Stumbling off a red-eye flight at 5:30 AM, muddied hiking boots hanging off of the outside of my backpack, I arrived in sweltering Houston after my final international trip of the year. Hair tied up in a bun, waterproof shell hanging out of my backpack, you could tell from a mile away that I’d come from a few days in the mountains. The sunburn I toted on my shoulders and face despite numerous applications of sunscreen was a proud battle scar of the many days I spent on the trails of Patagonia. Disheveled as I looked, it was exhilarating to know I’d once again returned from a sojourn into one of the most beautiful places in the world.
This year, I met the mountains.
Nine countries, dozens of peaks, and thousands of photographs later, I’ve developed a deep and unwavering love of nature, and especially, the mountains.
For a long time, I was a self-proclaimed city girl. I loved to shop, eat, and explore crowded city streets in the hustle and bustle of the morning. As a huge extrovert, being around lots of people energized me. And although I rarely indulge now, luxury is something I have always enjoyed when the opportunity has presented itself. I enjoyed the ease and convenience of visiting cities.
Moreover, I was always fine with outdoor trips consisting of just a few short hours of hiking. I hated humidity. Spiders and bugs scared the shit out of me (and still do), no matter their size. I was terrified of bears, wolves, snakes, and other scary creatures that go bump in the night. Sleeping in a tent made me scoff and the thought of going without air conditioning was cringe-worthy to me. I was sensitive to all kinds of smells and campfires hurt my eyes. The possibility of stepping in animal droppings really grossed me out. Oh, and what on Earth would I even eat?
Before I even tried it, I’d basically written off being an outdoorsy person. Sorry folks, this city girl wasn’t going to spend her vacation time sleeping in a tent. Nope.
In 2015, I tried camping in Iceland.
My sister and I had heard that Iceland is one of the most stunning places in the world, so we decided to go as a joint graduation trip after high school (for her) and college (for me). After some intense planning and deliberation, we booked tickets and took off for the land of fire and ice.
Iceland, as you all know, is an extremely expensive place to visit, especially for two recent graduates. Not only do most hotels cost over $200 a night, but food and gasoline were expensive too. When looking at our options, I realized that camping around the island would be by far the cheapest option, even including the purchase of all the necessary equipment. After extensive research, my sister and I decided to give it a shot.
The first few nights were a real struggle. I felt like I had insomnia. The dim glow of Iceland’s midnight sun radiated through our translucent tent the whole night as the chilling breeze rattled its aluminum poles. My sister and I both caught colds that we couldn’t shake and shivered as we tried to fall asleep night after night. We ended up camping about two-thirds of our trip to Iceland, and the other third of the night we splurged on hostels, guest houses, and hotels.
Camping was hard. I sucked at it. And as a result, I didn’t get to spend as much time hiking and photographing Iceland’s natural beauty as I originally anticipated.
And then, almost a year later, I met the Canadian Rockies.
I was on my first-ever trip to Banff National Park this past May and heard of a stunning campsite called Two Jack Lake. At this site, I’d been told, you can camp right next to a glacial lake and see thousands of stars at night. Tempted, I once again found myself packing up my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat to spend a few nights outdoors.
Things felt different this time. Setting up the tent and sleeping equipment felt easier, and the mats were more comfortable. I slept soundly both of the nights I camped, save for a few quick wake-up calls to watch the sunrise or to go star gazing at night. In the end, we found camping to be super enjoyable, and I got some incredible photographs I wouldn’t have been able to capture had I stayed in a hotel, like this one:
Or this one:
After my first trip to Canada, I was hooked on getting outside. It became somewhat of a craving, an addiction, a thirst I couldn’t quench. Luckily enough for me, I was put on a project in July that had me working in Calgary every week. So, instead of going home to flat, sweaty, hot Houston on the weekends, I opted to stay in the Canadian Rockies, living out of my tent and enjoying the beauty (and sometimes the temper) of nature. Through the storms, the bear sightings, the starry nights, and the cool, pure mountain air, I started to fall in love with the euphoria of being in the mountains. I started to care less about spending money on fancy clothes or expensive dinners out, opting instead to buy new outdoor gear. My adventures in the Canadian Rockies always left me refreshed during the week, where I’d spend hours in the office daydreaming about what I’d do the following weekend.
