I watched with equal parts bewilderment and horror as Flaco, a small Colombian climber with a permanent smile, who would also be one of my hiking instructors for the next 30 days, tossed items including shampoo, deodorant, and a towel from my dingy torn 100-liter backpack to a pile of things that simply “could not go.”
As I finished stuffing my pack full of everything from civilization that I would know for the next 30 days, I wondered how this 80-pound pack, with food, a First-Aid kit, a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Soap, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, parts of a stove, a tent, three shirts, one pair of shorts, one pair of pants, a couple of jackets, a pair of Crocs, a pencil and a journal with a few of my favorite song lyrics already scribbled inside, was all I would need to survive in the rugged Absaroka Mountain Range. This relatively unknown gem of Wyoming and Montana is the vast range of mountains, bordering the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Range, and containing some of the most remote areas in the continental United States.
At that time, I was in Wyoming, in the little town of Lander at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) headquarters with 16 strangers who I would spend the next month with. Our plan was to backpack the length of the mountain range, starting near the base of the Grand Tetons and ending at our final “X” (the designated stopping point), some 135 miles east.
Three hours later, as I watched the NOLS bus drive away after dropping us off as I stood on the border of the dense forest, my knees were quivering--but not just from the weight of my pack. Without much discussion, we began our march through the woods that would be our home, our classroom and our constant challenger for the next month.
Hours after entering the wilderness boundary, I learned that it was a place of extremes.
The weather fell into three categories: scorching hot days, torrential downpours or hailstorms and brisk, frigid nights. Mosquitos did not just inhabit the lower areas of the range, they thrived. Within days of entering the forest, I was covered in welts despite constantly wearing clothing head to toe and a mosquito net. Big animals, once only characters in storybooks, were also a concern. Bears, wolves, and moose were the biggest worries, and we were required to have a high strength pepper spray on us at all times. Minor cuts and bruises could also easily turn into dire problems; while doing something as simple as trying to cook a meal could lead to serious injury. In this rough country, it often felt as if everything was against you. It seemed as if those the things that you usually did not require much thought in the real world had their chance to challenge you in the wilderness.
It was also a place where your perspective was constantly being challenged. The things that would have seemed the most daunting in the frontcountry (the instructors’ label for civilization) was just part of a normal day in the backcountry. Losing 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile sounds like falling off a cliff, but we took these tasks one step at a time, testing each and every rock, always slowly working towards reaching our next “X.” Having a bear mosey into our camp also sounds daunting, but we simply yelled at it to “Leave!” and, just like that, it was gone, easily covering two miles in five minutes as we watched it flee over the hills. Even learning that a triple homicide fugitive had fled into our proximity seemed like a fun challenge in the face of more pressing matters like tending to blisters and purifying water. We simply resolved to stay together indefinitely until we heard the coast was clear and, perhaps a little over-confidently, decided that the seventeen of us could easily take on a single ax-murderer.
Our reality was warped and unfamiliar compared to that of our frontcountry lives, as the extremes of the Absarokas constantly challenged us to dig deeper when problem solving and also when assessing ourselves. In all of these extremes, one had to learn how to be their own constant. Stripped bare of all we once thought ourselves to be defined by, we not only were able to truly get to know our peers but we were also able to get to know and better understand ourselves, our values, and, most importantly, what makes us tick; the things that gets our hearts racing and our minds stirring. What you yearn for most when nearly everything else is taken from you speaks volumes.
Soon into the trek, our group became a fully functioning microsociety. We learned to accurately assess our own strengths and weaknesses and gauge how we could best contribute to our group. We also learned how to support each other emotionally because the trip, combined with longings for, or worries from, home could be quite intense. Learning about others’ hardships, and watching the ways in which they were able to deal with them, allowed me to put my own struggles in better perspective. To know others so deeply allows you to truly expand your worldview.
We met, stripped of all of what we usually project to the people of our “frontcountry lives,” and instead got to know one another at our highest highs and our lowest lows. These moments of true sincerity came to define the trip. In my journal, I wrote “Have you ever seen people this pure? Jubilant? Challenged? Determined? Alive?” I could only be so lucky to one day see people in this state again.
We also all found appreciation for the simple and acknowledgement of the big. I would watch others kneel to the ground to get a closer look at the most miniscule wildflower and enthusiastically admire it for its shape and color. At the same time, admiring what was too great or vast to fathom was another staple of the Absaroka experience.
On day 16, we summited a twelve thousand-foot peak. Reaching the summit required us to scale the side of a cliff and quickly pick up some rock climbing skills, gaining 2,000 feet in slightly under a mile. By the time we reached the top, we were exhausted. However, faces marked by absolute awe soon overcame the looks shrouded by fatigue. Suddenly, one person sat down on a ledge, then another and then another, until we were all sitting in our own, simply taking it all in. Many people were journaling while others were simply absorbing the amazing views of Pride Rock,ranging from cliffs, snowy mountain tops and even the Grand Tetons, where we had begun, in the distance.
I was suddenly struck by the beauty of this moment, and our collective appreciation for all that we had done and for all that we were experiencing at that moment. In my own ragged, dust-coated journal, I wrote, “Out here, it’s the little things around us that matter, because the big things are simply too big to even take in at one time… so we take it all in in pieces, little fractions of this world, like using a jagged shard of a magnifying glass to even be able to take a proper look. But all these views make for that many more memories, that many more perspectives to add to our own collection of lenses. Really all we are doing out here is taking a good, hard look at this world and ourselves, and then seeing what we can take away from it to better ourselves.”
Fast forward to day twenty-seven of our backpacking trip through the Absaroka Range, as our small group of six joyously danced and tumbled down a quartz and sage-covered mountain towards one of our instructors, Lindsey, who was doing her signature “happy dance” with teary eyes. We were finishing up the planned length of our trip separated from our instructors. That very day, we had walked over thirteen miles in alternating bouts of rain and hail, through aggressive herds of cows and under the beating sun with very little water.
This was after discovering that our intended camp had little to no drinkable water in the area, despite there being multiple mid-sized lakes indicated on our maps. We had not seen our beloved instructors in four days, gotten lost too many times to count, lost most of our protective pepper sprays, had only beans and powdered lemonade left to eat, been repeatedly assaulted by clusters of cacti and briars and had possibly gotten infected with a water-borne parasite from drinking water contaminated with cow fecal matter.
But still, we cheered and laughed as we frolicked and stumbled down the mountain in a cloud of what can only be described as candid jubilation. This was a direct result of our group’s acknowledgement that our perceptions of a situation were all about perspective. The Absarokas are in the United States, but they might as well be on another planet. It’s a place that can make the most minor triumph seem like a reason for celebration, and the most daunting challenge seem like just another day in the classroom.