Some Find travel stressful; others are transformed with mental clarity on the trails of Montana…Here is Emily’s Story

I noticed her glow when she got back from Montana…

When I decided to book the last-minute plane ticket to Montana, I was sitting in class listening to a professor remind us of deadlines and how much we had to do in so little time.

I thought to myself, “If this hour doesn’t end soon, I’m going to have to get up and leave.” Otherwise, I another state of panic would set in. 

A friend of mine arranged a trip to Montana a year prior, which is how I came to my decision of destination. I noticed her glow when she got back. She looked as if she had been released of all mental anguish.

I craved that glow.

I didn’t want the trendy, polaroid pictures about a simple, whimsical life in the mountains, among the trees, with my flannel and a backpack. As simple and quaint as that may seem, it wasn’t.

I wanted to find the old me: the girl who struggled holding back a smile.

I was tired of being the girl who struggled finding one.

Looking up I thought…“If heaven does exist, I wouldn’t mind dying”

Looking up at the sky full of stars, I couldn’t help but think: “If heaven does exist, I wouldn’t mind dying…

On the first night of my solo trip, I laid in a screened-in hammock perched between two trees.  Looking up at the sky full of stars looking over snow-capped mountains, I couldn’t help but think: “If heaven does exist, I wouldn’t mind dying. If I died, I’d look down and see everything this world has to offer because I know I won’t see it all in my lifetime.”

That admission that “I wouldn’t mind dying” casually rested on my mind. I knew I had lost something in myself and I desperately needed to find it.

Over the next few days I hiked miles of mountainous ground. While hiking along Flathead Lake in Montana, I fed a baby bison with my bare hands. For thirty minutes, that bison was relying on me as a source of food. He expected me to continue feeding him.

In that moment I realized the only expectations I can live up to, or fail, are my own.

As I hiked, I was transformed. I noticed the trail’s impact on my brain and my heart, a subtle change both mentally and spiritually. That didn’t mean I wanted to totally erase my old self, but instead, embrace something.

There is a certain romance to getting up and doing something new. On some level I fancied myself a wild animal, like the baby bison, regardless of my absurdly modern clothing and gear.

At the end of a long day of walking, my mind’s scrambling internal monologue finally eased. I felt myself falling into a state of zen-like clarity — serene, crystalline and thought-free.

Frédéric Gros, a philosopher of walking, pleasantly reveals this state of awareness:

“There is a moment when you walk several hours that you are only a body walking. Only that. You are nobody. You have no history. You have no identity. You have no past. You have no future. You are only a body walking.”

I found it especially easy to try something new and be more adventurous in a destination where I was anonymous.

Keeping a book within easy reach, I would read until my mind grew groggy. It’s a wonderful state of mind in which to read. Everything is pleasantly quiet, slightly unreal and golden-lit.

Towards the end of the four-day trip, the sense of calm and confidence I had started to feel when I got to Montana was replaced by anxiety. My thought-process was staticky and my attention was hard to fix. Perhaps I missed the intimate, work-a-day-dog connection that my body experienced prior to the hiking trip. 

Inspirational backpacking stories often draw a realistic picture of the transformative effects of a long-distance hike. But here’s what those stories leave out:

Unless you’re set on creating a new life for yourself, when you get home, you transform back.

And then, there is Montana

What I learned is that it’s necessary for me to periodically put my social and work life to the side…

Upon returning to Ohio, I did not feel any spasms of deep nostalgia for life on the trail.

I live in a space with four walls. The right wall of my bedroom has a body mirror propped up against it, sitting beneath a calendar filled with deadlines and events.

The left wall has a map of Montana, covered in pencil markings and tears.

There’s a difference between the left and the right wall of my bedroom.

The right wall shows an outline of my life in progress and all the things to do. A story that can’t be told until the calendar is full, and another year has passed.

The left wall is an example of a story that’s already been lived during a moment when I needed it most.  It’s a reminder.

There’s a sense of irony that sits between the two walls.

The map of Montana on the left was never a part of a work in progress on the right. It wasn’t a date on the calendar planned for months in advance.

Montana was a guide that led me to a healthier lifestyle; a spontaneous flight to a destination of sanity.

The calendar reminds me of the pro-social world we live in and all the moments when I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to lose my mind. It’s a reminder of the part of me that’s preoccupied with considerations about what other people want, what they may be thinking about me, and what they are expecting from me.

And then, there is Montana.

In some sense, I have never been healthier than when I was hiking alone in Montana. Maybe I’m anti-social, but I don’t self-diagnose. What I learned is that it’s necessary for me to periodically put my social and work life to the side. Whether it’s a long bath, thirty minutes of reading or an hour of yoga, I need to rest my mind.

I do know this: When you’re by yourself, you pay more attention to what you find important. You do what you like and be who you are and you don’t limit yourself to a room with four walls.

You open the door.