Thanking the Wilderness for Letting Me In

By Maya Johnston

Jun 7, 2016

NOLS participant stretches her arms wide, enjoying sunshine in the mountains
Photo by Adam Stoumen.

“T’is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

From the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

To family and friends alike (and to the other people who care to read my rambling with the hope that I might, just might, go into detail about how long my armpit hair is, or how many times I had to poop in a bag over the course of two and a half months):

I am writing from the train as I think about the past 80 days. As I reminisce, trees of orange and auburn stand out in passing, the rain beats down on the earth while I watch from my warm, dry cabin car. I took Pablo's (my sailing instructor) advice and sat on the starboard side, hoping to get a better view of the coast.

Last night I said goodbye to a group of people that changed my life completely. Some of the greatest friends I could ever have parted ways with, all changed and renewed in their own different, individual ways. I don't doubt that I'll see them again, when moving or passing through towns, visiting to go on more adventures. So that's why I didn't so much say “goodbye” as much as “see ya later dude,” trying to hide my tears under the casual tone of my voice.

Under no circumstances could someone outside of our group of nine fully understand the things we went through as a team. And that's okay with me, I think. There are just some things, some moments, that are reserved for my eight comrades.

The rest are moments that I want to share with the world, even though I doubt anyone outside our group will find them interesting or captivating.

It's pretty hard not to laugh at someone twerking in the middle of the woods while hail is coming down and you are so cold and wet that your fingers can't even work the lighter that will light your stove to make that beautiful hot drink to heat your core. Twerking isn't really that funny. But twerking in the woods? When you're miserable? And all you're looking for is a laugh to keep you grounded and not start crying? Then, twerking is freaking hilarious, and all you can do is talk about how funny that person is twerking in their wet clothes.

There are an endless amount of changes in perspective while in the woods. In the backcountry, nothing can make you happier than being well fed and warm, while in the frontcountry you might have an assortment of problems that cannot be solved by a hot drink.

While some of my freshman college peers would be partying it up on a Saturday night, I would be in the middle of a mountain pass, gazing up at the stars and seeming so insignificant compared to the enormity of the rock faces on either side of me, overwhelmed by the staggering volume of space they took up.

In that moment, there was probably no way I could tell you what day of the week it was. Usually the days were run by the sun, the ultimate clock and determination of when we would eat, when we could sleep, and when we could travel. We usually chased the sun, and as summer went into fall it went from “Death Star” to “Holy Crap It's 4:30 And The Sun Is Already Setting And We Have Five Miles Till Camp Star.” But even then, you learn to get comfortable without sun, the same way you would without showers, or without being dry all the time. As one NOLS instructor said, “it's not that you are getting tougher, or used to the elements more, but rather you are now comfortable with less.”

smiling NOLS student wearing rain gear sits in a tentPhoto by Adam Stoumen.

And so it is in this way that we learned so much from the woods. There are countless of teachings that were brought to my attention out there, and most of them about myself. When you never get a break from interacting with the same people every day for 80 days, there is a lot you'll learn about your impact on other people. Sometimes you come to terms with the fact that there may have been a part of you that was missing before this trip, and that maybe you weren't as self-aware as you thought.

All in all, I started out pretty timid within the group, afraid to show my frustration with other people, fearing that I would get booted off the island or left in the woods to die alone (not really, though). At the end I was a leader, just like everyone else. I had a voice, I was important and valued, and I learned about myself in the most infinite way.

On our last night on the sailboats after our 17-day sailing section, our instructors gathered us down into the cabin of our 36-foot boat Luna Quest. Our instructor Pablo asked us to go around and thank someone in the group for something they did over these 80 days, “because you might not have the chance to thank them again in the short time that we have together.”

As we spoke, people started crying and opening up their importance to each other, and the role we all played in each other's lives. Last was Adam (very comfortable talking to all sorts of people, and one of my best friends), who thanked me. He talked about how I had early on told him and Tara about my mom, and then about a month or so later told the group as a whole. He talked about my pain being exposed, and then added the fact that I had a home there, with them. He thanked me for trusting other people to love me, and that is something I will never forget.

We will spread out over the country in the next few days, going back to the places we used to call “home.” But in reality, my home is not really back in Annapolis, but rather in the many places I have defined myself. I have found home in the middle of the Pasayten Wilderness after 24 hours of bushwhacking. I have found home on a sailboat with four other smelly kids, including my own smelly self. I have found home on rocks, dirt, moss, and any other combination of sticks, twigs, and thorns.

But what I know now that I didn't before is that home is not a place that you can come back to, but rather a place that you are searching for. Defining my home as one place is not only unrealistic, it is untruthful. For I will, from here on out, always be searching for it. That place where I don't have to go somewhere else to find purpose, and I am always learning something new, something of value that I relate to and am passionate about. I may never really find that in one physical place, and if I have to go back into the wilderness to keep looking, then so be it. But it is the search that I strive for, the endless amount of mystery that lies in seeing “what makes me happy.”

As I go home, I will thank the wilderness for letting me in, and showing me its strength, its beauty, its undeniable power and fight for balance, and its magic. I will thank it for acknowledging my presence, like two particles passing through air, affecting each other's path but not changing each other's physical being.

Finally, I will remember what I said upon departing the wilderness, a promise I made that I intend to keep saying forever: “I'll be back.”

NOLS student gazes up at sun filtering through tree branchesPhoto by Adam Stoumen.

P.S. I pooped in a bag about seven times. The length of my armpit hair is unrecorded, as I am still growing it out and thus fulfilling my role as a dirtbag hippie.

Discover your own life-changing experiences on a NOLS semester. 

[Editor's Note: Blog post updated 3/1/2019]

Written By

Maya Johnston

Maya Johnston is currently at the University of Maryland studying film and screenwriting. She is an avid lover of the outdoors and is still keeping in touch with her NOLS comrades. This upcoming summer will be her second season working with the Maryland Conservation Corps.

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