I wanted to feel strong again. I wanted to feel healthy and capable and full of my old fire, the way I’d felt just before I left for the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, West Africa. I wanted work that was inspiring, service-oriented, and many rugged miles away from a desk, so I decided, in the waning days of my Peace Corps service, to apply for a three-week National Outdoor Leadership School course geared towards aspiring outdoor educators on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I’d had friends undertake a variety of NOLS courses, puffy and dull with their collegiate pizza diets and beer pong marathons, who came back bright. Sharp. Tough.
Clocking in at ninety post-parasite pounds, I was about as puffy as beef jerky, but weak as a kitten and weary from two years of trying to make myself useful as a non-food grower in an agrarian economy. In keeping with the ethos of my twenties, I rationalized that if I could do something super tough, then I would come out super tough as a result, like putting myself through a human car wash and coming out clean. All I had to do was step on the conveyor belt.
That step proved the hardest part. After cramming a staggering assortment of group and personal gear into our packs and loading them into a passenger van, we made our vertiginous way up into the Olympics, our wheels tracing the edges of deep gorges as we rose into the mist. At the trailhead, we helped each other our packs, which required a team of three: two people to lift the pack while the third stepped into it backwards, looping the shoulder straps over their shoulders, buckling the waist belt, and winching down the various nylon straps meant to customize the fit.
The minimum pack weight was fifty pounds, but since this was the beginning of our trek and we needed gear for everything from temperate rainforest rambles to glacier traverses, our burdens topped out closer to seventy. After I’d yanked and winched myself into a breathless bind, I nodded to my two trailmates to release my pack. The ensuing sensation was what it might feel like if the earth’s gravitational force increased tenfold. I had to stagger forward to keep from falling on my face. I stumbled around the clearing like a drunk, my knees and ankles groaning with the force of each footfall. I couldn’t raise my head to look higher than the tips of my worn hiking boots, and I felt the first hot, abrasive rubs of the waistbelt that would leave me with welts the size of dinner plates on each hip.
The soles of those boots would peel off like dead skin two weeks in, and have to be crudely sewn back on by my gruff but kind Kiwi instructor. I would have done it myself, but my fingertips all split open, a result of two years of nutritional deficiency, coupled with the extreme temperature changes of our route. I nearly drowned during a tricky river crossing, then found myself dangling upside down in a waterfall by one leg trapped under a root. Later, I became hypothermic while narrowly avoiding a fatal slide into a glacial crevasse.
I didn’t feel bright, sharp, or tough by the last day. I felt broken in body and deeply conflicted in spirit. I’d spent the entire trek wrestling with the choice I’d made. How I could I ever explain to the folks in my village why I’d paid more money than anyone there would see in a lifetime, only to wind up feeling like Humpty Dumpty, post-great fall? It took me a year to find the answer, or rather, it took me a year to find the bus. In the year and a half I spent as a graduate student with the Audubon Expedition Institute, as well as the final practicum semester spent living in a tiny shack called “The Acorn”, I learned why knowing how to live with and in nature matters. Nature is our life support system, full stop, and that makes it a matter of life and death. Did I need to drown upside down in a waterfall to remember that? Maybe in my twenties I did. Now, I’m perfectly happy to skip that part, and just get on the bus.