My first encounter with real wilderness was in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska in June of 2016 on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition. The days on the trail were long: hours and hours stomping through mud and across rivers and boggy tundra; enduring cold and rain; and worrying about bears. Though my time on the trail was challenging, I still looked forward to each day. In the morning, I would crawl out of my tent, socks damp, hair greasy, and feet aching. Yet, I was amazed at how good I felt. I felt alive.
Then in the summer of 2017, with my family, I made the round trip hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We prepared as much as we could, but trying to simulate seven hours of descent and then eight hours of climbing at 100 degrees was impossible in Wisconsin. The Grand Canyon is a forbidding place, but also spectacular. The narrow trail we hiked was dusty and red and there were times when it seemed like it would fall off the edge of the cliff. For much of the hike, we were alone, just us and the 300 million-year-old rocks. We spent the night on the floor of the canyon, and the next day, I led the group out. Even though the heat was sweltering, even though I could feel my calves cramping from the steep climb, and even though the last water stop was closed, I felt strong and satisfied, like I could accomplish anything.
So, when my dad proposed a 3-week trek through the jungles of Papua New Guinea last summer, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. I loved being outdoors and welcomed another challenge. As part of my training, I spent a lot of time cross country skiing in the cold. Despite the brutal wind and the long hills, I felt powerful. Even as I competed in a 30-kilometer ski race, the feeling stuck with me, and motivated me to go harder. In the months prior to our departure, I tried to hold on to that feeling, knowing that I would soon need it in Papua New Guinea’s jungle-clad mountains.
On the first day of our trek, we pushed boats loaded with our backpacks and supplies up a shallow river. The current was strong, and after a long day, I was tired and unsure of myself. But, on our second day, after climbing a succession of incredibly steep hills, I felt that power again. And, whenever I doubted myself on the trek, I relied on it. Just as it had got me through Alaska and the Grand Canyon, I knew it would get me through this, too.