Adventure and wilderness experiences heal our souls. We get out in wilderness in many different ways, and for a variety of reasons. There is a theme that runs common for those of us who are driven toward our passions—Joy. What is it that is the undercurrent of the joy we experience through adventuring? Answering this question is where each story becomes real. Uncovering our reasons, unique to all of us, can reveal our hearts.
Behind every reason we give for making adventure happen in our lives, there is a personal, internal motive that revs up our energy levels, clears the calendar, hires a sitter, and kicks us into action. No matter how busy, stressed, or complicated our lives can be, we find the time and a way to make adventure happen. We do this for a reason.
We may not fully understand the reason we love and, in my case, need adventure. Over time, I discovered a great reward in looking honestly at my own drive and implacable need. In searching my own heart and my spirit of adventure, I have found my purpose.
Origins of My Wilderness Disorder
The title of this story sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can love of wilderness and adventure ever be a disorder? The phrase “wilderness disorder” is the term I’ve used my entire adult life to describe the motive and the reason behind my own unrelenting drive to seek adventure. Early on, I never gave much thought to why I felt it was a disorder. I never really meant it to have a seriously negative connotation. It was always meant mostly as a joke, acknowledging the frequency and intensity with which I pursued adventure. However, I think my choice of words was a hint. Somehow, deep within, I knew my drive for adventure was a little out of whack.
I was in my 20s when my need for adventure first began to collide with the rest of my life—There I go again with the negative undertones. Why do I call it a “need” and a “collision” and not just describe it as my deep passion for adventure instead? Because that’s how it felt.
For me, intense joy breaks through, deep in the wilderness, at the apex of adventure and in existence in nature, far beyond the complexities of daily life. As a young adult I began to feel extremely motivated to seek adventure. But not just motivated, I was propelled, full tilt, toward every opportunity as though I would literally die if I missed the chance—Seriously, I would throw a fit if someone stood in the way of my next adventure. To be completely honest, this still happens.
In those early, fit-filled years I couldn’t put a finger on why I needed adventure so badly. With every excursion I felt it in my core, like I had reached a union of longings that defined who I was in my soul. I felt centered. My best expression of it probably didn’t come in words, but in a pose I still take—the joy pose!
I’m certain joy was not meant to be so difficult to find, deep in the wilderness, through miles of trekking, subsisting on morsels of jet-boiled slime and years of untangling tippet. Some of us are harder nuts to crack than others. I am in awe of the sheer power and force of joy that cracks through, comes out of hiding behind great canyon walls, crosses impassable rivers, and fights with fury and flash at end of my fly line, with a boundless need to reveal itself and to announce, “I am here”. No wonder we go back for more!
My need for more and more adventure was tilting off-balance. I see now that I was completely set up to become an adventure junkie. The DSM-5 diagnostic manual for diagnosing disorders will usually point to childhood for the root of the issue, and there is no exception in the case of a real good, solid wilderness disorder. My mother and father were avid adventurers and taught me there are no limits to what we are capable of doing in the outdoors. In other words, nine days was not too long to stuff an entire family of four, a dog, and all of our food and gear into one small canoe to float down a river.
Most disorders also have some kind of trauma mixed in, and again, no exception here. Our canoe adventure was filled with drama, as one can imagine. Losing the dog, and then finding her, cuts, burns, copperheads, tears, not to mention snot, and my dad’s bright idea of shooting a series of small rapids in the dark (not going there). But it wasn’t actually drama and trauma at work in the formation of my wilderness disorder. It was simply the time we spent together, connecting, with all of our focus and efforts working together as a family and, the undivided attention of my father.
My father was in the Air Force and there were long absences from the family due to war and TDYs. The fact is, even when Dad was home with us, he wasn’t really geared toward personal relationships, and his words were very few. This changed beautifully as he got older, but as with many families in my generation, things just went unspoken back then. I’m sure I had to sort through all kinds of messages that this dynamic would convey to a young person. The message that rang out clear, and managed to stick the hardest throughout my childhood, was that love, personal connection, and joy were assured in the heart of an adventure together in the wilderness.
In my teen years, I discovered that hiking, backpacking, skiing, and fishing were all sufficient to snuff out anxieties related to that phase of life. At 16, I picked up my first job as a ski instructor. I remember long backpacking trips in the Weminuche Wilderness area. I recall when, after several days on the trail, I felt myself cross over from just being in nature (observing and appreciating it) into a completely different existence. I focused on nothing but how we would find water to drink, food to eat, stay warm, and take shelter. I found escape from teenage anxieties. Again, and again, I was rewarded.
These young adventures were branded onto my heart like alters of where I must go to find genuine connection, peace, and joy. These were the formative years of my wilderness disorder, and by my early 20s the setup was complete and the deal was sealed.
