How NOLS Ruined the Old Me

By Erin Sullivan

Mar 1, 2016

Scenery in the Wind River Range
Photo by Erin Sullivan.

The summer I was 19, I went on a thirty day Wind River Wilderness course.

It wasn't like I was outdoorsy. I never went to summer camp as a kid. I was in Girl Scouts, but I only lasted until we had to sleep in tents. Then I was out. I was not the kid playing in the dirt.

Over the course of my teenage experience, I went from wannabe popular girl to the artsy loner chick with blue hair who loved photography and raiding her grandmother’s closet. As I embraced my weirdness and my daydreaming, I developed this huge and constant sense of curiosity about the world that seemed to follow me everywhere. Years passed, and the giant cloud of wanderlust that floated over my head remained unwavering. So once I was a little older, I looked up to it and said, "okay, what can we do about this?"

I heard about a program called NOLS. Basically, you go into the woods for a few weeks and come out a total warrior. That's actually not how it works at all, but it's what I thought when I was 18.

I made NOLS a must-do. I applied early. My sophomore year of college ended, and after months of anticipation, I was on a plane to Wyoming carrying a duffel bag of gear I didn't know how to use. I arrived at the NOLS base in Lander, Wyoming, and found myself in a circle with twelve 16- and 17-year-olds and three twenty-something dudes in trucker hats grinning from ear to ear. These were the people I was going to spend the next thirty days with.

I was a solid two years older than the other students, but I would learn, and later accept, that some of these 16-year-olds were more mature than I was. Some of them were amazing leaders, problem solvers, and communicators, and their skills in these categories far surpassed mine. When I was crippled by fear and frustration, they collected their emotions and did what needed to be done.

By the time we got walking on day one, it was afternoon. My instructors were energetic, organized, and bright-eyed—the First-Day feeling I now know well as an outdoor educator. 

On the trail
Photo by Erin Sullivan.

I was so exhausted that night that I slept fairly well, a backcountry rarity for me even now. We learned how to break camp and use our stoves, then got on our way. Then we got on our way the next day, and for 28 days after that.

There was a time when I remembered every single day of my NOLS course. I don't anymore.

I do remember hiking an extra three miles in the snow because we had misread the map. I remember eight days in a row of sleet and rain, and putting on my frozen boots every day, hoping for sun. I remember hiking in head-to-toe rain gear, gloves, and pants tucked into socks because the mosquitos were so thick. I remember crying on the Continental Divide because I had tendonitis and it was hard, and there was no way to get out of it, no escape route, no option to undo it.

I remember the smile of one of my peers, at age 16 in his vintage Oakleys, being the natural leader he was, as I crumbled under my fear of walking across a boulder field.

That summer ruined me. Being in the wilderness, something so vast and unapologetic, something I had never experienced before, humbled me and said to me, "You're not in control of this." I couldn't be passive. I had to cook, clean, lead, follow, communicate. And I didn't.

I complained. I cried. There were times when I shut down and gave up. I constantly dreamt about home, about a hot shower, about not sleeping on a piece of 1/4" thick foam anymore.

One night I got up in the middle of the night. I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag, and the stars were so bright I could see my shadow. There was no moon. Just me and the stars. The sky was purple, beautiful, vast. It was cold. It felt like the first time I had ever looked up in my life. And there were moments like that. There were moments of pure exposed beauty, of laughing, singing, and storytelling that were not fleeting, but instead meaningful and formative. In those moments too, that summer was ruining me. 

Evening in the Wind River Range
Photo by Erin Sullivan.

It ruined the old me, because it pushed me in ways I couldn't even understand yet. I couldn't accept that I wasn't a good leader. I was used to being good at things, and I wasn't good at this because the wilderness doesn't just let you be good at it without work.

That summer ruined the person who I used to be. It showed me a path of ambition and compassion, and asked if I was going to get on it. It told me I couldn't do things halfway anymore. And I haven't always loved it on that path, but it's so damn magnetic that I can't step off it. My feet simply won't go in any other direction.

Thirty days in the wilderness ruined my life. My old life—the one where I was comfortable, where I didn't ask questions, where I let things be handed to me and didn't try too hard—and opened me up to challenge, hard questions, and what it truly means to try.

Erin Sullivan on her course
Photo by Erin Sullivan.

When anyone asked me how my NOLS course was, I responded with "crazy" or "wild," but never "good." That summer taught me that I have so much to learn, and that I always will.

That summer cracked me open, so light could get in. The things that ruin us, the things that crumble our perceptions of ourselves, the things that have us looking up at a star-filled sky asking, "Why am I doing this?"—those are the things that spark who we were meant to be.

See all NOLS Expeditions.

Written By

Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan is a writer, producer and NOLS alum based in Colorado. After traveling and leading adventure trips for five years, Erin made Colorado her home base. She currently writes on her blog, Erin Outdoors (, and works on Born Wild (, a film project focused on educating and inspiring families to get outside. You can follow Erin on Instagram at @erinoutdoors.

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