Author Dylan Manderlink sits cross legged and leans toward the camera. She is on her solo journey with mountains in the background. She wears a grey fleece and black pants. Her brown hair is down and reaches past her shoulders.

The Wilderness, Empowerment, and Me

I have always known that I love to travel. So, in 2017, following a disastrous break-up with someone I had uprooted my life and moved out West for, I got in my car with a pretty loose itinerary and did that whole cliche movie thing where I cried, listened to sappy music, cried some more.

I looked in my rearview mirror at the town I was leaving behind and started to chase adventures and new places that would hopefully make me feel strong and confident again.  I needed to gain more faith in myself and my ability to get through another failed relationship without having my self-esteem bite the dust. I was craving a way to empower myself that was healthy, productive, and good for my soul. And that was solo traveling.

I camped on my own, sometimes not seeing a single person all evening or morning. I lived out of my car if I felt too unsafe wherever I decided to spend the night. I hiked miles and miles alone, parsing through the challenging thoughts in my head, immersing myself in the silence of nature, and practicing mindfulness.

I explored Joshua Tree National Park, Lake Mead, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, San Francisco, Great Basin and the red sands of Southwestern Utah, among other places. I screamed at the top of mountains and cried while swimming naked in numbingly cold alpine lakes.

I read books that fueled my soul and listened to hours of podcasts just to hear other humans’ lives and not dwell on just mine. I pushed through difficult moments of loneliness, and confronted emotions I knew weren’t healthy to keep suppressing. I packed and unpacked aspects of my previous relationships and breakups. And maybe most significantly, I got ready to enter a new job as a wilderness therapy instructor, a job my ex told me I wasn’t “cut out for.”

Author Dylan's feet are in the foreground, covered in dirty lines from Chaco sandals. She is seated next to a bonfire with a wide view of the snowy desert.
Chaco lines and a bonfire in the snowy desert.

Although my solo post-breakup road trip was winding down and my self-esteem was beginning to see brighter days, I was still very much struggling. I finished my road trip and got ready to start this new adventure on a path of hopeful empowerment. I was wildly unprepared for my week-long training in the 10,000 ft. mountains of central Utah. I had never “backpacked” before and was certainly not used to carrying so much weight on my poor scoliosis-affected back.

I had never worked an outdoor job prior to this training, and my knowledge of outdoor skills was limited despite my previous travel, hiking, and camping experiences. I loved nature and loved adventuring in the outdoors, but as I started the training, I began to get anxious about whether that previous experience was enough to cut it in this job. It seemed like everyone around me in my training group knew what they were doing except for me.

Imposter syndrome definitely started to sink in. I looked around our training campsite realizing I was only one of two women out of our 10-person training group. I felt alone, unconfident in my abilities, and questioned if I really was the empowered woman I was starting to believe in. Every night of this week-long training I lay awake in my sleeping bag trying to reason with my irrational negative self-talk. I rarely slept that week and had to muster all of my courage and confidence to wake up in the morning and approach the day as best I could. I was feeling like an amateur and imposter in this male-dominated outdoor industry.

One day as I was struggling to make an adequate shelter out of a tarp and paracord, I lost it. I wasn’t catching on to the knots I was taught, I had accidentally set up my shelter on a literal field of cacti, and it was starting to rain and thunder. I was the last trainee still working on building my shelter, and the only tree whose branches I could reach was dead and falling apart every time I attempted to put paracord around it. I felt like a failure. I felt like a fraud. My ex-boyfriends were right, I thought. I’m not strong, brave or cool enough. I’m just not enough for this. So I threw the rest of my shelter building material on the ground and started to walk away, ready to quit this training and this potential job in the outdoors.

My face was a frightful mask of dirt, tears, and blood (maybe from the dead branches that kept breaking off, who knows) when one of my trainers came to find me. He so kindly and empathetically asked me what was going on, and I let everything pour out onto this person I had just recently met.

I told him how I didn’t think I’d be any good at this job and how I had no prior outdoors experience. I told him about my low self-esteem and negative self-talk. I said that I thought the company was wasting their time investing in me. This guy, who I barely knew just looked at me, actively listening to my concerns and self-doubt. When I finished, he said something along the lines of, “It’s okay, no one really knows what they’re doing but you need to believe that you are enough even when you don’t feel confident in whatever it is.”

And maybe it was the fact that I had just cried and shown such vulnerability in front of someone I didn’t know. Or maybe it was the realization that I made it this far already and most of my friends from college or other jobs wouldn’t even consider doing a job like this. Or maybe it was the fact that I had heard someone tell me that it was going to be okay. But whatever it was, I walked back to my shelter to finish it, wiped the tears/blood/dirt mixture off my face, and looked out over this enormous mountain range. For the first time in a long time, felt the inklings of confidence, independence, and pride.

I was offered the job later that week, was promoted within 6 months, and then promoted once more shortly after that. Today, I have been working in wilderness therapy for almost two years. Every week in the job is a challenge, but I have learned so much about myself, my relationship with others, effective communication, coping strategies and healthy self-talk.

Most work weeks, I walk away thinking I’ve benefited more from this job than our teenage clients. Through this job, I have regained a sense of empowerment, tenacity, and bravery. Students seek advice from me and seriously value what I have to say. I am often the only female on the staff team, and I feel a sense of #girlpower as we push through harsh conditions and weather. Working as a wilderness therapy instructor has helped me re-learn how to have healthier self-esteem and outlook on who I am as a person. Working outdoors for a living, despite my lack of previous professional experience, has helped me feel stronger, more grounded, and like I am finally enough.

It is humbling to work outside, and through this experience I have finally come to terms with the fact that I have been enough all along in spite of what my previous relationships may imply, I am worthy, I am loved, and I am confident in who I am no matter the mistakes or obstacles behind me. Nature and the challenges I’ve had while immersed in the great outdoors have helped me find, respect, and love myself again. I am naturally me, and for that, I am grateful.

Author Dylan smiles for her friend and photographer Hannah Sisler. Dylan is wearing a backwards baseball cap, grey fleece, black leggings and Chaco sandals. She is standing in the forground holding onto her hat and smiling for the camera behind her sunglasses. The reddish dessert and mountains are in the background. White and grey clouds streak the sky.
Image by Hannah Sisler.

About the Writer

Dylan Manderlink is originally from Connecticut and has been lucky to be able to call New York, Massachusetts, Arkansas, and Utah her homes. Dylan is currently embracing this nomadic lifestyle thing and camping, exploring, and playing outside in the four corners region as she finishes up her last two shifts as a wilderness therapy instructor. You can follow her many merry misadventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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