As I hurled myself uphill, rolling over wet, mossy rocks and trying not to get my 100 liter backpack caught on tree branches, I remember distinctly thinking about two things. First, that someone had got to be kidding, and second, that I missed the Appalachian Trail. I was in the New Zealand wilderness, trying to ascend a steep, heavily vegetated ridge that lead to our first on-snow campsite of the mountaineering section of my NOLS semester. We had gotten our first taste of off-trail travel the day before when we’d been directed to somehow find a way down a seemingly impassable pitch of terrain to a river valley below, and I’d watched as all 6 feet and 2 inches of my expedition mate Colt had disappeared into a trapdoor of thorny plants. The second day of the section was no different, only this time we were moving uphill at an alarming angle. How could they possibly expect us to do this? The thickness and aggressiveness of the vegetation was something that a normal person would look at and say, “There is not a single chance in hell that anyone could or should attempt to travel through that,” but naturally, that was exactly what we were supposed to do. We were traveling in the deep wild of New Zealand where we were handed a map with an X on it and instructed to figure out a way to get there on our own. Soaked to the skin and trying to keep my center of gravity below my head, lest my backpack’s formidable weight topple me over, I thought of days hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, where there were blazes every few hundred feet and little log bridges over patches of mud, where the path was clear and where you could turn off your brain, turn on the motor, and just walk. You always knew where to go. You never had to worry about not knowing what came next. You just followed the trail set out before you.
There was none of that out here, in the lawless wilderness—we had to forge our own path, we had to make it up ourselves. We had to handle terrain that was more difficult, more complicated, and at times, more openly hostile than anything I’d experienced before. We couldn’t rely on the easy formula of a trail to guide us. We had to make it up as we went along, and sometimes the only way to get somewhere we wanted to go was to launch ourselves up a vertical, sopping wet, impossibly thick slope and just laugh when we found ourselves slithering on our stomachs, covered in dirt and moss and rain water, trying to slide our bulky backpacks under a low-hanging branch. Because this was reality. And no one was remotely kidding.
Up until we are twenty-two years old and graduate from college, we can more or less follow pre-set steps that get us where we want to go. Go to elementary school. Then middle school. Then high school. Then college. The path is linear, it is well-marked, it is as simple as plugging different variables into a well-established formula. We know exactly what it is we have to do to get where we want to go, and we more or less know what the terrain is going to look like to get us there. It is safe and comforting because at every moment, we know what we are supposed to do. There is a path to follow.
But upon graduating, though some choose careers that allow them to continue following the same type of well-marked path, whether it be to graduate school or into a stable job, this is not the case for all, and in the current economy it is not the case for many. Suddenly the clear path we’ve been traveling on for our entire lives abruptly comes to a halt, and we find ourselves facing open wilderness. We find ourselves in charge of breaking trail on our own. And no one has come along before us to cut back the aggressive vegetation or put little log bridges across the muddy spots. We have to navigate the unfamiliar wilderness of adulthood on our own. And sometimes that means finding ourselves looking up into a patch of dense plants covering a steep pitch and knowing that one way or another, we have to get through it.
The final stop on my month-long trip through Chile and Argentina in March was Torres del Paine National Park, a Patagonian icon and something of a Holy Grail-like destination for me. I had dreamed for months of standing in front of the namesake rock towers and after lots of scraping together of money and twenty-plus hour bus rides, Marielle and I had arrived. We were camped at Campamento Torres, the free campsite just below the lookout for the towers. We had made friends with the park ranger on duty Sebastián and were sharing some mate, the traditional bitter Argentine loose-leaf tea, and sharing our stories one afternoon after we’d finished our hiking for the day. I explained that after my trip I was going to be teaching English in Chile for four months, but that after that I didn’t have anything specific in place. I had found that generally when I told people that I didn’t have a set plan for after August they looked at me either like I was insane, unfortunate, or both, but Sebastián grinned and took a sip of mate. “Mi palabra favorita es improvisar,” he said. My favorite word is ‘improvise.’
There are two entries in the English dictionary for “improvise,” one of which is “to create or perform spontaneously without preparation,” and then also “produce or make [something] from whatever is available. The first definition is generally the one that first comes to mind, or that corresponds to the way the word is used most often, but the second definition is the one that spoke to me and to the situation I found myself in. Adulthood requires you to look out at the vast, untamed wilderness and produce your own trail from what is available, whether that happens to be the smooth, flat stones of a river valley, or the antagonistic shrubbery of a hillside. It requires you to make decisions each step of the way, to assess the terrain before you and determine how you’re going to negotiate it. Essentially, it requires you to choose. It requires you to be in charge. And that freedom, that responsibility, is equally extraordinary and bewildering.
After nearly two hours of pushing farther and farther uphill without being able to see any sign of an exit route from the dense, low-hanging greenery we found ourselves in, I heard Babalu utter a loud whoop from up ahead of me. After performing a few last acrobatic moves through bushes and under tree branches, I found myself out in a boulder field at a staggering elevation overlooking the river valley we were making our way up. Despite the forest still being wet from the rain the day before, the sun was pulsing in the impossibly blue sky, glinting off the snow in a way that was nearly blinding. Up to the left was the snowfield where we would camp, and the right the larger river valley we had come from. The mountains across it were immense and covered in snow, standing out vividly against the sky. The hugeness of it all, the absolute limitless feeling I got in my chest when I looked out around me and could see nothing but mountains for miles and miles and miles was astonishing. I forgot that I was soaking wet, that the thermal I was wearing that had started out a robin’s egg blue was now smeared with mud from top to bottom, that I had felt terrifying moments of where-the-hell-are-we-going-will-this-ever-end helplessness during the climb. I forgot it all and just stared out around me, unable to speak or move.
What we were seeing all around us we had arrived at because we were in wild, uncharted territory. Because we were traveling where there was no established trail, where we’d had to look at a piece of unmarked land and figure out how to navigate it. Following a trail would have been easier, but it wouldn’t have gotten us here, to all of this. Though the journey to get to them was less certain, the things we could see by having to find our own way, by having to improvise, were staggering, were infinite.
And so we plowed on, into the sprawling, unfamiliar terrain that awaited.