solution-oriented and adaptable – devising an alternative and wholeheartedly committing to the decisions I make in the face of an obstacle.
You can’t bring the mountains with you when you leave the wilderness. The snow covered trees. The wildlife. But if you play your cards right, you just might return with a little more perspective and a bit more self-assured. -SK
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