The Wetter, The Better.

How Dehydration, Hypothermia and Lightning Changed my Life

Isabella Grandic
49 min readDec 16, 2021

I held my water bottle filled with bleach with one of my hands. I was attempting to keep my raincoat over my head with the other. But it was all pointless anyway; I was wet to a new extreme.

Even after hours of hunching in a kinda-squat position, the storm wasn’t near over. But my mind reached a state of bliss. Around me, the world expelled water and electrically charged particles like diarrhea after 2 chipotle bowls. But apparently, the universe’s diarrhea is my blissfulness.

I was freezing, shivering and shaking in the middle of the Utah Canyonlands Desert. I felt delighted.

Soon, the Canyons started overfilling with water. A waterfall. I saw the water go from waterstay to waterfall! In the desert! During a drought! The sky was so darkly cloudy it looked like the world was ending. I was filled with undisputable satisfaction mixed with a healthy dose of nihilism.

I write this genuinely: everything was perfect but not falsely romanticized. I found peace within the imperfect reality. And although I was stuck half-squatting 50 ft away from the only other humans I’d seen in 12 days to avoid being killed by lightning, I was free.

In the hundreds of moments like these across 3 weeks living in Utah’s mountains, deserts, and the confusingly named Colorado river, I found satisfaction where I found disaster. This experience was the toddler to my play-doh-like existence: it transformed me into something I’m still trying to understand. And my mom thinks it’s cool.

My wilderness expedition was the most eye-opening experience of my life. And today, in this post with detailed descriptions and overdone sarcasm, I will attempt to distill it for you.

First, however, I highly suggest just ditching society for an extended period of time. Experience my reflections first hand. Just watch out for bears and such.

I secondly would like to clarify the genesis of this article title. It is actually a slogan I came up with while discussing my affinity for moist deserts with my friend Jake. A few hours later, I had a new existential crisis in a claustrophobic, concerningly cheap flight to Las Vegas on a Thursday night before midterms! To avert it, I reflected on my trip and realized that wetness was a prominent theme. Hence, the wetter, the better was born.

Before I share my reflections, I would like to recognize the indigenous people whose lands I had the privilege of experiencing. I had one opportunity to observe your beautiful sacred carvings in the desert. However, disappointingly, people had written their names over your messaging. It filled my heart with such empathy and sadness from a culture writing over yours. Furthermore, I recognize that I experienced a river that had a dam built nearby which flooded previous parts of your land, drowning them underwater. Although when we visited, we tried our hardest to leave no traces, I acknowledge that historically this was not the case. I hope in due time, some form of justice, or at least compensation, could be created for you.

Secondly, I would like to thank the Morehead-Cain foundation for sponsoring this adventure and to Outward Bound for having such an amazing program! Wow!

Finally, thank you to my friends and program leaders (Arthur, Heather and Nikki) from this trip, I miss and appreciate y’all ❤.

Ms.Rainbow Chunk

After a trek of a travel day, including an obnoxiously long jog and underwhelming cookie in the Denver airport, I made it to the middle of nowhere, Utah (with a group of strangers)!

As our van parked and I stepped out, my brain was thinking about 3 things. #1) lots of cows! Big fat brown cows. #2) Cow poop… everywhere. #3) holy-shit-where-am-I and why is it pouring rain?

After a few seconds of deep thinking about my 3 intellectual pursuits, I was the first to throw my phone into the goodbye pile.

Then, my group went through an extended orientation. We did ice breakers, talked about backcountry sanitation, packed our massive backpacks, and set up to camp the night. Our instructors walked us through all the preliminary “need-to-knows” for the next 3 weeks of our outdoor adventure.

We were spending our night in the frontcountry and the rest of our trip in the backcountry. The frontcountry is slightly more glorious with running water, road access and outhouses. Backcountry camping is in more remote areas with little-to-no access to amenities (you work with what you carry). For our first and last frontcountry meal, we got some pasta. “We” as in the group of strangers I was with; I merely knew their names, ages and hometowns. We sat in a circle on the dirt ground, avoiding cow poop, to eat our delicious meal.

During our meal my instructors continued with our orientation. For many of us, including me, we’d never done such a physically strenuous and remote trip. They shared important information like how to spit out water when you brush your teeth or how to signal that you’ll be using the washroom.

In the middle of my instructor’s meal speech she paused to acknowledge the fat rainbow in the sky. Cows, cow poop and a rainbow! It was an enlightening scene.

