The first time I found myself truly alone in in the wilderness, I was on a backpacking and rock climbing trip with Hurricane Island Outward Bound, and I was fifteen years old.
After 2 weeks of hiking, they took our flashlights and watches and books, gave us each a blue tarp and four pieces of string and a bagel and a piece of cheese and an orange and a bag of trail mix, and proceeded to lead us, one at a time and blindfolded, to our own little separate corner of the wilderness.
Then they removed the blindfold, and silently mouthed the words: Good luck.
The 3-day solo had begun.
On the first day, I spent most of the time rearranging my tarp and waiting for nightfall. When night did fall, I had to repeatedly reassure myself that chipmunks just sound a lot bigger in the dark.
On the second day, desperate for entertainment and distraction, I started to sing to myself. I had Santeria stuck in my head, so I scribbled down all the lyrics as part of the "solo gift" I'd been assigned to make for one of my fellow students, which also came to include inspirational quotes from people I admired; namely the fictional SNL character Jack Handy, whose "Deep Thoughts" I found extremely entertaining:
"One time, I told my nephew I was taking him to Disneyland; but instead I drove him to an old burned down warehouse. "Oh, no!" I said. "Disneyland burned down!" He cried and cried, but deep down I think he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late."
Ha, ha, ha!
Then, on the third day, I got quiet.
I started really looking at the things around me: the soaring trees with their gnarled branches, the dead and decaying leaf matter, the insects who appeared on my clothing and whose tiny mandibles opened and closed, the chipmunks who played their own games, the birds who sang freely from above.
And suddenly, it occurred to me: Everything around me is in its natural state. Nothing is pretending, or posturing, or trying to be anything other than what it IS.
And the thought followed: What is MY natural state?
When I'm not trying to be who others expect me to be; when I'm not performing the role of student or athlete or daughter or friend; when I can just BE -- what does that even look like?
I can actually pinpoint that day, and that question, as a huge turning point in my life. It opened the door for me to start freely exploring my truth and asking myself the tough questions. It allowed me to begin developing the inner compass on which I now depend for every single decision I make.
It's a question we're not really asked or allowed to consider very often, and one that easily gets buried under "more important things." It's certainly not the kind of learning that's emphasized in school, which is inexplicably STILL cultivating humans to follow directions and perform in an industrial economy, when what we need is humans who can think creatively enough to solve increasingly complex global problems at an accelerating rate of change.
And I really wonder, for those who don't have a relationship with nature, with the wilderness both outside and within -- how do they do it? How do they know who they are, how they fit, what they want, what they don't? How will the generations of people coming up after us -- the ones who can't CONCEIVE of being anywhere without wifi -- have any idea how to choose, without feeling crushing anxiety and FOMO around the million other things they could have chosen?