The experience I had in Arches National Park made me realize this: that I’m happier when I’m interacting with a natural environment than I am when I’m doing anything else. That’s a profound thing, really – to know what makes you happy.
But, as satisfying as it was, my brief climbing experience only seemed to whet my appetite for a deeper connection with the wild places I was visiting; it opened my eyes to realize that I wanted to do more than just hike the trails in these beautiful places: I wanted to climb up them and kayak through them and snowboard down them. I wanted to find new ways to engage with the natural world so that I could connect with it on a different level – so that I could have the same heightened experience in other wild places that I had while climbing. In that vein, I wound up leaving Arches both deeply satisfied, and still, craving more.
As I drove down the dusty road that led to Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky visitor’s entrance, it hit me: Canyonlands was the last park on my list for the summer. Just as I was feeling ready to take things to the next level, my summer was coming to an end.
I was struggling to reconcile how I would go from traveling all over the country to just… going home. I was trying to mentally process how I’d go from the months on end I’d spent outdoors, in the sanctuary of the wild places I was exploring, to the civil monotony of the desk job and city life that I’ve grown to feel all too trapped by. It really shook me. I was a mess. My summer adventures had literally shown me a whole new world, and I didn’t want to go back to the life I’d left behind in Seattle. I pulled into Canyonlands National Park, thinking about that quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr:
I wasn’t ready to be done, yet. I drove from Shafer Canyon, to Upheaval Dome, to Grand View Point, trying to put it all together. I was trying to answer questions like: Why did I do it? What was the point of all of it? What did I learn? I was meandering out along the cliffs that lead to the Grand View Point Lookout, trying to answer those questions for myself.
Why did I do it? All summer, people had been asking me that. At first, I thought about the summer before, how after three months abroad, I sat in an airport in Frankfurt and resolved to spend the next year discovering the beauty in my own country. Then, I thought about my grandfather and the way he loved America’s wilderness; and I thought about how the last promise I made to him before he died was that I would retrace his old footprints to some of his favorite places. I thought about how my grandmother was following along on my journey; about how I needed to keep my blog up to date so she could see where I was going and look at the pictures of where I’d been. I thought about how the wild places I was visiting across the country had strangely and inescapably come to feel like sanctuaries to me from my life back home; how walking down the hiking paths of Glacier and Yosemite had given me opportunities to walk off some of the past relationships and problems I was struggling with in Seattle. Why are you doing it? I thought about how my answer had changed over time; how my why had evolved from a mere curiosity, to an obligation, to an escape, to a realization of a true, unbridled joy that I’d never experienced before. I thought about how I’d changed, and I wondered whether I hadn’t grown different as much as I had finally been free of all the outside influences that were getting in the way of me being myself.
I saw bears. And I saw deer, and moose, and wolverines. I climbed mountains, I kayaked across lakes, and I forded rivers on horseback. One night, I made friends out of strangers, trading hot cocoa for whiskey and huddling around a bonfire in the rain, trying to stay warm and dry (failing at both). Another night, I hopped into a canoe with two strangers and rowed out on Glacier National Park's Bowman Lake, where the stars and the moonlight were so bright that we could see their reflections in the water as we floated across the lake. Those moments still feel like they happened yesterday; I'll remember them for the rest of my life.
I learned that I don’t need nearly as much as I think I do. I learned that happiness doesn’t come from buying things; it comes from doing things. I learned that the usefulness of technology is surpassed only by its unimaginable ability to intercept us from everything; that wild places force us to be present. More, I learned that wild places need to be protected; that the greatest threat to wild animals and wild lands is humanity.
In 2013, at the age of 64, Diana Nyad became the first person (male or female) to swim the 110 miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida, without the protection of a shark cage. She did it without ever leaving the water: completing the swim in 53 hours on her fifth attempt, finally achieving a dream that she’d been chasing for more than 35 years (her first attempt was in 1978; she was 28 at the time). Reflecting on what it meant for her to accomplish a dream that she’d been chasing for more than half of her life, Nyad said, When you achieve your dreams, it’s not so much what you get – it’s who you become.
In traveling through the parks this past summer, I didn’t necessarily get anything – but, I became someone different than I was before. I’m not afraid to head off into the wilderness on my own, now: whether it’s by foot, by kayak, or by snowboard. I’m not afraid to sleep in the wild by myself. I’m not afraid to leave the city that I’ve called home for the last decade, or the job I’ve been at for the past five years, or the comforts of urban life that have defined the “real world” for me for as long as I can remember. I became self-sufficient, this summer, in a different way than I have ever been before. I just feel free.
I’ve been asked all sorts of questions about my trips this summer – some of which I’ve answered in this blog post. Eventually, though, it seems like every conversation about this project leads to the same question: What’s next? A lot of people think I’d be excited to take on something like the Pacific Crest Trail, or hike to the Everest Base Camp, or something like that. But, that’s not where I want to take things right now. After hiking up and around mountains all summer, I think I’m ready to spend a season going down them, instead.
After all, you know what they say: Winter is coming.