Me (right) admiring a chunk of rainbow while cows mooed off into the distance

Pausing the orientation to notice Ms. Rainbow Chunk set a precedent for appreciating nature throughout our trip. We paused everything to see her. Poop policies can be covered anytime; appreciating a blimp of beauty is short-lived by definition.

So here I internalized that the present moment is filled with treasures. Sometimes you’ll find cow poop, other times a rainbow. But you’ll never enjoy everything if your nose is always tied to some boring policies or instructions.

Lightning Position Followed by Lunch with Cattle

12 hours after Ms.Rainbow Chunk, I carried a bag that was half my size and weight. It was my first time ever backpacking.

Alpine backpacking begins!

We turned left from our campsite and started walking extremely slowly. Painfully slowly because every cell in my body was confused about the sudden weight gain. I felt my hip nerves start to bruise, bruises that months later hardly left.

The following 15 minutes were the most physically draining, tiring and painful experience of my life (by that point in my existence). We walked maybe 300 metres, slowly, up a terrible hill. Each step I took, I had my chin glued to my chest, staring at the ground; it took all my energy to move forward. I had no idea how we would finish the 3-mile goal for the day, nor the tens of miles that came after today, the “easy” “warm up” day.

As my ankles were about to dramatically give out, 15 minutes into the hike, the sky zapped a BOOM louder than anything I’d heard before. Thunder. This was when it all clicked that I was genuinely unprotected, existing out in nature. I could see miles ahead on every side, with only these 14 strangers and cattle in my visual field. And then, the sky was 50 shades of grey.

What do we do if it’s a lightning storm?

I found out about 30 seconds later.

Our group had to take our backpacks (“packs” in hiking slang) off, placing them on the ground 50 ft apart from one another. Then, we got on top of our packs with our feet glued together in a semi-squatted position (our butts slightly lifted off the pack). To top off the stance, our hands covered our ears to protect our hearing. The ultimate goal of this uncomfortable position was to minimize our chance of electrocution and death during lightning storms.

It took about an hour for the storm to settle enough to walk again. But honestly, I didn’t mind. I was terrified of that backpack and its novelty.

But we eventually got back on the hike and walked for an hour. It didn’t get better. It only got worse, actually. My ankles shook, my body wobbled, my mind had so much pain circulating.

Then, some wonderful human suggested we break for lunch in a small valley with several cattle. It was very peaceful and highly odd. I admired its weirdness. I found so much joy in the experience and scenery, mostly because I was thankful not to be backpacking.

Our lunch spot

It’s funny how scary doing something new is, especially in retrospect when that thing has brought you so much joy. A few days later, backpacking would become my love and lightning position would become something we frequently did for survival. Soon, what we did for survival would become a glue for bonding, connection and happiness.

At the start of my journey, the lightning zapped me back into perspective. It brought me to the moment, to the wilderness, to recognize my whereabouts. It allowed me to reflect on the difficulty of those first 15 minutes and, more importantly, to REST FROM THEM. It was the world’s way of telling me that breaks make one flourish.

Most of all, that first lightning storm is when I realized I was not in control of anything except a tiny conscious bit of myself.

Me, Zippy and Amelia in our hiking gear during a storm.

My First Time Drinking Bleach Water!

After the tiring first “warm-up” day of hiking, I sat on a hill in the Utah La Sal mountain range, having tarot cards tell me about my future love life. It was the first full day of my wilderness course, and everything was so foreign. Pooping in holes, cardstock fortune-telling, carrying a bag half my weight, etc.

But by 7pm, it got wilder.

Our trip group got split into chore groups that had rotating priorities: cooking, cleaning, and fetching water. My team was to clean the dishes this day, which didn’t start until after dinner. So, after our jarring hike, we got to chill and do tarot readings while one group made dinner and the other fetched water.

I was undoubtedly too self-absorbed by my tarot predictions to notice that it took the water group an hour and a half to return with litres of river water. Nevertheless, I remember when they appeared from behind the bushes: my enthusiasm for hydration spiked, and I sprinted towards them.

However, my instructor said that we couldn’t drink the water. At least not yet.

We had to treat it with bleach… which is a 20-minute process. So, as I squeezed the correct ratio of chemicals into my water, I had to suppress my desire for water. They had to wait. I didn’t want any exotic forms of diarrhea.

I let my water sit during the sunset. I had nothing to distract myself with, so I had to just stare at my Nalgene water bottle. Watching water disinfect is much less eventful than watching grass grow or water boil; there are no visible changes to the naked eye. Anywho, I felt utterly calm and sufficient, spending all my attention caring for my basic needs. I didn’t feel entitled to that water; I earned that water.

