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Looking beyond

| Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Other than a Girl Scout sleepaway camp, before I turned 18, I had never been camping before. Nevertheless, my freshman year of college was bookended by two camping trips that changed the way I saw myself and the way I saw the world.

Two days before I moved into my freshman year dorm room (miss you, Ryan 135), I was on a bus headed toward the airport in Duluth, Minn., away from the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, Minn. My participation in a week-long experience in the Boundary Waters was required as part of my scholarship, so I had taken a $400 trip to REI as I tried to emotionally prepare for a week completely out of my comfort zone.

Anyone who has participated in Outward Bound can attest — that week was one of the most physically and emotionally draining of my life. Our days began at the crack of dawn. We spent each day either paddling or carrying a 75-pound canoe, and when we would finally reach our campsite, it took until sundown to set up camp and make dinner. Not to mention, we were living alongside people we had not met until getting on that bus with no connection to home or the outside world.

While barreling down the highway toward the Duluth airport, I only remember feeling relief — I swore to myself that I’d never do anything like that again, if for no other reason than I couldn’t stand another week without a shower. So, when a few months later, my boyfriend suggested we spend a few weeks that summer camping in the national parks, my knee-jerk reaction was “absolutely not.”

Eventually, he convinced me that we’d be roughing it way less than I did in the Boundary Waters — driving between campsites instead of paddling and cooking meals over a stove, not a fire. Nervously, I agreed, and we set off three days after I finished my last final of freshman year. We covered huge swaths of the country, driving from Iowa to Seattle, then down the Pacific Coast and back to the midwest through the Grand Canyon.

We saw seven national parks, drove through 10 states and spent an insane amount on gas, but it was one of the most incredible trips I’d ever been on. Before then, I had never been further west than Colorado and seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the country felt like opening the door into a completely different world. I still had to go a few days without showering but was happy to have access to grocery stores this time.

In hindsight, having these trips cap off either end of one of the most formative years of my life had a huge impact on my personal development and my outlook on the world.

The purpose of Outward Bound is self-reflection, so it’s unsurprising that I learned a lot about myself. I had to put some space between myself and those canoes, but once I did, I realized how much I had surprised myself. Not only did I honestly think I was incapable of the physical demands of such a trip, but I kind of just thought the wilderness wasn’t for me. I had always been someone who appreciated nature, but from afar — I liked camping in cabins, not under the stars.

But during that trip, I didn’t feel like I was observing nature, I felt like I was a part of it. The last night we camped, there was a major meteor shower, so most of us slept outside our tent to watch it. I woke up covered in dew, looking up at the sun starting to shine through the trees. I look back on that moment and remember just how at peace I felt.

Outward Bound taught me the value of not just going beyond your comfort zone, but pushing yourself beyond what you think you are. My entire life, I’ve limited myself based on who I think I am — I’ve put myself in a very specific box and felt like anything outside of it wasn’t for me. I’m still trying to unlearn that, but Outward Bound made me believe that I might be more than I had always understood myself to be.

My trip out West after freshman year taught me less about myself and more about the world around me. As someone involved in politics, it’s really easy to get disillusioned about the world we live in. My time in the national parks did a lot to remind me of just how glorious nature can be, making me feel small, but in a comforting way. It’s impossible to look down into the Grand Canyon or watch the waterfalls at Yosemite and not feel a sense of awe for the world we’re a part of, even if it’s just a small part.

It’s something really powerful to feel like you’re a part of nature, and it’s equally powerful to realize there’s something greater about it that you’ll never understand. It is equally deeply personal and unattainably grand, but either way, it’s a real shame to ignore it.

I’ve thought about this as we look toward a future without masks and Daily Health Checks. This is not a column to implore you to believe in yourself or get outside more or even to travel. I just encourage you to try to expand your understanding of yourself and your world, in whatever way that may be. Nature helped me do that, but if you just really hate bugs and need to wash your hair daily, that might not be for you. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of our society as we understand it, which is terrifying and tragic, but can also be an opportunity to start anew. Take it as a chance to grow your sense of self and the world around you — it will probably be uncomfortable for a while, but I promise you it’ll be worth it.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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