Other people around me began to notice this growing love for the mountains. I became one of the main “experts” my friends would approach for advice when they were considering spending a weekend in the Rockies. Some even went solo, just like I did. Throughout the course of the summer, I found that I really enjoyed helping others get to know my favorite places. When people would reach out to tell me, “I booked a trip to Banff because I saw your photos and they looked beautiful,” I couldn’t help but smile. The Rockies were starting to feel like home.
After that, the mountains became a central part of my story.
When I explored Portugal, I took a side trip to the Azores to hike through the strange volcanic crater formations on São Miguel island. On a long weekend trip in Austin, my friends and I took an afternoon to explore the Texas Hill Country. In July, I jumped on the opportunity to explore Park City with some friends from work. When I went to Tokyo, I couldn’t bear to just explore the city, so I decided to take two days to climb solo to the summit of Mount Fuji. Outdoor adventures became a natural part of each one of my itineraries, without even thinking twice about it. When I traveled back to Iceland this year, I lived in my hiking boots with my backpack on my back. And in my recent trip to Chile, 90% of the things I brought were for my 5-day trek on the W trail of Torres del Paine National Park.
I constantly dream of being in the mountains. My book collection consists of works like Into the Wild and On the Road. Several of my colleagues use my photographs as their computer backgrounds. And, believe it or not, when I’m in cities these days, I hardly know what to do with myself. It’s as if my passion for the outdoors has taken over this former city girl’s entire life.
I’m not complaining.
I’ve learned a lot from the time I’ve spent outdoors.
The mountains taught me to be brave. I’d had terrifying travel incidents before, like losing my appendix in Thailand or getting my passport stolen in France, but when it came to hiking and adrenaline sports, I was a total sissy. Hiking solo almost every weekend of the summer taught me to be self sufficient and to take responsible risks.
On one particularly difficult hike, I came to a cliff-like structure with a chain bolted to the side of a rock. I figured out quickly that I was supposed to hold on to the chain for dear life as I tiptoed over a ledge that was less than five inches wide. TERRIFYING.
In a past life I might have turned around immediately, cursing and saying “no way in hell I’d do that.” But instead, I took a deep breath, grabbed the chain, and began my walk, hanging off the ledge precariously. After a few minutes, I finally made it to the other side, my heart pounding out of my chest as I took a few celebratory breaths of victory air.
My reward? A stunning double rainbow that appeared right over the pass I’d just traversed, something I would have never seen if I’d turned around and disappeared back into the forest.
The mountains also taught me to be humble. Many times during my hikes a thunderstorm or high winds would appear out of nowhere, forcing me to take cover or to turn around. I’ve never felt like I was “running for my life” until I started hiking long distances in suboptimal conditions. Surprisingly, despite the terror of not knowing whether I’d make it to safety in time, these situations were really humbling and eye opening. Nature is beautiful but she’s also a powerhouse, and it’s important to learn early on that we as humans are pretty small in the grand scheme of things. One gust of wind or strike of lightning could do us in. I quickly learned how to put my ego aside and turn around when it was necessary.
Most importantly, the mountains taught me to be respectful. I’ve experienced few things more heartbreaking than the sound of a glacier melting or a beautiful trail littered with trash. After seeing so many beautiful mountains and the impact that we humans have on the environment, I’ve learned that it is absolutely critical to respect nature and conserve it as much as possible. Whether that’s trading your car for a bike, going vegetarian, using reusable things in lieu of plastic, or turning off the AC when you leave the house, it’s important to do all that we can to protect our environment. Nature is the most beautiful thing we have on this Earth, and it would be a shame to see it get destroyed as a direct result of our actions.
Throughout the past year, I fell in love with the mountains.
And I think this love is one for the ages.