I’m sure if you took a professional water taste tester to drink this water, they would say the bleach after taste is off-putting. But for me, the beverage was refreshing. Well earned. Practical.

I was in control of my survival, and I had everything I could possibly need. Water, food, a place to sleep, tarot cards and a tribe.

I’ve Never Been so Wet

I finished scraping the last dish as the sky went black. Then, I walked to my tarp (a rain cover constructed to resemble a bottomless tent).

I had my headlight on my head, wrapped around like I was in a mine. But, instead of gold, I hunted for my toothbrush. I found my hot pink toothbrush, used my purified water and a bit of paste to brush my teeth. Then, I projected my spit onto the ground. I looked up and saw no stars, only clouds.

This was my first time ever constructing a tarp alone.

For those unfamiliar, a tarp is a water-resistant sheet that you can prop up into a tent-ish structure, but it is much less protective.

Nonetheless, it felt really freaking cool to create a little shelter with a sheet, a hiking pole, some rope and a couple of rocks from the campsite. On the ground beneath the tarp, I had a ground tarp (a thick, durable sheet that protected rocks and sticks from scratching my sleeping pad/bag). On top of my ground tarp was my sleeping pad, the camping version of a memory foam mattress. Finally, on top of my sleeping pad was my sleeping bag. I snuggled in like a caterpillar in a cocoon.

Soon after snuggling, the world took a different turn. It started pouring rain. And within a few minutes, it was a full-on storm. My heart accelerated its beating. My mind didn’t begin to comprehend the danger I was in.

As I tried to snuggle under the first shelter I’d ever made, I felt entirely exposed to the world.

Let’s just say that the water-resistance of my tarp lasted for a maximum of 10 minutes. So much water was piling onto my tarp that it seeped through onto my head, body, everything. The ground around me became a pool, and my sleeping bag became a sponge.

And then, the storm hit harder. Every breath or movement I took submerged me deeper into freezing wetness. After 15–20 minutes in the storm, I was uncontrollably shivering.

My heart pounded with all the energy in my body; the circulation kept me from reaching a concerning state of hypothermia. The thunder became deeper, and the lightning became brighter.

Momentarily, our instructors yelled at us to get into lightning position.

I peeled myself off the soaking ground, and I curled up into a semi-squatted squatted ball. As my weight shifted over to my ankles, my socks filled with more water.

For the next while, I rocked back and forth and occasionally moaned.

My mind was full of fear. Would I die from lightning or hypothermia? How will I do 21 more days of this? How can I escape this discomfort?

An hour went by: I was still squatting. My ankles were aching, in addition to my body shivering and mind fearing uncontrollably.

Another hour went by: I could hear other campers screaming, crying, moaning, but I didn’t have the energy to speak. So I listened, emphasized and felt heard.

Another hour went by: finally, the storm started to decrease. There was still some rain, but at least there was no thunder or lightning to startle me.

My shelter at this point was a complete failure. The tarp had so much water weight on it that it was hardly standing and continually transferring water onto me. I felt like the world was against me and that I had absolutely no protection.

I had to move out of my rolled-up squat so I could at least attempt to sleep; we had a 5-mile uphill hike the next day. I felt even colder as I peeled myself onto my wet sleeping bag. I shut my eyes anyway.

I tried not to think about how every hair on my body was wet. Or how I wished I was snuggling with my mom with a roof over our heads. Or how badly I craved a distraction for my mind. I closed my eyes and breathed. I imagined that each breath allowed the water on my body to evaporate away; I remembered that every breath brought me closer to the sunlight of the morning.

I got through the night. I tossed and turned and hated that I was permanently wet, and I still woke up soggy with sky pee. But I got through.

When I got up, I stripped away my clothing and put on my less wet clothing (the ones that were buried in my backpack during the storm). I then sat on a rock as the sun crept up into the sky. Slowly, my skin became warm again, and I stopped shivering. I was still breathing.

I was wet for nearly 12 hours straight that night/morning. Those 12 hours were more difficult than any school test, any anxiety I’ve had before talking to audiences of 1000+ people or any tragic news I’ve heard.

Before this night, I didn’t internalize how much of a privilege four walls and a roof were or how lucky I was to have been dry for most of my life.

However, it was this wetness that made me more resilient. Any rain I experience from this point onwards will be as significant as the wetness from washing my hands. Any bed I sleep in will be like a king bed at the Four Seasons hotel. I set the bar for comfort lower.

