Editor’s Note: Carolyn wrote this letter to her future self on a one-night solo near the end of her Semester in New Zealand.
Dear Future Me,
I am writing to you from November 10, 2012. I am sitting on the duff-covered floor of a beech forest in New Zealand, several hours into my 24-hour solo. I hope that wherever you are, whether you stuck with the plan or veered off in another direction, the view from there is as nice as this one.
I’ve realized so many things out here—there have been so many moments with a capital M. They keep coming one after another, all the time, the way water flows over rocks in all the creeks.
The common thread between all of them, though, is the feeling that expanded in my chest cavity while they occurred—the spontaneous inflation of lungs, the involuntary closing of eyes. Like I was suddenly every part of myself all at once. The world had become even more real, more multi-dimensional, more vivid. It was so simple and clear, right before me—that doing things that made you feel like this is what life is really about.
I had one Moment recently, two nights ago, when we were camping in the Dingle Burn River Valley. Like most valleys we’ve encountered here, this one was blanketed in sprawling tussock grass and surrounded on both sides by towering peaks with trees at the base and snow at the tips. It was late evening and I was sitting on a rock with my cook group, finishing up dinner. The sky had been immaculately clear that day, and after the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, the sky was stained the pinkish-orange that seems to dominate sunsets here.
Off in the distance, the mountains faded into deep purple silhouettes against the horizon, as if someone had etched their outlines with charcoal. They were the mountains of the New Zealand valley I was sitting in, but painted in those familiar hues of afterglow, they became every mountain that had ever meant something to me. I was suddenly filled with a love for the earth so great it felt like all the mountains I loved were huddled up against each other inside my chest.
Watching the colors fade from the sky over the jagged tips in the distance, I felt at home inside myself in a way I’d been missing for years, in the way I’d come out here in search of. Long after the light drained from the sky, the warmth of the sunset stayed with me.
I want to remember that feeling of being at home inside myself, and also being pushed to be more. Being out here with this expedition group feels in so many ways like I used to on my high school cross country team. When the numbers get added up at the end of a race, you can lean on each other, but between the start line and finish line you rely solely on your own strength.
Out here the group works together toward a goal and each member is responsible for getting him or herself there, but the competitive aspect is removed from the equation.
I think I’ve gotten so used to pushing myself on an individual level that I’ve forgotten that, in scenarios that aren’t races, leadership does not always mean physically being in the lead. Leadership is being able to look outside yourself and at the group instead. I have learned that when I place the group’s needs or goals above my own, I am able to lead in an energetic, engaging, and effective way. It’s when I turn my focus inward that I lose my ability to lead to my full potential. There is a time for running and there is a time for walking. The key is being able to recognize the difference, and to learn to be comfortable with both.
There is another Moment I’d like to go back to, one of those moments that grips you at the time, but that seems all too easy to forget once you’ve returned to your normal life.
I was sitting in the 4PT (4-person tent) in the Ashburton River Valley on the mountaineering section, participating in a debate about mining conservation land. The debate turned into more of a philosophical discussion about protecting the wilderness vs. stimulating the economy, and I was suddenly panic-stricken at the idea that one day the money-grabbers might completely destroy the planet.
I began to think about all the ways I’ve contributed to the degradation of the wilderness that I love, and how simple it would be to lower my consumption. Too easily I am able to conveniently not think about the effect my normal lifestyle has on the wilderness I love.
When I leave here, I want to own less, buy less, use less. I want to fix more, re-use more, learn more. I want to accept and acknowledge my role in protecting the environment, in altering my lifestyle, in doing my part. I want to believe that if everybody adjusts that it won’t just be a drop in the bucket. That my efforts are important and do make a difference. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the outdoors as I do.
Usually when I write to you, future self, I have some idea of where you might be, what you might be doing, where you might be headed. This you is different. You haven’t arrived at the end of some structured chunk of your schooling. You’re out there, in the world, untethered, unlimited.
I can see where I’m trying to go—now we just have to figure out a way to get up there, to that peak basking in the sun. And I have a feeling it’s not going to be a straight line.
So wherever and whenever you’re reading this, whether things are going the way I planned or not, hang in there. Keep the faith. Sometimes getting to where you want to go involves a little bushwhacking. Trust your feet, and trust that little beating compass inside your ribcage.
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