At 12,749 feet up in the air, I felt victorious. My heart pounded in my ribcage. My cheeks were flushed. Bruises blossomed beneath the hip and shoulder straps of my pack, which was over half my weight. I looked down. All those boulders I’d scrambled over were pebbles. The vast snowfields were tiny patches strewn across the pass. I now stood on the mountain that towered over me earlier that morning.
We dropped our packs and hugged each other. We had made it up the mountain together. Now we were here. Nothing could possibly go wrong in that glorious moment. Or so we thought. Ominous clouds began to build on the horizon, obscuring the once bluebird sky. I figured that being the highest thing up for hundreds of miles probably was not good. If we couldn’t make it off that pass before the storm hit, we could be struck by lightning. The day took a dark turn from triumphant hardship to disaster risk.
Frenzied, we threw on our packs and began our descent. I felt a drop of rain, then another and another. In moments the rocks became slick beneath our boots. Then the hail fell, ice shot from the sky, making our miserable situation frightening. The icy marbles pelted my hands raw and red. Shrieking winds lashed my face, trying to push me off the pass. Then I heard something. We all heard something. Thunder rumbled through the mountains; a flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
“Quick! Underneath this boulder!” My instructor called.
In seconds, we dove under a huge boulder to wait for the storm to pass. Thunder booms shook the ground. Curled up beneath that rock, wet hair plastered to my face, my clothes soaked to the bone, I wondered if it could get any worse. We stayed huddled and shivering beneath that boulder for what seemed like ages. Then, just as everyone was becoming mildly hypothermic, the storm let up. After that day, I knew that if I survived that, I could handle anything.
I used to have a very different mentality. I felt constantly stressed about the past and the future. I feared everything I couldn’t control. I played the “what if” game for just about any situation. I would over-prepare for tests, worrying if there was any extra credit that I hadn’t studied for; I would psych myself out before every cross-country meet, fearing I would do worse than my last race, and beating myself up before I had even competed. I would even prepare what I might say to people before I even spoke to them to avoid not knowing what to say.
It got to a point, in the midst of a bleak winter, when I realized that I did not want to live like that anymore. I wanted to do something that would put my everyday worries into perspective. I wondered how to give myself this reality check, and so I talked to my mom. She had done a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course, when she was in her twenties, and loved it. It wasn’t anything life-changing for her, but I felt like it could be for me. There was something that had always drawn me to the wilderness and I wasn’t quite sure what it was: the raw beauty, the hard work… the unexpected? Now that was it. There was something alluring and daring about putting my vulnerable self in the elements, without the safety and security of a house or nearby civilization. I would have to adapt to my wild surroundings because I had absolutely no control over them. It sounded scary, but it had to be the perfect antidote. So with determined but shaky hands, I sat down and applied for a month-long backpacking NOLS course in Wyoming.
In the months leading up to the trip, I was terrified. Then, before I knew it, the bus dropped us off in the wilderness of Wyoming. We were 8,000 feet in the air. There was not a cloud in the sky or another person for miles. My trip leader turned to us and said, “Are you guys ready to take a walk?” Some of us had nervous faces and trembling knees, others wore falsely confident smiles. Despite my fears, despite not knowing what these four weeks would be like, despite not knowing what incredible, terrifying, amazing, near-death experiences were to come, I felt ready. As the bus drove down the bumpy road, leaving a trail of dust behind it, I realized I was about to embark on an adventure I’d remember for the rest of my life.
Sure enough, those four weeks changed me. Not just because of the beautiful views, the delicious food, and the incredible friends I made, but because each day threw something new at me. Whether it was new terrain, hail, snow, waist-deep mud or river crossings, I had no idea what was to come the next day. And instead of being afraid of that as I had been before, I learned to embrace it.
When I came home from NOLS I felt fearless. I stepped out of that vicious worry wheel I had once been trapped in. I felt like I could do anything. Soon after I came home, I started attending a new school, a semester program on the coast of Maine. I had been nervous about the new school ever since I had been accepted, but after NOLS I wasn’t worried. I knew that although I had lived in the same house and gone to the same school for years, I could handle change. I was more excited than ever.
It took these extreme measures for me to realize that living in the past and future caused me stress. Now, in stressful times, I can tap into that feeling of relief and euphoria when I realized we had made it through the storm. Life will always be unexpected, but I am okay with that. I came out of my NOLS trip a different person and I am at peace. Anxiety-free at last.