The extremity of this interaction with water made the rest of my life blossom. It watered my gratitude, zest and appreciation for my existence.

I Beat my Wetness Record

The very next day after my pre-hypothermic siesta, we hiked 5 miles to our base camp for the next three nights.

This campsite was stunning.

A view from a hill near our campsite (the site was at the bottom of those trees)

Before bed, we all started setting up our tarps. I spotted an area with two trees that seemed perfectly placed for my tarp, so I began tying the knots for my structure.

As time lapsed further and further away from dinner, the sky faded into a dark grey tone. No one seemed particularly alarmed since we had so many trees around us (we assumed the trees would capture some water from the sky if it stormed).

I brushed my teeth and slid into my cozy contraption. I spent a few minutes scribbling in my journal with my only pencil before softly shutting my eyes to fall asleep.

Next: I don’t know if it was the lubrication on my cheek, the chattering of my teeth or the shaking of my toes, but I suddenly became extremely alert.

I might’ve slept for two hours or so before I entered this state of intense déjà vu. The storm around me was violent, and all of me was wet, again, except this time, it was worse.

Because the 5-mile hike to this basecamp involved an elevation increase of about 4000ft, we were higher in the mountains, which meant colder weather. I went to bed wearing all of my clothing. Every single layer.

But now, everything I had was moist, wet and freezing.

The seemingly “perfect” tarp location was actually a natural runway for water. Essentially, the rainwater fell towards me. I was a water magnet; a water drainage site.

At this point, I was crying and scared. My shivering was worse than the night before. The storm didn’t seem like it was going anywhere anytime soon. My tarp was entirely collapsed, and did I mention I was doused in water?

When I looked at my watch, I got even more anxious. I had 8 hours to go before the sun would rise. The sun was my only hope for mild warm and thermoregulatory renewal.

I clenched my hands and tried to fall back asleep. I did it yesterday, so why not do it again?

But this time was different. With elevated danger, I gained elevated lucidity. After 2 hours of attempting to fall asleep, I knew it wasn’t happening.

I had to distract myself for 6 hours. So, I started by identifying what I was grateful for. Yes, in that very moment. I found it was more peaceful than complaining about my moist status or wishing the sun would come faster. I found gratitude in my breath, in my resilience, in that it could be colder but wasn’t, in the lack of wind, in that I had a notebook and pencil, in my ability to walk, in the sound of the night animals, and so forth. It was shockingly easy to find reasons to appreciate things for a girl who was almost dangerously hypothermic.

The appreciation train died down eventually. It was overcome by muscle spasms and a genuine fear for survival.

I then found satisfaction in accepting my reality. There was no point wishing to be dry. It wasn’t happening, at least not for a few more hours. But this didn’t mean I couldn’t try to stay warm.

This is when, for the first time ever at 3 am, I felt compelled to do jumping jacks. And I did them vigorously. Honestly, I was so cold that jumping jacks didn’t help my body temperature, but they kept my mind busy. They pushed me closer to the sun.

Another instinct sprawled through me: I wanted to dance. So I danced. I danced with the utmost passion, enthusiasm, and love for the world. I danced in the black of night, surrounded by trees taller than skyscrapers, with the knowledge that there could be bats or bears anywhere. I danced not because it made me significantly warmer but because it made me feel alive.

I used other tactics, like breathing deeply and crying. And over time, I shivered slightly less and became slightly more comfortable — or at least adjusted to my circumstances.

I even recall a moment of complete eudaemonia somewhere around 4:30 am. I had just peed on a tree, and I was walking back to the Wet’n’Wild zone when I became captivated by the moon in the sky. I blankly stared upwards as all my energy focused on interpreting the night sky. For that moment, none of my moistness mattered. I was in awe of the world that I got to sleep in.

It took me about another hour to restlessly fall asleep again. My sleep itself was short, uncomfortable and … wet. I woke up insufficiently energized but grateful to see the sun start to show up as I expected.

That night I learned a valuable lesson of accepting and adapting to reality. The acceptance that I would not be dry, but I should try to be warm or try to sleep focused my energy on realistically surviving. It pushed me through.

Then in the morning, I learned another valuable skill of not letting my mood seep into other people’s. I could have increased my portrayal of frustration or tiredness to communicate the pain of my evening. But I didn’t. Because my pain isn’t other people’s problem. But also, that would change nothing. Why should I project anger? Who does it benefit? Who the hell would have a time machine in the backcountry anyway?

After these two nights, I felt like it couldn’t get much worse. But, I had new confidence in my abilities to survive the backcountry.

