Do NOLS Even (and Especially) If You’re Scared

Posted by: Olivia Hewitt on Dec 10, 2018

smiling NOLS backpacking student surrounded by mountains with patchy snow in the Pacific NorthwestMe feeling excited and nervous right before I shared some passages from my journal with the group. Taken at Martin's Park campsite, one of the most beautiful spots we came to. Photo courtesy of Olivia Hewitt.

About four months ago I sat in one of my college’s campus cafés and procrastinated away my final few minutes before class. I was in the middle of a season of complete chaos, and was trying to find something that would re-energize and center me. I was scrolling through a bunch of NOLS blog posts when suddenly a strange thing happened:

As I read about tents being blown over at 3 a.m. by torrential rain, days of brutal heat and scarce food and blistering heels, I started to cry tears of joy.

No really, you think I’m exaggerating for the poetic quality of all this, but I swear to you, I started to cry. There I was, sitting in this campus café, surrounded by people sipping almond milk lattes and cramming code into their brains, and I was crying, utterly overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.

How exactly it was that those dire details sunk so deeply into my stomach and made everything feel so important, I’m not sure. But something deep inside of me on that day yelled GO.

This call to action was a little confusing for me to interpret.
First, how much sentimental value did re-securing a tent pole at 3 a.m. have for me?
Apparently, a lot.
Second, could I actually act on this call?

For context, almost all of the details that I was reading terrified me. I am extremely afraid of heights, afraid of being abandoned in the wilderness, afraid of getting hurt and being far away from a hospital— 
And yet!

Something deep inside of me yelled GO. Twisted my stomach into knots and said, “This is so critically important. Do this.”

So, hard as it was, I decided to opt out of the summer internship scramble that was terrorizing all 5,000 inhabitants of our hilly campus and signed up for a 30-day backpacking course with NOLS in the Pacific Northwest.

My inner critic was having a TIME.
Who are you to do this?
You think you’ll survive one day alone with your fear? Huh? How about 30?
What are you going to put on your resume? Soul-searching-hike-with-no-career-value?

But my inner wild-child, truth-speaking core, was cheering.
Yessss!!!! We’re moving towards meaning again.
We’re having the guts to get close to ourself.
This is good. This will be good.

In the months that followed, I made some hard phone calls, explained that I actually couldn’t do what I had committed to during July because my entire body and soul was yelling at me to go do this crazy thing called NOLS, and tried not to think too hard about what it was I’d signed myself up for.

And then the day came. I got on a plane to Seattle, realized that Mount Vernon, where I’d meet my coursemates, is actually two hours outside of Seattle, made it out to Mount Vernon via four public buses, $5.50, and the kindness of strangers, and settled into my room in the Days Inn. My head spun and nervous energy pulsed into my feet as I realized more fully what was about to happen.

I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning, nervous. As I lay in my bed in the early morning darkness, words from an article I’d recently written about my experience with anxiety popped into my mind:

“‘Ready’ is a myth we should have abolished long ago. All we have is the fear that pushes us out the door. All we have is now, the pulsing in our hands and the sinking in our stomach telling us to go.

There it was, the same call that had hit me in the campus café months earlier: GO.

So I went.


The beginning of the trip was a whirlwind: the type of energizing chaos that keeps you goinggoinggoing for a few days before you have time to think about what you’re doing. New people and new conversations and new feelings (50 pounds in a pack on your back is a distinctly new feeling) filled the first few days as we, my coursemates and instructors, settled into our still unfamiliar togetherness.

The first time I was confronted with the type of fear and anxiety I’d come on the trip to face happened on day 4. We were hitting that point where I was realizing that I couldn’t casually leave if I wanted to, and as we sat drinking water on the side of the trail my anxious, cyclical thoughts began to grip me.

What if I have a panic attack and can’t get out?
What if I can’t do this?
I can’t leave I can’t leave I can’t leave I can’t—

My instructor, Jon, noticed I was anxious and asked me about it. As I explained my fear of not being able to exit situations and my fear of heights, my peers looked at me with a combination of sympathy and confusion—a sort of wow-that’s-a-lot-why-on-earth-did-you-sign-up-for-this? type of look. C’mon. You know the type.

When we hit the trail again, Jon asked me a really simple question that had a really complex emotional working on me.

“So, Olivia, is anxiety something you’ve dealt with before in your life?”

I choked up at the question, and tears came to my eyes. I didn’t realize until that moment how badly I’d been needing to talk about this, how central my experience with fear and anxiety was to this trip.

