My becoming-a-man moment happened when my dad told me at the ripe age of 10 that I was old enough to go with him on his annual camping trip. The men in my family had a longstanding tradition of going on a week-long camping trip to Cow’s Creek, outside of Pierre, South Dakota. Some of the campgrounds had a metal fire pit, but most often we would cook our food over our bonfire and shelter in our tents—roughing it in the outdoors. This invitation was a big deal, but it came with stipulations.
My dad bought me my first fishing pole and sleeping bag, but told me I would need to get the rest—a tent and other gear—before we departed. This was my first lesson in working for what I needed. So I worked odd jobs mowing lawns and working in my uncle’s auto body shop. Empowered by the excitement of this opportunity, I was determined to work until I had everything I needed for the journey.
As money trickled in—a handful of cash here and there—I purchased my tent, fishing lures, extra tent stakes, and various other items, setting them out in my room and admiring them like an almost-completed checklist. I can still remember how excited I was when the day finally arrived to go out with the guys and experience camping for the first time.
That first trip taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I learned how to swim when my uncle purposely tipped over the canoe with my cousins and I in it. I learned not to leave my fishing gear unattended when, after leaving my tackle box on the beach for the eighth time, my uncle tossed some of my lures on the fire. I learned how to work with others on a team to accomplish a goal, such as when cleaning and cooking the fish we had all caught that day in order to eat supper. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how the outdoors made me feel. There is a freedom experienced when you’re outdoors, one I learned becomes even stronger when you find yourself in real wilderness. Being in the wilderness was, and still is, my ultimate reset button.
I went on several more camping and hunting trips in my early years. I shot my first firearm, an old .22 caliber rifle with a pull-back firing mechanism. It was my grandfather’s from when he was a kid, and it was the first one my dad ever shot. I learned never to point a firearm at something you don’t intend to kill and how to keep your guns clean and in good operating condition. My family educated me on what lures to use in different waters, how to start a fire with nothing but what Mother Nature provides, and several other indispensable lessons that have informed who I am.
During my teenage years I went canoeing in the Boundary Waters, kayaked from Montana to South Dakota on the Missouri River, hunted various animals, and backpacked almost every mile trail in the Black Hills. Many lessons were learned, especially packing only what I needed and making decisions that wouldn’t get me killed in the middle of nowhere. Learning how to read terrain and orient that to a topographic map is vital with any water- or land-based excursion.
I developed an aptitude for planning for the unexpected and pushing through pain and misery. All of these lessons carried over to when I joined the military. I went through basic training, advanced individual training (AIT), and finally entered the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) shortly after finishing Airborne School. I graduated from RASP and moved onto my designated battalion, applying my experience from my younger years and so many other hard-learned lessons. Ultimately, some of the lessons I learned the hard way led to my separation from the military. I found myself dazed and in a bad place mentally. Even though I had spent plenty of time in the woods of Georgia during training, it wasn’t the same release I felt when just out enjoying the wilderness.
Not long after leaving the military, I went on a backpacking trip with some of my closest buddies, some of whom I grew up with, others whom I served with in 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. On that trip I finally felt as though I’d found my reset button; I’d found myself grounded mentally and somewhat at peace again.
Fast forward a few years. I married a beautiful woman and had two children. My father died from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and I’d begun working as a paramedic. I began to feel the weight of the world bearing down on me again. My wife and I had gone on plenty of short fishing trips, a few hours here and there, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to unplug and head out into the wild.
So my brother and I planned a trip to the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. That trip truly landed me in the most legitimate wilderness I’ve ever experienced. I hadn’t been on a big trip like this in years, and I felt a familiar eagerness and excitement to get going. My brother’s wife, Lauren, drove us to our starting point. We had planned to summit Mt. Washington by the second day, but Mother Nature had other plans.
The trailhead wasn’t where we thought it was. We walked up and down the highway looking for the right location for an hour. After reassessing the map, we called Lauren and she came back and drove us to the right area. We then began the climb into the lower mountains.
We ascended thousands of feet in elevation and the first portion of the trail was practically a crawl. We crossed streams intertwining some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen. The reset button was already struck hard at this point. It felt invigorating to connect with the wilderness once more. Then, we encountered snow. This wasn’t unexpected since it was the middle of April, but what began as a tough but enjoyable backpacking trip rapidly evolved into something we hadn’t expected.
The patches of snow turned into deeper and larger drifts and we found ourselves post-holing through large, ice-covered drifts. My brother is 6’5” and I’m 6’. Several times he would fall through when I didn’t, leaving the top of his head below my waist. Our legs and hips were getting destroyed by constantly falling through the ice-topped drifts.
This continued for hours in the pitch black and cold and led to a point where we were both delirious. Here is a video to give you an idea.
We eventually made camp atop a snow drift. Our clothes were frozen after navigating the streams and a dramatic drop in temperature. We hadn’t packed a winter tent, snowshoes, or sleeping mats rated for weather this cold.
What followed was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever endured. My paramedic brain raced all night, considering what to do if I couldn’t warm myself or my brother up. We did what was necessary to avoid hypothermia and frostbite, and eventually made it to sunrise. We had the conversation regarding whether we should continue, and eventually concluded we shouldn’t. If we were to get injured with the conditions like this, we would be in a bad place. My brother and I are large guys, and the thought of either of us carrying the other out was daunting. The decision was made and we set out, back through the winter wonderland, all the way back down.
Once back to the trailhead, we set out to find cell reception. We needed to call Lauren for the final egress. We ended up walking down to a ranger station where we learned that a blizzard had come through the night before. The ranger told us a group of backpackers were rescued during the night not far from our camp. We asked to use a phone and made the call. We had an hour or so before she would arrive.
While waiting, we made our lunch and enjoyed cups of hot coffee. My brother and I have very similar experiences in the wilderness. Not only did we grow up camping together, he also served in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Instead of wallowing and impatiently waiting for our pickup, we spent the time discussing our plan. We would return and do things differently. We didn’t just say “to hell with this” and vow to never come back, we were determined to finish backpacking that whole area.
Vitally, we were able to stay calm and think through our situation. Our prior experience made that possible. Time spent in the wilderness makes you resilient, physically and mentally tough, and you develop a malleable mindset enabling you to overcome the unexpected. Had we not had our prior experiences with the outdoors, who knows how things would have turned out.