The World Peed on My Dreams to Summit the Mountain

It had been a few days in the wilderness already. I felt forgetful of everything beyond the depths of the forest and the heights of the mountains. Looking around me, I felt like I was living in Apple’s default desktop wallpapers: it was picture-perfect.

The mountains engulfing our little campsite were breathtaking. And not just because we were higher in altitude with less oxygen concentration available.

As I’d set up shelter, clean the dishes, or do any campsite chores, my neck would bend as far back as possible instinctually to glare at the mountains. And as I looked up, I would remember that soon I would be on top of them.

The morning after a long night of near hypothermia, we started walking to one of the mountains. We hiked for half a mile towards the base of the mountains until we reached a sharp incline.

I remember that first rush of placing my foot on a semi-stable rock, then pulling myself upward. Then I did that again. And again. And again. And Again. Until we found a narrow path on the side of the incline that went to the mountain’s saddle (a relatively flat portion of the mountain… like a landing pad). On this path, each of our steps paved the path but subsequently broke a bit of it; it was decaying as it was expanding, so we had to be careful and slow.

Following our patient pursuit, we reached the saddle. We stopped for a bit of a break, sunscreen, snacks, and all. I could see the peak of the mountain we were trying to summit.

Amelia, Eric and Mercy on the saddle. The peak of the mountain we were attempting to summit was to the right of this picture (not captured).

The mountains around us were covered in loose rocks as you got closer to the top. At this point, we started putting on our helmets to prepare for any rockfall during our climb.

With my helmet on, ready for the next step of the adventure, I stared off far into the distance. I saw a sprinkle of civilization. A few buildings and a road. At the same time, I noticed my absence of desire for that life. I wanted nothing more than I had. I was as disconnected from the modern world as possible. I had no magnetic attraction to “regular” life, or remorse for my lack thereof. Everything was fine.

Sometime in the midst of this meditation, I noticed an angry, agitated, DMV-employee-Esque cloud zooming through the sky towards us.

A perfectly blue sky with a dark grey electrically charged monster: a storm was on its way. We were already above the tree line, meaning that if lightning struck, we were the tallest things in the area, and thus, lightning was most likely to hit us. Therefore, the higher we went, the more dangerous it would be. Ultimately, our instructors decided that the summit was too risky to pursue. In fact, we had to start rushing down the incline to get to a safer zone as soon as possible.

By turning around, each step I took was one further from the direction I originally wanted to go. That morning I was thrilled to climb the mountain, but now, it wasn’t going to happen. But surprisingly, the effect of my earlier reflection remained: I still felt no desire. I didn’t wish to change the earth’s weather cycle, nor the time we started hiking, nor any contributing factor for this outcome.

Earth’s weather cycles do not operate on my schedule, nor should they. It is not my job to mould them. I exist, and they exist.

Later in the day, the sky peed a lot. I don’t remember what I was doing, probably sitting, but it’s irrelevant in the storyline of the sky anyway.

I breathed for the rest of the day.

I Summited a Different Mountain

At 4 am the next day, I started boiling the water I captured from the stream for oatmeal. I was up extra early because today was another opportunity to summit a mountain. I wanted to help us leave our campsite as quickly as possible. I learned from yesterday, but I felt no hatred nor regret for yesterday.

We started hiking around 6am. We reached the same saddle as the day before in half the time. But today, we were going up a further, higher, more demanding mountain. It was going to be an 8-hour uphill journey.

The climb was homogenous. Beautiful scenery, extreme sweating, and a reocurring focus on taking the best next step. Funnily enough, although the top view was magnificent, my favourite part was the rush of waking up early to boil water to feed everyone oatmeal. Oatmeal! I don’t even like oatmeal.

But I like teams. And mornings. And playing with fire in the middle of the pitch-black wilderness. I thrived on the freedom and frugality of the pursuit. The top of the mountain was a nice addition to all this and one of the best places to eat stale pitas and “just add water” humus.

At the top of Mount Waas (3,750 meters)

Why is it Hailing?

For our last day in the La Sal Mountain range, we each had to spend 24 hours on a solo. We had our basic sleeping supplies, a handful of crackers, a box of raisins, some water purification drops and the comfort of our minds. And we had no way to tell the time.

My solo “area” was in a sea of aspen trees, just uphill of a stream.

The Aspen Tree Scenery

I scanned the land to pitch my tarp in the flattest area possible. Although the sky was perfectly clear, I wanted to put my sleeping headquarters in the most storm-proofed location.

