In the spring of 2013, I spent my 23rd birthday in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I had just begun my second AmeriCorps term with the Montana Conservation Corps and it was the last day of our 2-week backcountry training hitch where we learned how to build and maintain trails, use crosscut saws and essentially survive 20 miles away from the nearest road. I remember waking up that morning to near-freezing temperatures with a pit in my stomach. I was turning 23 and I felt so behind. I got a degree in International Affairs and was immediately disillusioned with the industry; three years prior, I had come to terms with being a gay man and yet was too terrified to tell anyone or go on a date with a man; I had run thousands of miles away from my homophobic family knowing that I had barely any money and couldn't live independently for long. That morning I packed up my belongings and set out on the trek out of the Middle Fork. Keeping my eyes to the ground as anger and uncertainty clouded my head.
Over the following 9 months, The River of No Return wilderness brought me in and gave me a home. My crew and I hiked over a thousand miles that summer while rehabilitating numerous miles of trail destroyed by the million acre mustang complex fire. There were freak storm-cells that hung over the ridges and brought hail, flash floods, and snow (even in July!). There were sightings of bears, wolves, moose, and elk and run-ins with an interesting cast of characters who work, hunt, and/or live in the forest. I remember one particularly chilling moment when we heard over the forest service radio that a girl named Hannah Anderson had been abducted and taken into the wilderness by a homicidal maniac. We were far away from the sighting but I still slept with the radio nestled in the crook of my arm. Other than a frustrating government shutdown that abruptly cut my season short, the summer and fall of 2013 has been the highlight of my young life so far.
The wilderness calmed me. It took away the anxiety and the fear. It gave me the strength to let go and the patience to let things happen on their own. Most importantly, it taught how to be happy even when I'm alone. That's important because even though I have incredible friends and a family that now loves me for me, there are still times where all I have is myself.
I now live in Washington DC where I work with Conservation Corps from all across the country. If you live in the area or want to tell me your wilderness/AmeriCorps stories, I'd love to hear from you! I also love board games so let me know your favorites.
Much love :)