I was sitting on a spit in Torch Lake, screwing an ND filter on to my camera and setting up a tripod when I went to go switch my camera on.
I had driven three hours that day, and stopped up in Antrim to pick up my younger brother for a few days of hiking and kayaking in the UP, and packed in a bit of a hurry earlier that morning. Three days ago, I had moved out of the house I was living in for the summer, and most of my stuff was still in boxes, ready to be moved again in three weeks.
So I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I opened up my camera to find it missing a battery. Annoyed, yes. Disappointed, for sure. But packing was a mess earlier that morning. I was bound to forget something.
I hadn’t gotten a real chance to play with my camera in at least a good month, so I was bummed for that reason too. I seriously considered driving the three hours back to get it, or getting up early and driving into Traverse City to buy a new battery, but ended up deciding against both. Driving into Traverse would put us four hours behind schedule, and driving home overnight would just suck. Why did I need my camera so bad anyway?
I love taking pictures, I really do. I love playing with the settings on my camera, and taking long exposures, and I don’t even mind hauling a tripod and a backpack full of lens out four or five miles.
But the reason I like taking pictures is less about the image itself, and more about the story. I like being able to take an image, and use that image as a hook. Here is a mountain top, or a cliff, or a lake. Let me tell you what I did there, and why going out and appreciating nature is so important. Isn’t all this worth protecting?
That’s why I like photography. Not necessarily for the art of it, though I enjoy that too. Photography and stories can connect people to nature, and help inspire them to action.
So without use of a camera where did this leave me?
I still kayaked and hiked a total of 30 miles, got sunburnt, saw 5 waterfalls, and swam in Lake Superior. I still have photos, decent usable photos taken on my iPhone 5, pictured above. And I had a great time!
Not having a working DSLR didn’t ruin my trip at all– it just took away the pressure to take photos, and left room for a little more adventuring.
I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.
It is hard.
It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.
It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.
It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.
It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.
It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.
We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.
Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.
It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.
And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.
No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.
I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.
We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.
We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.
And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.
The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.
We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.
It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.
But guess what.
The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.
So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.
No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you, the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.
We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.
Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.
For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.
There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.
There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.
I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.
The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.
The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.
So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.
And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.
About a year ago, I left for a study abroad that would take me to Ireland, England and Wales. And I had a good time, I really did. But was it life changing? Eye-opening? Am I suddenly cultured? No. Studying abroad for three weeks in countries that spoke my language did not drastically change my world view, but it was still a growing experience.
I traveled with a group of 11 girls I had never met before, so my experience was more interpersonal than it was cultural, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing.
So if I wouldn’t describe it as “eye-opening” or “life changing”, what all did I learn?
There is no one right way to travel
I personally like to travel quickly, efficiently, and always be early.Some people would rather soak up the experience of everything. Neither way is necessarily wrong, but travel with people who travel like you. If you don’t, you will end up either waiting around for people or feeling rushed.
Not everyone is going to like you
On one level, I knew before this study abroad that people aren’t always going to like you. On another level, I didn’t really expect people to dislike me when I was trying so hard to be liked.
The thing about traveling with a group of 19-21-year-old females, is someone is going to be the mean girl. Sometimes, more than one person is going to be the mean girl. And when you’re travelling in close quarters for three weeks, it’s going to be even harder to get along.
So while at first it bothered me when one girl decided that I was the B-word for being chronically early (no, that is not an exaggeration), and it bothered me when another girl didn’t like the way I asked her to clean the dishes that she had left in the sink for three days because we were literally out of dishes (also not an exaggeration), I eventually shrugged it off. I would rather have clean dishes than be liked by mean people anyway (this is an exaggeration. I would rather be liked).
Sometimes people are just mean
On a similar note, some people are just mean. Sometimes, you meet someone who you really can’t get along with, who really will yell at you for getting in her way, and who will say nasty things about you just for the sport of it. And sometimes you will have to sit next to them on a 7-hour flight and be nice even when they elbow you all 7 hours. Some people are like that.
A three-week study abroad might not be the best way to experience culture
I was really hoping to leave the British Isles with some deep understanding of how things work there, and some wild experience that made me feel cultured. Instead, I got interpersonal experience that I wasn’t expecting. I lived and traveled with a girl who was messy and rude, and did not care what her roommates thought. I lived and traveled with a girl so far removed from the world I understood that I could not possibly relate, and another girl who insisted that she tell us all how to travel, and even how to walk down a street. I lived and traveled with another girl who became one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the bonding experience we had for the world.
My original goal of learning about a culture that wasn’t my own wasn’t necessarily accomplished, but I got a different sort of cultural experience that I would argue is just as valuable.
Reading will enhance your experience
It just will. Researching a place before visiting sounds like a lot of work, but you will get so much more out of seeing a place of significance if you understand its significance and know its stories.
For example, when we visited the Sherlock Holmes museum, I didn’t really get much out of it, because I don’t read Sherlock Holmes. But the historical places, Newgrange passage tomb, the Tower of London, Ireland’s Museum of Archeology, meant a lot more to me, because I had read both the history of the places and countries I was in, and a lot of the folklore. Because I had done this research, I wanted to see these places, not just because they were pretty or interesting, but because I understood what they meant.
