Waking Up in the Wilderness

By Carolyn Highland

Oct 14, 2015

I woke in the middle of the night to cold on my nose and a black strip of sky smattered with stars in my vision. It was all I could see, my sleeping bag cinched up around my face, laid out on the bare ground. I lay there unmoving, every cell of my body awake and aware of itself. It felt as though I’d been tapped on the shoulder, as though some massive universal force had tugged at me, whispering “you need to see this.”

Sleep outside as often as possible

Sleep outside as often as possible. Photo by Carolyn Highland.

I’d spent the few days prior hiking through tussock and scree and contemplating the uncertainty of my future. In less than a week my semester in New Zealand would be over and I would find myself yet again a recent college graduate without a plan.

The mountain air had been whirring with questions I didn’t have answers to yet, like where I’d live and what I’d do and who I’d be with.

Would I choose the easy, comfortable route and try to find a job in a city I didn’t really want to live in because my friends were there? Would I choose a route that was unchallenging but safer? Or would I do something entirely different, something that I felt in my heart but would require me striking out alone?

Out here, I woke up every day with a purpose—with the pure and yet complex purpose of picking up my home and walking to where I would place it next. Back in the frontcountry, the questions and options tumbled and spun and made me dizzy.

When two of my expedition mates tried to convince me to sleep outside on the night of Thanksgiving, one of our last in the backcountry, I declined, citing my exhaustion and desire to get a good night’s sleep. I liked the idea of sleeping outside better than the actuality of it, especially at high altitude in mid-spring. I would inevitably toss and turn in the cold and wake up to sandflies biting my face. I wanted the comfort of the inside of the only house we had out here.

But before I even entered the tent I felt called back outside, felt called to sleep beside my two best friends underneath the sky.

Celebrating the Little Things

Celebrating a beach arrival in Titirangi after a difficult day of paddling. Photo by Carolyn Highland.

Instead of feeling irritated when I woke, I was seized by the feeling that, more than ever, I was exactly where I needed to be in that moment and in my life. I was suddenly calm. It was all simple, it was all right before me. It was all embodied by what I was doing in that exact moment, by the choice I had made that night. The choice to forgo certain comfort and sleep outside was one that seemed so insignificant at the time but that I realized then actually represented everything I was about to do, everything I wanted my life to be.

In the tent, I would have had a warm, pleasant, uninterrupted night’s sleep. I would have been comfortable. It would have been easy. It was my initial reaction because it was the path of least resistance, it was the choice that felt like the best one because it was the easiest. But it wasn’t. The best choice was to drag my sleeping bag out into the chilly night air and lay it beside two people who brought out in me what I wanted to be brought out. And so I knew it would have to be, it would be for the rest of my life.

Being in New Zealand had awoken me to exactly the way I wanted to live my life. Not in a literal sense—I was not planning on spending the rest of my days in the backcountry—but rather in the sense of the way I felt when I was out there, in the way I acted, in the way I was. In the way I inhabited my real self so fully and completely. In the way that I spent time with people who made me better. Who made me more me.

And I knew in that moment as I gazed up at the stars, my nose frozen from the air but my arms warm from my friends on either side of me, that this is the path I would follow for the rest of my life. I would travel uphill and jump into cold water and be kind and supportive and goofy and real. I would do what felt right in the deepest and purest part of me even when it was difficult. I didn’t know yet what it would look like, but I knew what it would feel like. It wasn’t even a choice, it just was. This is the answer, it whispered. This is the way. I was right before me, as clear as the night sky above our heads.

Three years after I took my last steps out of the New Zealand backcountry, I find myself thousands of miles from home on the other side of the U.S., having heeded the pull of the southern hemisphere stars. I find myself living the life I’d imagined. One that looks different than anything I ever could have dreamed up, but feels precisely the way I knew it needed to. It was a difficult and confusing and exhausting and long and windy trail to get here, but it was the right one. And I am a fuller and richer and happier version of myself for it.

How incredible it is, to be able to—through your presence in this grand, vast environment—connect with something that lies so deep within your own soul. And that is the proof, I think, that every thing in this universe is connected to every other thing. That by placing my feet on the mountains and my hands in the speargrass and my ass onto the slushy snow and my head on the tussock, I was actually connecting, little by little, with myself. With something inside me long before I ever set foot in New Zealand, but that was called to the surface by its long lost relatives. By the sky and the stones and the streams and the snow and the stars. A message that could only be heard outside.

That is the gift that wilderness gives us. It reminds us of who we are and pushes us to be that. You were always there, it whispers, but it provides us with the clear reflecting glass to see it. This is who you are, it tells us. This is who we are. Now go. Be it. Wildly, fully, tenaciously.

Explore the wilderness on your own NOLS semester

Written By

Carolyn Highland

Carolyn Highland is a teacher and writer living in Truckee, California. When not taking her fourth grade students at Tahoe Expedition Academy (www.tahoeexpeditionacademy.org/) into the field, she can be found skiing, trail running, climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, jumping into alpine lakes, and then writing about it. Carolyn is a graduate of the 2012 NOLS Semester in New Zealand and the 2019 Rocky Mountain Outdoor Educator Course. You can follow her on Instagram at @c_highland

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