Immersing yourself in nature is a great way to heal both your body and your mind. Going into the backcountry also teaches you how to rely on yourself. Welcome contributor Liesl Magnus to the blog as she tell us about her transformation with Out Back.
I remember lying on the couch in the student center in the dark engulfed in a panic attack, long after everyone had left. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand up. Every time I tried to get off the couch a tsunami of dizziness would hit, and I would have to lay back down. Fall asleep, maybe then I’d feel better. But I’d wake up dizzier and sicker than I was before. Breathe in, breathe out. In. Out. In. Out.
I tried to tell myself that it would be okay, that I would be okay, that I wasn’t dying, that this wasn’t forever. But it didn’t feel like it. At least once a week I would find myself like this, lying on the couch in the dark basement of our school dining hall trying to make sense of the world that felt like it was spinning around me. I wanted to die, I really, really did. Nothing made sense, I would have a panic attack if someone so much as yelled in my general direction, the slightest criticism from a teacher would make me cry. My grades were slipping, I wasn’t eating, and I was losing faith in my own ability to endure.
Then came Out Back.
Every March, my school takes all the juniors into the woods for eleven days of hiking and camping, with a three day solo in the middle. No human contact allowed for those three days, and it was my year to go. I was scared, more scared than I can ever recall being. Not because of the hiking or the 60-pound packs or the cold, but because I was afraid of being left alone for three days. I was afraid of what I might do to myself.
An excerpt from my journal: “I have lost all confidence in myself. I don’t trust myself not to fall and do something dumb or to lead the group astray or to make a fool out of myself.”
The summer before my junior year I had hiked almost two hundred miles in the company of my grandfather and of friends, I had hiked further and faster than ever before, and I was genuinely happy. Then came school, and I sank. Down and down I fell until I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like there was a lead weight in my chest, like there were a thousand butterflies in my stomach but instead of fluttering gently they were trying to jackhammer their way out with barbed spikes.
Transform to peace
But… The instant my military surplus, rubber, hiking boots hit the ground I found peace. The instant the bus drove away leaving my group of ten to rely only on each other for the next eleven days, I was at home. The transformation was immediate and euphoric, and I almost teared up as we headed down the trail. It started snowing ten minutes into our hike, lending the woods a deep, penetrating silence that was only broken by the crunch of twenty snowshoes and the occasional call of a blue jay.
“Day Three: Do not resent the weight you carry. It sucks, yeah, and it can be painful a lot of the time, but do not resent it. That’ll only make you unhappy. Learn to walk with it. Maybe take it a little slower and stop for snacks, but in the end, it’ll only make you stronger.”
@tinaoutdoors ending my adventure at #bombayhook Didn’t see any birds ( none I could photograph ) but that’s OK this is a cool place where you can spend the day walking, hiking, biking and a photographer dream especially if you’re a bird lover. I have tons of photos to go through and what I shared doesn’t come close to the beauty of this place. Come over to my feed and I’ll continue to share more. Thanks for following along, I hope you liked it and it showed a different landscape. I also hope it’s inspired you to get out and explore your space on this earth. Nature beauty is every where we just need to slow down and see what’s right in front of you because to me no scenery is boring. Thanks Rebecca for the privilege to share with your audience my piece of the world. Have an awesome week! #hikelikeawoman
After two or three miles, we dropped our packs with a grateful laugh (they were really heavy) and set about making lunch. I found myself hungry for the first time in weeks. Although Out Back food is admittedly strange – our normal lunch consisted of cinnamon raisin bagels with peanut butter, honey, cheese, and large chunks of pepperoni – I was excited to eat. I don’t know if it’s because everything tastes better on the trail, but the wilderness was beginning to work its magic.
Over the next four days, we learned how to set up “bulletproof” shelters using only a tarp, we learned how to start fires, how to cook over a campfire, and how to sleep well under the stars. Myself, I slept like a baby in my -30 sleeping bag and began to work on healing.
With every step I took, with every meal of trail food and frozen GORP, with every storm waited out under a hemlock canopy, I began to heal. I remembered what it was to laugh, to really laugh. I remembered what it was like to feel at home among friends. I remembered what it was to feel confident and to feel safe and at home in my own body. My senses expanded and I was always the first one to point out a shift in the wind or moose tracks high in the dormant viburnum. I was able to lead the group up and over the Pagus Pass bushwack and down to the place where we would receive our resupply and head out for solo.
“When you’re out there… you feel like you’re on top of the world… even though the view isn’t always great, there’s something grounding about looking back at all the miles you walked and just being like yes. I did this. It’s grounding and it’s empowering and it’s freeing…”
The morning of solo dawned clear and warm after torrential downpours the night before. We received our instructions and headed out on our lines to find our sites. Mine was perched right on the side of a steep downhill and looked right over at the ledges of an unnamed mountain. My site ended up facing east, so I could watch the alpenglow fall on the cliffs across from my campfire while I cooked my (slightly pitiful) dinner of ramen and a third of a Hershey’s bar. Not together. Don’t worry. I even wrote a haiku about it. See below.
“There is a stick in my ramen noodles I don’t know how it got there”
During the day I brought my sleeping mat out of my shelter, took naps in the sun, triedmy hand at whittling, and wrote in my journal until my hands went numb and the ink in my pen froze. I reflected, I laughed, I cried, I sang, and I danced to songs that no one but me could hear. To an outsider, I think I would have looked insane, but it was what I needed. I need the time alone to think and to re-learn that I was stronger than I remembered. I let Mother Nature reach into my heart and brush off all the pain and sadness. She took me in her piney embrace and whispered through the wind that I would be okay.
I made it through
I remember standing above my first solo fire and feeling a surging of pride. I started that fire. All by myself. I did it. And no one could have done it better. A fire is a fire, but on Out Back, a fire means food, and food means I’d make it. And I did make it. I made it through solo, and I made it through Out Back.
I made it through the tent after chili night, I made it through swollen river crossings with a 60-pound pack, I made it through mile after mile of our group leader’s terrible jokes. I made it through almost falling off Chocorua and taking one of the guys in my group with me. I made it through the occasionally blatant sexism of our male group leaders. I made it through eleven days of no showers, snowshoeing through shin deep mud puddles (???) and through learning how hard it was to stand up again after falling with one of those packs on.
“I thought OB was going to be a transformative journey, but it turns out that’s not what I needed. The woods have a funny way of taking anything that you thought about anything and flipping your entire perspective… The woods know what you need. They looked at me and saw a broken girl in need of love. They took me into their arms and said let me help. And they did.”
I can honestly say that Out Back saved my life. I don’t know if I would have made it through the winter without it, but as the motto of the program goes: “Enjoy when you can and endure when you must.” Isn’t that the truth, Goethe.