Travel isn’t scary
I remember getting up at 7am to catch a 3pm flight at the beginning of this trip, and being insanely nervous about navigating the airport. By the end of the trip, I took a ferry and two planes in the course of 36 hours, and then had a 27-hour flight delay in JFK. Sure, I was stressed and sleep deprived, but not scared. Because whether you’ve missed a train or been stuck on the Atlanta tarmac for 3 hours in June, the situation can almost always be resolved.
You accommodate the culture you are visiting; not the other way around
This is something that I wouldn’t have thought really needed iteration, but one of the things I saw repeatedly from a few of my peers was an expectation that things would be done the way they are in America because it is the “best way”.
First of all, never say that the way things are done in your home country are better than they are in the country you are in. That is obscenely rude. Second, especially don’t do it if you are an American. Especially an American in London. Like, holy shit.
Moreover, the way things are done in your home country are not, without exception, the best way. I listened to two of my peers complain about not being able to use business’s trash cans in Europe despite having not bought anything from the business. While these two idiots complained loudly, as Americans do, we got the evil eye from like forty people before I quietly explained to them that trash bags here are more expensive to encourage recycling, so businesses can’t afford to just take their trash.
Which shut them up for about half a second before they loudly began discussing how the Euro is stronger than the Pound. Which is wrong.
You don’t have to always tag along
One of the things about living with a group of people somewhere new is that there will always be something fun and new going on, and you will want to be involved. I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it is better to get some rest and alone time than to rush out to the third or fourth sight of the day, and people won’t hate you for passing every now and then.
Your dream experience is not that important
Everyone has this vision of what their study abroad, or even vacation, should be, but achieving this vision is not more important than being courteous.
I cannot count how many times, on this trip alone, I heard someone say “well it’s a once in a lifetime chance,” before doing something inconsiderate or downright mean.
When a group I was traveling with left me alone for a half an hour somewhere in the middle of the Tower of London I was told by one girl upon their return that she couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance to see the crown jewels by waiting 20 seconds for me to return from the bathroom (not exaggerating).
When the girl who made our entire tour bus late at the Cliffs of Moher finally boarded a full bus she shrugged and told us how buying that Guinness pint glass was a once in a lifetime experience (it wasn’t). Meanwhile, someone across the aisle of the bus muttered “Americans” under his breath.
So no, you’re “right” to a once in a lifetime experience doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Just don’t do it.
Studying abroad is expensive
Another thing worth mentioning– this kind of program, a faculty led, country hopping, study abroad, can be really expensive, and I personally don’t think I would do this again. Traveling independently and doing your own research will be a lot cheaper, and you aren’t bound to a class itinerary.
On the other hand, there absolutely are scholarships available for this kind of program, and there are a lot of them– several of the girls on my trip were able to cut the program cost down by 75%. Talk to your advisor, talk to your schools Office of Study Abroad, and look and see if your school has a Student Travel Association. All of these people/resources should be able to help you find scholarships and get discounted flights.
So is a study abroad right for you?
I can’t really answer that. I think for me, at that time, this study abroad was probably the right introduction to travel. But for other people, who are looking to have a little more autonomy than travel training wheels, I would recommend direct enrolling in a foreign university for a full semester, or traveling with a small group.
There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.
I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.
While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.
DO: Explore Majors
People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.
DON’T: Be Stubborn
It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.
My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.
DO: Get Involved
Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.
Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.
DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way
One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.
Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.
DO: Get a Job
The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.
My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.
My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.
Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.
DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day
You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.
Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.
DO: Make Your Own Path
Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.
You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.
There are places where the line between what is real and what you’ve imagined is so thin that you are certain you’ve stepped out of a dream. These places have an otherness about them, they are ageless and supernatural, and it feels if you were to stay there long enough, that maybe you might fall through time.
These places are rich, as if plucked from a storybook, but have palpable history. They mean something as much as they are something, and even if you don’t necessarily know the place’s stories and history, you can feel it. We speak about these places with reverence; they are the places that inspire us, that make writers, and artists, that spark movements, places we protect.
In my life time, I have only had the luxury of visiting two of these places.
The 5-mile ridge of Roan Mountain is one of them. I’ve been told that in June, natural rhododendron gardens blanket the mountain tops, but I went in May and it was still stunning.
Every step along that beautiful trail is magic, from the initial dive into the pines, through and over the Balds at elevation 6000 feet, all the way out to Grassy Bald, and it’s commanding views of North Carolina.
Just to stand on a trail that runs for over 2000 miles is one thing, but then to walk the line that divides Tennessee and North Carolina is another. More astounding still is to look out over the Appalachians, once taller as the Rockies, maybe taller, and as old as 480 million years, and think how they have been eroded for millions of years by wind and water and ice, scraped down to less than half their size but still are standing. These mountains are ancient, and you are strolling on this resilient beast’s back.