NOLS student and instructor make goofy faces for the camera while eating backcoutry burritos
Jon and me using up the last of my tiny camera's storage to document ourselves alongside my KILLER backcountry burrito. Photo courtesy of Olivia Hewitt.

As I told him my story, I realized that any attempt to hide my fear was a disservice to the growth I could achieve by leaning in to my own discomfort. I wasn’t here despite my fear. I was here because of my fear. So I decided on that day not to hide my fear from the group any longer—because, in my experience, vulnerability prompts vulnerability, and maybe if I opened up, others would begin to do so, too.

A few days after opening up to the group for the first time, we bushwhacked up a steep pass. If I had encountered this type of terrain outside of NOLS, I would have taken one look at it, laughed, congratulated the Clif-bar-fueled-adrenaline-junkies that find that sort of thing inviting, and turned right back around. But I suddenly found myself in a position where quitting was not an option. There was no turning around, no going home, no staying in my comfort zone. The only way out was through—literally through the pass and figuratively through my fear.

As we began to work our way up the pass, my leader Jon coached me on footwork (even when it took three rounds of convincing me that the foothold really could support my weight), and we went as slowly as I needed to. For every time that I looked down and said, “This is so scary. I am so scared. I don’t know if I can do this,” Jon and my friend Sara countered me with, “Yeah, this is scary, but you’ve got this. I know you can do this.”

Jon knew by this point that mantras help me a lot, so we repeated a series of mantras as we made our way up the steepness.

“Trust your feet.”
“Flow with the fear.”
“Place it and move.”

two NOLS students put their arms around each other and celebrate summiting a peak in the Pacific Northwest
Sara and me at a summit—this was such a powerful moment because I had been really scared to summit and Sara had been by my side the entire time, cheering me on and helping me reach the top. Photo courtesy of Olivia Hewitt.

I went into this trip looking for clarity. I thought I would go into the woods and find some divine formula to change my life, revelations about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.

But that didn’t happen. 
And that sounds terrible!

“Noooooo,” you’re thinking, “What a letdown! Clickbait, all of it!” At this point you’re probably mentally preparing for me to hit you with a well-it-wasn’t-what-I-thought-it-would-be-but-hey-hiking-is-still-cool type of deal. C’mon. You know the type.

But no! But no.
It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, it was something far more powerful than that.

When I got to the top of that pass and cried tears of joy and sat down to eat some maple walnut trail butter (oh man)(a TREAT) my whole body was buzzing. I closed my eyes and felt my pulse beating in my chest, and something inside of me said, I’m alive again. I’m moving again. And a thought hit me.

I realized that I didn’t need to search for clarity. I already had all the clarity in the world within me. I knew who I was and what things make me feel alive and what it is I want to do in this world. I know that I want to pursue storytelling and creativity and that I want to push for change and use my voice and move to California, and I also know that all of those things absolutely terrify me.

What if I fail?
What if I’m not good enough?
What if this is a huge mistake?

Every part of me that was screaming I don’t know how to begin was really just screaming, I do know how to begin, and I’m terrified. Absolutely terrified.

And so this trip became one huge lesson in navigating the fear that paralyzes me. Less about clarity and more about moving. Less about finding divine answers and more about trusting the truths that were already deep inside of me.

I resolved to rely less on my instructors and peers to coach me through my fear and more on my inner dialogue. Because as amazing as it was to have encouraging voices coaching me up the steepness, I had come here to face myself and to face my own discomfort, and I wanted to find it within me to navigate this pulsing whirring terrifying thing on my own terms.

And so, as we worked our way up steep things like this:

green valley leading up to a mountain pass dotted with snow in the Pacific NorthwestCameron Pass. Photo by Olivia Hewitt.

That made me feel like this: 

wide-eyed, open-mouthed anticipation of going up a steep pass on a NOLS courseHow I felt when I realized we were about to go up and over Cameron's Pass. Photo by Olivia Hewitt.

I made a request of the people around me. I told them how terrified I was, and then explained that the most powerful thing for me to do was to coach myself through it. Gave them a heads-up that I would be talking out loud to myself as we worked our way up the steepness.

And the most miraculous thing happened. When I was transparent about my fear, it allowed both myself and the people around me to better support me and help me up the steepness. The group was right there with me, reassuring me, cheering me on, high-fiving me and making me feel SO incredibly loved and supported and powerful. At the same time, they gave me enough room to allow me to turn within myself for strength.

