My first real encounter with the wild was on a 26-day backpacking trip through Death Valley at the age of 17. It was a graduation requirement at my high school. At the time, I didn’t think much of it beyond, “What a cool experience”. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the extent of how much that trip would save me.
At 18, I moved 2,300 miles across the country for college. I thought that escaping my stressors and starting with a clean slate would bring me happiness. I was going to walk, talk, and dress the part of a “perfect” and “beautiful” woman and then everything would be better. Unfortunately, this landed me with an obsession over my appearance and being thin, which manifested into exercising too much and not eating enough.
By the end of my freshman year, I started to realize that I had spiraled down into a new low place I didn’t recognize. I was thinner, but I was far from happy. I needed to refocus myself. In reflecting on that summer, I realized that I had been the happiest and most confident version of myself while roaming the wild of Death Valley. On a whim, I decided to apply to work at the Outdoor Recreation Center at my college. A job that would become my saving grace.
Not only did I start to learn new skills, but I also gained so much more. I learned to be an effective leader. I learned to communicate with strangers. And perhaps most importantly, I started a journey toward loving myself.
Instead of spending hours on the elliptical, I got a membership at the climbing gym and made meaningful relationships. Instead of spending my weekends at parties, I went camping, hiking, and climbing. Instead of spending spring break at the beach, I led backpacking trips through the Grand Canyon. Instead of fearing food, I started to view it as fuel. I began to realize that in order to grow as a climber, I had to eat to get strong.
In the wild, I was happier than I had been in a long time. Climbing became my meditation. On the wall, I was forced to forget about everything except the rock in front of me. My upcoming tests and all the homework I had piling up took a back seat to let me focus on my breath.
Through my outdoor adventures, I also began to connect with a community of strong women who encouraged me to become the best version of myself. I made lasting friendships that have continued to give me the courage to push myself outside my comfort zone. With their support, I have grown as a climber, but much more importantly, as a human. I became a better friend and a better mentor. For the first time, I created a sense of self that I was proud of.
Years later, I look back on this time and I am eternally grateful. I think, “There must be something to this.” There has been some research and conversation into the mental health benefits of the outdoors. Mainstream magazines including Outside Magazine and National Geographic have weighed in. Research has found that interaction with nature is linked to improved self-esteem and stress reduction. Florence Williams wrote a book called “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative” which speaks to the restorative effects of nature. Sonya Pevzner blogs about anxiety and depression in relation to the outdoors.
Those thoughts and feelings still crop up and I still deal with stress and anxiety about making my way in the world. But now I know when I’m starting to feel down about myself, it’s time to get outside. It’s time to push myself. Time spent in nature isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. We call it “type 2 fun” for a reason, because it’s challenging and terrifying in the moment, but completely worth it in the end.
It takes courage and vulnerability to put yourself out there and enter the unknown. When you are cold, wet, tired, and hungry, a primitive need for food and shelter surfaces. Appearances no longer matter and your true self can start to shine. I’ve cried, laughed, yelled, loved, and broken down in the wild, and with each of those experiences I get closer to accepting my imperfections.
Whatever stress you carry, stepping outside can help. It doesn’t matter if you ever become an expert hiker, biker, climber, or paddler. It doesn’t matter if you ever reach the summit of your trail. The mountains don’t judge you. The forest will keep your secrets. The wild can offer us so much, but if we live in fear of failing, we risk losing the opportunity to grow.