I had a slow, peaceful morning. I used the stream to clean some of my clothing and then hung everything to dry. Next, I made myself two string bracelets. Then, I spent time dozing off into my thoughts and journaling. Honestly, it was a perfectly crafted break, my ideal morning.

By the afternoon (I think; remember, I had no clock), I felt ready for a nap. I figured that I should let my clothing dry out while the sun was still in the sky. So, I curled under my tarp with all of my belongings spread across the aspen forest. My eyes were glued shut.

Then, a forceful object hit my head an unknowable time later — probably about 30 minutes later. Then another one. Then it was like the trees were raining acorns.

It took me a few moments of shock to realize it was hailing. I grew up in CANADA, and it never once hailed, and now, while I was in UTAH in July, I got my first hail storm. I tried to salvage a few of my clothing items before they would be soaked, but I could only grab a few; my vision was obstructed by ice falling from the sky.

My friend’s tarp covered in hail to illustrate part of the situation

I held my hands over my head to protect it, and I sat under my makeshift shelter for hours until the hailstorm, then rain, subsided. The sun hadn’t even set, and I was uncontrollably shivering. Déjà vu.

I had around 12 hours left in my solo. There was nothing to distract me, no one to talk to, only a simple goal to breathe and survive for 12 hours.

I was no Budha. I was not wholly calm nor meditative in these hours. I tried.

However, in retrospect, these hours were the most foundationally valuable for developing my calmness and meditativeness. From this painful experience, I have flourished in my ability to deal with conflict, ambiguity and discomfort.

I made it through with no resentment for the world, my life, or my circumstances. I made it through with a big smile on my face and a lot of humour for this scenic combination of situations. I left my emotion of anger in the melted hail drops in the middle of the aspen forest in Utah. Instead, I choose to find freedom and happiness in my breath, even if it is just as temporary as my existence.

The First Day Without Rain

The morning after my wet, cold solo, we were ready to leave the Mountains! We spent most of our morning packing our bags for the next section of our trip: the desert. This meant retrieving new gear, like poop tubes (tubes that held our bags of poop; doggy style bathrooming), more desert-appropriate clothing, new food rations, etc.

We had a team from the “base” of the outdoor program (Outward bound) meet us in the woods with these new supplies. We spent hours organizing and sorting.

Interestingly, these hours were the sunniest and warmest out of all days in the mountains. The weather forecast was about to shift towards a more tropical, “enjoyable,” and less troublesome terrain. But it was this “perfect” morning weather that made me so immensely grateful for the experience I did have. The chaos of lightning, the chilliness of the hail and the wreck of rainstorms became central parts of my growth within this experience.

I wouldn’t have grown nearly as much if I had done the same journey but with perfect weather. This moment of reflection fostered a deep appreciation for natural commotion.

Now, to the Desert!

The Most Comfortable Hotel Room Also Constantly Gets Sand in Your Eyes

After a two-hour van transport, my group finally made it to the Moab desert. Instantly, I felt a change in my body from moving from the moist, cool air of the mountains to the dry sunlit environment of the desert. I chugged a litre of water right away. Then I peed on a rock.

The first thing we were taught about the desert was to avoid stepping on cryptobiotic soil. It takes years to create and seconds to destroy. So, after a bit of desert 101 lessons, we started a 4-mile hike and made sure to steer clear of the soil that keeps the desert alive.

It felt surreal — the night before, I was almost hypothermic. To get through that pain, I reminded myself I would be in the desert in a few blinks of the eye. And now I was in the desert. A picture-perfect desert. Hot. Sandy.

At first, I was hiking and breathing out deep sighs of relief. I wouldn’t be cold or wet here. But after 3 miles, I no longer was breathing deep sighs; I was barely breathing. The extreme onset of heat was exhausting me. I had no idea where we were, where we were going, or how far we had left. All that spun through my mind was: walk and water.

Walk and water. Walk and water. Walk and water. Oh. A series of scary rocks. Uh oh.

All paths in the desert halted. We needed to pave our own.

To do so, we needed to traverse some large, slippery slick rocks.

We were learning as we went: our instructors taught us how to cross these rocks and strategies for our footwork and pole work (since we each had one hiking pole).

When it was my turn, I breathed in the deep dehydrating air and scaled across the first rock in the foot worked pattern my instructors shared. Next, I rapidly walked up an incline of rocks, pushing all the way up to the top to avoid falling down. My heart raced at the top.

I saw a massive cave-like structure of rock, multiple stories tall, in the near distance. There were many ledges of stone across the scenery, some cacti, and the healthy cryptobiotic soil.