I would talk to myself, both in my head and out loud, to center myself in the experience of fear and remind myself that the shaking was not something I needed to flee from.

It went something like this:
Hey Olivia. 
Hi yeah hello.
I know you’re terrified. 
That’s okay. 
This is what we’re here for. 
This is the good stuff.
This is the terrifying, unsettling work of leaving every bit of your constraining life behind.
I’m right here with you.
You can do it.
Place it, and move.
Place it, and move.

I would say these things out loud, over and over as we made our way up the steep terrain that terrified me. In this way I was allowing myself to be vulnerable both with myself and others, and rooting myself in the power of my fear instead of trying to cover it up. Because somewhere deep deep within our fear there is movement. There is a little voice asking us to have the courage to get close to ourselves, and get uncomfortable, and let the process of shaking and whirring and beating make us curious about the root of our fear. How to move with it, not away from it.

And a crazy thing happened. As I learned to navigate my fear of heights in a more empowering way, I began to develop a different relationship with other fears of mine.

For a while I’d been scared to speak in front of groups and read things that I’d written out loud, but as time went on during the trip I decided it was something that was really meaningful to me and something that I wanted to pursue. And so I compiled a handful of the entries from my journal into a slam-poem-storytelling-typa-thing (C’mon. You know the type.) and began to practice it out loud, letting the mantras that had guided me up the steepness (Trust your feet. Flow with the fear.) guide me through the beating in my chest that arose when I thought of speaking in front of everyone.

And guess what???!!! The craziest thing happened!!!!! It went incredibly well. The fear that had so often choked me was now moving through me, and my voice was strong and loud and then later raw and vulnerable as I let the truths that had been beating around inside of me out. As I spoke I felt so connected to the people sitting in the circle around me, so connected to myself, so connected to the fear that had pushed me out the door and led me to where I was sitting on that day.

I learned to see my own discomfort as an invitation to connect, to lean in, to get curious and to speak my truth.

four NOLS students smile and celebrate reaching the top of a pass in the Pacific Northwest together
Kenzie, Helen, Sara and me at the top of Grey Wolf Pass, one of the first passes we went through! Post sledding down snow and a spontaneous dance session. Photo courtesy of Olivia Hewitt.

Because fear is not a disqualifier. Being afraid does not make you small, or less able, to cross things like NOLS or public speaking off of your bucket list. Heck no! Your fear should highlight things like that with a massive neon yellow marker.

My fear was the most powerful source of movement, insight and empowerment on my NOLS trip, not a barrier to those things. Having conversations with my leaders and peers about my discomfort allowed me to build much stronger bonds with them, and opened up a space for more vulnerable dialogue as the course went on. My fear was what pushed me to share my writing and lean into the discomfort I felt around using my voice.

Every intentional risk I took on my NOLS trip, every decision to open up or speak my truth or get close to myself, was fueled by fear. I learned to see the pulsing in my chest and the whirring in my mind not as a sign to turn away, but rather as a sign that what I was engaging with really mattered to me and that it was worth pursuing.

It allowed me to get close to myself, to get curious about the root of my own discomfort, and to develop a loving, empowering relationship with myself. It was my fear that led me to speak, to climb, to laugh and to be present. It was what reminded me how alive I feel when I have the guts to get close to my own humanity.

So I beg you.
I beg you.
Do NOLS even (and especially) if you’re scared.

Listen to the tears of joy that arrive unexpectedly as you sit in your campus café.
Buy the plane ticket and make it out to whatever obscure town your program starts in, even if it requires four buses and at least five times clarifying that yes, you really do mean the Mount Vernon in Washington State.

Because the words I repeated to myself at 5am on that terrifying first morning hold true:

“‘Ready’ is a myth we should have abolished long ago. All we have is the fear that pushes us out the door. All we have is now, the pulsing in our hands and the sinking in our stomach telling us to go.

Go.

See Olivia's course, Pacific Northwest Backpacking. 

Olivia is a sophomore at Tufts University, where she’s exploring how the intersection of storytelling and design thinking can bring about positive change. Can be found interviewing people about their Nalgenes (@nalgenes_of_tufts) … or their socks (@sock_sightings). Blames NOLS for her reliance on dates & almond butter. Trying to write more and do more, and thanking her NOLS instructor Jon for encouraging both of those endeavors. You can contact her at oliviajhewitt[at]gmail.com