“Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”
-Zac Brown Band
Growing up in a small town in Southern New Jersey with not many things to do and always wanting to be elsewhere, it was hard to find a sense of place and home there. Since moving out West four years ago, I’ve moved three times, Colorado, Nevada, and now Montana—each place feeling more like home than the previous. I’m not quite sure if Montana is the place, but I’m okay with that, I have plenty left to explore.
Jumping into a six-week course that explored the Crown of the Continent, I was excited to get to know places I’d never been to. The Crown of the Continent includes northern Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia. And I love it. Plans have changed on the fly—rerouted backpacking trips due to flooding and recent forest fires—but that’s okay, life is always changing things up.
School hasn’t been the easiest journey for me. I’m dyslexic and have reading and writing comprehension issues. This course is challenging. Getting up at 7 am, having class at 8, then tossing on a 60lb pack and hiking 7 miles to our next destination to then read 50 pages that night, can be tiring. But when I’m in nature learning clicks for me.
Walking through and learning about my surroundings suits me better than merely reading about it. I came into this trip not knowing any tree species. Within two weeks, I can easily spot a Western Larch, Lodge-Pole Pine, White Bark Pine, Engelmann Spruce, and so on. I had never backpacked prior to this and three weeks in, I have my daily backpacking routine down, such as how to organize and fit my pack properly. It has been rewarding to see how far I’ve come academically and physically. I feel a sense of pride of my accomplishments. This sense of pride has been boosting my mental health.
My mental health tends to drop in school since my way of learning doesn’t fit into the “traditional” educational system. My academic struggles are not fun to deal with and can be discouraging at times. But an outdoor classroom doesn’t have the same distractions as an indoor one, such as a kid in front of you on his laptop watching Netflix or the girl texting on her phone having an argument with her boyfriend. The outdoor classroom may have a nosey chipmunk or an Osprey diving into the lake looking for breakfast. Many of these distractions provide teachable moments. Being able to sit at an alpine lake, enjoying its beauty and enjoying my reading is very calming because I’m absorbing more out here. This course has shown me that I can progress in school and my grades so far have been proving so.
One of our guest speakers, who teaches at the Blackfeet Community College, is also an advocate for experiential education. She said that the Blackfeet value it for their growing process. As Helen said, “how can you be in it and not outside?” Words on paper can only do so much justice.
Really getting to know this place and the people in it has made it feel like home. Finding a sense of place in a country I’ve never been to is exciting. As we have learned in class, hundreds of species and different environments all have a connection together. As I learn more and explore new places, I find new connections to these places. I like the NorthFace tagline, “Never Stop Exploring”, and use it as a motto for myself. As I keep exploring on this course, it’s refreshing to be connected to new territories and call them home. I am satisfied knowing that “Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”