EVER SINCE I SPENT my first 30 days in the wilderness of Alaska on a NOLS backpacking course, I’ve been thinking about these questions. I was still wondering when I signed up for a second course (sea-kayaking + backpacking). Is it something universal, innate, or is it particular to the life experiences of each person?
To get answers, I talked with the friends I made on these trips, and other off-the-grid travelers I know. I asked them what initially pushed them out of their homes and into the mountains or onto the road. I asked them what their reasons were, whether they were conscious of a driving force, and why (some of them) kept coming back. Here are their answers.
Jasmine is a pre-med student at the University of Texas, where she’s also studying biology; I met her on Prince William Sound during the second course. We became friends during the second week while sharing a tent and paddling a double kayak together.
“During my freshman year in college I felt out of place; physically and mentally. I attended an urban university, and I was overwhelmed by the endless concrete, trash, and the number of people. Something didn’t feel right about the lack of biodiversity: the constant noise of traffic, the sick-looking birds bathing in puddles by the dumpsters. What really bothered me, though, was the lack of stars. At night, only a few, if any, were visible due to the smog and light pollution.
“Whenever I voiced these things to other students they shrugged them off — ‘That’s just how it is’ — and then they would switch to more important topics: their iPhone upgrade, their crappy calculus professor, the football game…. I couldn’t stand it. I had to get away. One day I googled ‘wilderness’ and found my way to the NOLS website. I applied for a course in Alaska and was accepted.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Witnessing the beauty and power of the natural world taught me many things; I realized how important it is that we fight to preserve these pristine places. I discovered that out there in the wild, away from the world I was so accustomed to, I felt complete. Others who feel as I did must find a way to get out there. Alaska gave me an education that I would have never received in a classroom.”
Danny is a friend I met on my first NOLS course. Together we spent four weeks backpacking across the pristine wilderness of the Talkeetna Mountains. Danny went on his first outdoors trip when he was 16. His time in nature led him to work for the Mountain Workshop outdoors camp, where he discovered his love for rock climbing, something he’s hoping to do all next summer. Meanwhile, he’s studying International Studies at the University of Dayton.
“I go to the wilderness because I love the peacefulness of it, the simplicity and the beauty. But I also love the wild part of it — the danger, living on the edge and doing things for yourself.”
Jim was my instructor on my second course and was the most memorable I’ve had. One evening we were sitting on the beach on Prince William Sound, and I asked Jim if he felt more comfortable in ‘civilization’ or out here. He replied, ‘Here, this is where I feel at home.’ During the time he’s worked for NOLS, Jim has led courses all over the world: Alaska, Yukon, India, Australia, Patagonia. In total, he’s spent over a decade in the wilderness. When not leading courses, he lives in a self-constructed cabin in the Chilean forest, close to rivers that he loves to kayak. He’s currently instructing a semester in Brazil.
“The reason why I decided to take to the wilderness would probably be the time spent outside with my parents during my early years; living close to a wild area makes it easy — especially to play outside in nature rather than on a sports field. Connecting with wild creatures and seeking out a green space is an instinct. I always wanted to be outside in nature — it was my inner voice. Nowadays a lot of people don’t hear their inner voice or choose to ignore it. Oftentimes they are being seduced by technology and cities.”
I met Mackenzie on my second course; together we kayaked Prince William Sound and hiked the Chugach Mountains. I remember our endless conversations about the awe and wonder these magical places hold for us. Mackenzie is now studying microbiology for her pre-vet program at Colorado State University.
“I have always had a love for the mountains that I can’t really describe, but there existed a huge connection between them and me. I heard about NOLS, and then looked at pictures of the gorgeous Alaskan mountains — I was sold.”
Lindsey is one of the best friends I met on the second trip. The wilderness and our mutual appreciation of ‘Into The Wild’ brought us close; we still keep in contact, talking every week. Lindsey is now studying Apparel Retail Merchandising at the University of Minnesota; she also works in an outdoors store, and leads outdoor trips in the summer.
“I’ve always had a love for the outdoors — I grew up on a farm, and family camping trips and snow skiing out West fueled that love, but I knew that I needed a more authentic backcountry, trail blazer experience than that. I was also very inspired by the book/movie Into The Wild, and I wanted to experience Alaska in the way that Christopher McCandless did.
“I can’t actually remember my thought process that drove me to go live in the wild for a month, but I think a lot of it was just a pure desire to be surrounded by nature’s beauty. Living in the most basic and primal conditions appealed to me. Ever since I ended my NOLS course, a little over a year ago, I’ve had a wild sense of wanderlust. I’ll never be able to get those experiences, and way of life, out of my head.”
Greg and I were paired together in a double kayak on our first week on Prince William Sound, and became friends realizing we were there for similar reasons. Greg now studies Finance and Acting at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Why I came out here? I wanted to challenge myself in ways that I haven’t been challenged before. I have so many luxuries at home that I’ve become accustomed to. I wanted to see how many of those things were actually necessary to make me happy. It turned out I felt better than ever with only a backpack, and some pots and pans!”
Alberto was one of the funniest people I met on my first NOLS trip; for both of us it was our first time in the wilderness, and we shared our moments of crisis and moments of laughter. Alberto is now majoring in Biology at Humboldt State University.
“I wanted to prove something to myself. I had the option to travel anywhere in the country and I picked Alaska because it was the toughest trip, and I felt that if I accomplished that I could accomplish much more in life. I would have rather nearly killed myself of exhaustion while hiking Alaska than sit at home in the warmth of my bed because the feeling is much greater after you’re done. I go back to the wilderness, and the trip has changed my life as well as the lives of those around me.”
Steve and I met through an online group while organizing a trip to retrace Jack Kerouac’s journey from ‘On The Road’ — which is yet to happen. Steve is a UK-based travel journalist who recently published his first book, Pulse, a travelogue about his offbeat travels through India, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. He explored Europe via InterRail in 2005, and then next year after being inspired by ‘On The Road’ set out to travel across the States.
“The most epic trip I made came in the wake of suffering a fractured spine in a work accident. The accident made me depressed and I knew I had to push myself to travel, in spite of the intense pain I was experiencing. Also, I never understood why some people feel the need to stabilize themselves in a nine-to-five routine that they know, deep down, isn’t good for the growth of one’s soul. I’ll always maintain that being on the road provides the greatest kind of education imaginable, because you learn on the front-line, in real time.”
What led me out into the wilderness? It all started with a book I read in high school — Into The Wild. I was moved by the story in ways I couldn’t understand. I then read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and knew I wanted to see the Alaska that both of those books described. Only I didn’t want to see them out of a car window or tourist bus; I wanted to understand the land — to swim in the arctic lakes, to pass my hands over the shrubs, to breathe the air.
I googled ‘camps in Alaska’ and NOLS showed up, so I signed up for a 30-day backpacking course in Alaska. The summer after I went back because the experience made me discover a part of me I didn’t know existed. I loved the freedom and the primal beauty of the wild, but also the hardship that strengthened me. I went back to Alaska because I wanted to see what else I could learn from the backcountry. Most of all, I realized that you can go into the wilderness, and you can leave the wilderness, but the wilderness will never leave you.