Although my heart was racing and my back could hardly still carry my 50 lb pack, I felt like running when I learned that the beautiful cave area was our campsite for the next two nights.

Flat rocks to sleep on, under the stars, with a group of people I’ve grown to love; it was a beautiful ‘hotel.’ Although both nights I had wind blowing sand in my eyes, I slept calmly. I woke up well-rested.

However, even sand blowing in my eyes while sleeping on the best Tempur-pedic mattress would have left me tired and annoyed. Normally, I have enough things to keep me up at night: like my next assignment, paying my expenses, quitting my job, my hypochondria, global politics, and any ol’ issue I can find. On a normal night in my life, even in the world’s coziest bed, I surely do not need sand as well.

But in the disconnected wilderness, it was different. I found a hack.

My life was simple. No extravagant goals, needs or ambitions. No news, crazy neighbourhood gossip or external pressure. I didn’t have a phone or device to deliver constant stimulus from the external world.

Better yet, each day, I felt both tired and accomplished. Additionally, before sleep, our group would generally decide the next day’s agenda, so I had a plan to tend to (or at the very least a time to get up and a job to do for our group, e.g. make breakfast).

Through some simple principles, I not only extracted calming sleep in the face of sandy winds but general happiness:

  • A deficit of stimulus, besides the people I was around.
  • A day of accomplishing albeit tiring achievements.
  • Living with just enough — little food and material waste (everything around me was useful).
  • Having simple goals for the next day such that I had a purpose upon waking up.

I am months removed from my nights at the sandy hotel. And although the sand was so light that it swept everywhere, even with mild winds, it truly left a permanent mark on me. Most impact-fully is my distaste for stimulus. I actively avoid it and choose a few things to care about, rather than feeling pressured to be “in the loop” for everything. As a result, I feel no “FOMO,” I feel no debt to be productive by someone else’s definition. Instead, I focus on living tiring but successful days based on my dictionary definitions.

The beauty of sandy hotels after a dehydrated day is that they teach you that less, really really really, is more. The most comfortable sleep of your life, no matter your circumstances, is a mindset away.

Water, Lipids, Lysozyme, Lipocalin, Glucose and Sodium, in a Cave

I had a breakdown. My thoughts were like an autoimmune disease, fighting all my other internal dialogues.

“Why do I always take a contrarian path? Why must I always disagree? Why must truth and detective work dominate my thought processes?” My mind frustratingly pondered.

I felt angry with my thought processes.

Essentially, our group had a large conflict on the top of a desert rock just outside our beautiful campsite. A somewhat politicized conflict. One that left people, including me, uncomfortable and awkward.

It was the type of situation where my social battery dropped to zero. After that, I just wanted to cry, but I had no crisp idea as to why.

It wasn’t the conflict that upset me. However, my reflection from the conflict revealed another emotion: the anxious internalization of being an outlier (but also not wanting to be an inlier).

With nothing to distract me but my thoughts and a notebook, I spent some time sitting in the cave from my campsite. My friend, Eric, also joined me, and we cried together. Our eyes busted out water, lipids, lysozymes, lipocalin, glucose and sodium.

My view of Eric in the cave

I was vulnerably naked. My friend was seeing all my emotions; I was out in the open desert, and my eyes spewed liquid.

But the image of this moment is one of great strength. I was strong and brave in that cave because I was being real. I was real because I was unscripted. I was real because my emotions were undiagnosed. I was real because I didn’t have the answers and hardly even knew the questions.

I really feel like that cave, somewhere in Moab’s desert, marks the inflection point for my journey with vulnerability.

While I hugged Eric and shared my raw thoughts, I realized I was not used to appearing like a “human.” I spent my childhood and teen-hood chasing things that made me exceptional and ‘ the best’ that I sheltered myself from sharing imperfections. When I felt outlier emotions, I had tactics to suppress them or hide them. Rarely, if ever, did I share them in their raw form. Before the cave, when sharing my “vulnerabilities,” they would be articulate and artificial.

I could’ve tended to my usual strategies. My lonely strategies. My neglectful strategies. But I chose to be brave, exploring my emotions with my friend.

My feelings, experiences and doubts once existed in a remote bubble. But now, they live in a semi-remote cave. I have an opening where people can earn my real vulnerability. A place where I can choose to be a strong human rather than a constantly “exceptional” one.

Cowboy Jacuzzi

By this point in the trip, I glared at our maps as a toddler would glare at paw patrol: in complete awe. Maps excited me. They helped catalyze adventures.