The Emerger Pattern
If, in childhood, my adventures were the gateway drugs that were salve to my soul, it was when I moved to Alaska in 1988 that the full-on addiction took hold. For a budding new adventure junkie, living in Alaska was like drinking several double crackaccinos every single day.
I worked as an Artificial Intelligence Researcher and Software Engineer starting in 1985. Now living in Anchorage and married to an Air Force fighter pilot, my goal was to maximize our adventure time while holding flexible, independent contracting roles with large oil and gas corporations. The plan was good, but when the Exxon Valdez crashed, it wreaked devastation on pristine waters, shorelines, and wildlife, not to mention the research and development budgets that provided paychecks to someone in my field. Back to ski instructing I went, this time at Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, AK. When I wasn’t teaching, I used my computer skills as much as possible in different jobs.
Living in Alaska was as intense as its 24 hour-a-day growing season. I learned to seize the moment and mobilize quickly, since any delay might mean missing the midnight opening of salmon season. But, in just the few hours spent away fishing, the broccoli might go to flower before I had the chance to harvest. I quickly caught up to the rhythm and the pace of life in the land of the midnight sun, and it wasn’t uncommon to find me harvesting vegetables at all hours of the night before leaving on a trip.
This was the craziness of Alaska life, and it was like jet fuel to my engines to go and go and go. But it wasn’t just the pace and all the daylight that fueled my motivation for our constant adventures and trips away. It was the pattern of my childhood, my soul, and my wilderness disorder. It was the cry for real connection with my husband. Sadly, what had rescued me as a child did not exactly save me. The power of adventure to reveal joy in any circumstance, to find genuine connection, and provide rest from the complexities of life was not enough to put a broken marriage back together.
“We work so hard to be able to fly and then one day the wind is just right” Colleen Attara
When standing on the bank of a river with a twisted and knotted leader, we have a choice to make. The time it takes us to untangle our mess is time we don’t have a fly on the water. It is certainly important to fix the mess because having knots in the line will weaken it and limit our success. Understanding how the line got knotted is helpful too, but even if we don’t understand fully, chances are we already know enough to move on. We just have to assess the damage and make a decision. Can we untangle or should we snip? Sometimes I untangle and sometimes I snip.
The Adventure Begins
Colorado is my home now and where I met my soulmate, formed a big, adventurous blended family, and worked for 25 more years in software. This is also where my wilderness disorder took off on an even grander scale. My husband and I are soulmates because we both have the soul of an adventurous 10-year-old boy. John more than accepts my wilderness disorder, he is thrilled that I have it. He knows exactly what happens if I don’t feed the beast.
Adventuring with our family and friends is a priority in our life and our joy comes from sharing experiences, especially in connection with others. The difference in how my wilderness disorder plays out these days is that my motivations have shifted. I am more motivated than ever to share the joy, especially with women, and to celebrate what uniquely motivates us to seek out adventure. I also recognize that my wilderness disorder is not a problem, it is my gift, and also the solution to living a life of joy and fulfillment of my purpose.
A new chapter in my journey through the heart of adventure has begun. I’ve “uninstalled” my software career. I put down the design docs, deleted all the development environments, and shelved my technical resumé. Off to the Denver Fly Fishing Show I went.
I try not to define exactly how this journey will unfold, but I know that fly fishing is my passion and this will set the stage. My vision is to bring together women, my wilderness disorder, and the truths unveiled about the power of adventure to piece together a heart. All I can really say about tomorrow is that I have a lot to learn about fly fishing today.
I always feel I have more to learn, no matter what I’m doing. Maybe sometimes this feeling is just by virtue of being female. We tend that way, don’t we? I won’t get into Mars and Venus here. I will say, regarding fly fishing, I really, truly, need to learn more. Enough said.
This spring I am headed to Leadville, CO, and the Colorado Mountain College for a six week long course called “Professional Fly Fishing Guide”. I chose the CMC program because it doesn’t just vet people who are already awesome and ready to guide. It is a comprehensive course that gets to the core of the skills that I will need to teach fly fishing, and hopefully guide women who are new to the sport.
Until this episode of “Old Lady Goes to Fishing School” begins, I’m doing all that I can to build my skills. I take casting lessons and join fly tying workshops. I fish, read, tie, practice drills, and I’ve joined the Colorado Women Flyfishers.
My motivation is clear, but getting “there” will require more than just my drive. There is so much to say about how inspired and truly fulfilled I am as I journey on this path, which is both exciting and scary, to my unknown destination. As I jump feet first into the deep end, I’ve decided to wear my fear and vulnerability as a badge of courage. Let the “reel” adventure begin.
Joy poses, Everyone!