Photo of Miles Shen beside a sign for Bridger Wilderness, located inside Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

     Huff. Huff. Huff.

     The sounds of labored breathing filled the air as we slowly lumbered up the trail on our first day at NOLS.  The sun beat down on us with its blazing heat, and the rucksacks on our back made us feel like young crustaceans trying on their first shells, awkward and unprepared for the weight.  After hiking three miles and gaining six hundred feet in elevation, we made it to camp and all collapsed.  At this point, we knew nothing about one another.  The only thing we did know was that none of us were prepared for the journey ahead.

     We hiked into the Bridger Wilderness absolutely unprepared for life in the great outdoors and quickly learned that backpacking is a simple lifestyle.  You wake up.  You eat.  You hike.  You sleep.  You repeat.

     After twenty-four days of tying knots, lighting stoves, and walking a lot, we were experts.  The lessons that nature taught us about ourselves, left us awe-stricken and hungry for more.  Each of us discovered something unique to ourselves on our NOLS adventure: I learned the significance of camaraderie, the meaning of worth, and the importance of appreciation.

     There were many times along the journey where I felt hopeless during the arduous days.  My back throbbed, my feet ached, and my legs were ready to buckle underneath all the pressure, both physical and mental.  My boots were filled with freezing water from icy river crossings.  I was hot and sweaty, and my body was covered with large, itchy welts from the swarms of mosquitoes we encountered.  Still, I pushed past my exhaustion and continued onward.  I watched my companion ahead of me trudging along, and hearing the sighs and grunts from those behind gave me strength.  Knowing that I wasn’t alone in my experience renewed my energy.

     We climbed up rough mountain passes.  We choked down meals gone awry.  We sat by warm campfires singing songs into the night.  We were all present and learned to be there for one another.  Our expedition progressed day by day, and we grew to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  We embraced the adversity found on the trails and fostered the beginnings of a deep-rooted friendship that will last for years to come.

     It is important for me to capture the ephemeral feeling one gets as they reach the summit of a mountain.  Before we even began our ascent, we unbuckled and dropped our cumbersome packs to the ground with a sigh of relief and stood, silently analyzing the monolith high above.  We were overtaken by a feeling of weightlessness which stirred us towards the peak.  As we climbed, however, the terrain shifted in the blink of an eye from sparse grass to steep walls of rock, and the feathery feeling that had kept us floating towards the clouds came crashing down, beginning what we now knew was the true climb to the summit.  With heavy steps and helping hands, my companions and I clambered up boulders using every ounce of strength we had left.  My lungs were on fire, my hands were torn, and every part of my body ached, but none of it mattered, as we had finally reached the top.  I looked out to the horizon and a tidal wave of emotions hit me.  Tears welled up in my eyes as I saw the world reveal itself.  Thousands of thoughts raced through my mind, but a single thought stood out above the rest: it was all worth it!

     Our days traversing the rough landscape left us weary and depleted, so any chance we got to rest was treasured.  With only a few days left on our expedition, my group agreed to steel ourselves and hasten our pace for the day, and we were so lucky we did.  We arrived in a paradise of colorful blossoms, flourishing greenery, and glistening lakes hidden within a craggy rock fortress touching the sky on all sides.  It felt like we had entered a place from our wildest dreams.  We were hours ahead of schedule and it felt like all the time in the world. 

     Setting our packs down in a bed of grass and flowers, my companions and I sat and talked, and laughed, and relived our NOLS experience, but our conversations slowly faded away with each of us losing ourselves to nature.  I felt the warm rays of the sun on my skin and the cozy grass tickle my fingertips.  I gazed upon flickers of light dancing across the shifting surface of the lake and beheld the sentinel pines twisting into the valley from the plateaus high above.  I heard the wind whispering its secrets into my ears and listened to the distant sound of a waterfall lulling me to sleep.  I did not think, or ponder, or long for anything.  I simply closed my eyes and cherished this moment among nature.  And, most importantly, strangers became a team, climbed to new heights, and lost ourselves in the wild.