It was just a question. “So, what are your plans after graduation?” Cringe.
In the weeks and months leading up to my college graduation, this question sat thickly in the air like a hot kitchen on a summer day. It was meant to be a conversation starter, an honest inquiry into what stimulating, world-changing, high-paying career might await me. In the worst cases, it was just a filler, an easy question inserted into a dwindling conversation when there was nothing left to talk about.
I wasn’t the only person who shrank from this question. Aside from the few acquaintances who had, I heard through the grapevine, landed six-figure salaries at places like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, and the people who knew, unequivocally in their junior year, that they wanted to go straight into a PhD program, I didn’t know anyone who had a definitive plan. My friends were going to seasonal jobs at camps and huts, short-term underfunded internships, and in lots of cases, home to apply for jobs.
I developed a list of responses to the dreaded question. There was this answer: “Well, I still have two classes left, so I’m going to finish those at a college closer to home and then go from there.” This was the most honest response, but would elicit a battery of questions about why I wasn’t finishing my last two classes at Middlebury. I’d explain all the reasons why Middlebury had become an unhealthy place for me, which left me feeling small and vulnerable, or I’d just say, “It’s complicated.”
Other responses included “I’m doing an internship at a magazine,” and my favorite, the one that made interrogators stumble and scrunch their faces, “I don’t know.”
Having donned my cap and gown for photos with the good people who had supported me through three and a half years of college, but not allowed to hear my name called or to cross the stage since I hadn’t actually graduated yet, I left campus quickly, eager to move on.
That spring, in a stroke of luck, I had landed a summer internship in Boulder, Colorado. I felt vastly under qualified, but I figured I’d make up for it in hard work and eagerness to learn. I would finally test the long-time hunch that maybe I wanted to be a writer.
During the first few weeks in Boulder, I developed a pattern: work, play, repeat. As soon as 5pm rolled around, I was out the door and on my way to the trailhead. I explored countless mountain biking trails and crags, alternately gasping at the landscape and for air.
It was like therapy for my body and my heart as I transitioned away from the college that had taught me, but also stolen, so much. After struggling with mental health at a place that didn’t seem to care, Boulder was a welcome respite. The trails and the crags welcomed me just the way I was, inviting me to leave the hard stuff behind.
As I pedaled up the dusty, rock-spotted path, hearing my breath steady, I could feel my body releasing the toxins that I had stored for so long. And when I raced downhill, the dry air filled my lungs with new possibilities.
At the crag, I could feel myself getting stronger, noticing my mind and body work together to navigate routes that had seemed impossible from the ground. My climbing partner, a friend of my partner’s who had recently graduated and moved to Denver for a job, would often look around, dumfounded, as we approached the crag. “I can’t believe I live here,” he’d say. And then, more emphatically, “I can’t believe I live here!”
He was right. The landscape was breathtaking, and there was world-class climbing just 20 minutes from his apartment. I was only there for the summer, but he’d be there for the foreseeable future, until he moved jobs or grew weary of all the adventure, which I doubted.
As I played outside, I could feel myself healing, but I also had a sinking feeling that there was more to life. I was deeply self-conscious of the privilege embedded in my lifestyle, of not having to take care of anyone but myself and of facing no harder decision on a daily basis than which trail to ride and what to eat for dinner.
It was a contradiction that kept me up at night. How could it be that the very thing bringing life back into my grey veins was also the thing that repulsed me? My addiction to mountain biking and climbing felt necessary at this juncture in my life, but also selfish and shortsighted.
So I did what I know best: I called my family and friends to process. If Middlebury gave degrees for processing, my friends and I would be top of the class. We process everything: how are you feeling today? How are you feeling about tomorrow? How are you feeling about your feelings about tomorrow?
Through these conversations surfaced something familiar, yet somehow surprising:
My people weren’t here. My community, the bedrock on which I had built my entire life at Middlebury, that had supported me and challenged me, grown with me, lived with me, and adventured with me, was now dispersed thousands of miles away. My friends were just a phone call away, and yet the void of community felt so vast.
Middlebury, the place that I had criticized and yelled about and cried about, was also the place where I formed the deepest friendships I’ll probably ever have. It was the same tension I was feeling now, the realization that what brings me life also brings me pain. My feelings of emptiness and selfishness were directly linked to the memory of how fulfilling my community had been at Middlebury, and no number of solo bike rides was going to make me feel as whole as I did when I’d meander through the woods with friends after class.
Solitude can be a great thing. It can be instructive in ways that being in community can’t provide. But for me, being outside is about being in community. It’s about supporting each other, challenging each other, and healing together. It’s about lugging an entire bottle of wine and two Solo cups to the top of a mountain for sunset even though there’s a paper due tomorrow. It’s about walking in silence without being alone. It’s about paddling in a self-bailing kayak by a sign that reads, “The stink you’re smelling is from decomposing iguana bodies,” and sharing uncontrollable laughter.
That summer, I expanded my capacity for gratitude. Gratitude for the trails and crags that welcomed me without questions or qualifiers, and gratitude for the people that make me want to wake up before sunrise, get covered in mud, and paddle through murky waters.