But, before my trip I had a psychologically dependent relationship on the mapping directions of tech giants. I felt like I was “not good with directions” because I didn’t intuitively grasp verbal directions as well as people, like my dad, did.

So, when I was first put in the woods and told to navigate without my big brother Google or Apple, I had an instinctual fear for my navigation skills. I thought it would be impossible.

It took a lot of dumb questions, time fiddling with compasses, and looking at the peculiar lines to get the hang of it. But then, I turned it into a satisfying puzzle.

First, I look around my surroundings to identify landmarks. Altitude changes, canyons, water sources, forests, anything that might be on the map. Then, I try to reason where I approximately am on the map. Next, I locate where I’m going, which leads me to plot the ideal path to that destination. However, I know that the path is subject to change in the back of my mind. Finally, I put my compass on my map to line up which angle to go at, then I find that direction in real life.

Most importantly: I do this often. I constantly stop to ensure I know where I am and that I’m off in the right direction. Reviewing where you are is the best way not to get lost.

Back to the desert — we were taking a day hike across the desert looking for a “cowboy jacuzzi.” Imagine a very awesome hole in the ground with a makeshift natural waterslide. A desert pool.

We used the rock structures and limited water sources to map our way to our goal. Once we arrive, we spend hours enjoying it. I dunked in the water, bathed in the sun and spent a lot of moments laughing.

All-in-all, I learned how to map the journey and enjoy the destination.

A section of the cowboy jacuzzi

Tea and Empathy

After about 15 hours in the desert, we ran out of our original water supplies and were thirsty. So we walked a mile to the nearest water source on the map.

At first, I thought my instructors were joking about being at the water source. It was a short stream that was completely opaque and bright red. Bright red water! (Like in the cowboy jacuzzi).

They insisted. This was our H2O.

I filled my water bottle with it reluctantly. Then we were taught to use purification drops (basically bleach) which took minimum 30 minutes to prepare. It was a battle between my thirst and my desire to avoid waterborne pathogens that induce aggressive diarrhea. I sat with patience as my water purified, although I could never see any physical changes.

Waiting for my water to purify felt like watching golf. I don’t necessarily know what is happening, but everyone around me is interested in the small ball going in the smaller hole; the audience is peaceful. We all wanted our water to not give us diarrhea, so we peacefully allowed the bleach to do its thing.

And that’s how we captured red water.

However, all of our water was boiled by midday because the desert was so hot. So, anything we drank burned my tongue and tasted like rock. It was desert tea.

And despite the word desert’s resemblance to the word dessert, it was not tasty whatsoever. I often had to force myself to chug down my water because I knew it would be worse to be dehydrated.

Ultimately, I built empathy around many people’s pursuit of water. Whether it be girls skipping school to walk to get water in the heat, or families who must boil their water before use, or more generally people who drink water that tastes awful. My water situation at home, and for 18+ years has been exceptionally rare and fortunate.

But I truly internalized that I had it good with my desert tea. But not because other people had it great or other people had it bad. I had it good because I had water. Sure, boiling hot red water, but nonetheless, 2 hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom bonded in a molecule at a liquid state.

I had it good. Deep breaths.

My Bladder Broke

While backpacking, it is super helpful to have a “bladder”: a large water sack that sits in your bag and is accessible via an extremely long and durable straw.

It’s a lifesaver because you have easy access to your water in a quick sip, rather than needing to grab a water bottle from your bag.

I loved my bladder. But it didn’t love me back. It quit the relationship about 10 days in. (In the most water-desperate geographical location, the desert).

Instinctually, I was mildly worried that my water capacity was now too limited (I only had a 1-litre water bottle left). However, I underestimated my peers’ kindness and how breaking my bladder actually catalyzed bonds.

My broken bladder brought me closer to a good friend from my trip, who lent me their bladder often :)

In my life, at that moment, the gift of bladder water was more valuable than a Ferrari. It was contextually relevant and thoughtful.

Perhaps my bladder broke to teach me a lesson about gift-giving. Or about how people that were once strangers could wow you with kindness. Or that I shouldn’t buy items on amazon with one review. Regardless, my bladder broke in the desert and through forces of compassion, support and humanity, it was all ok.

Friends in the desert ❤. Featuring my injured foot from all the hiking and blisters! From left to right: me, Eric, Amelia, Zippy.

And now, it’s time for our transition from the desert to rafting on the river!

Blow Up Rafts and Starting a 100 Mile Journey

I closed my eyes under a full night sky. They were the brightest stars I’d ever seen, a series of them shooting and what I recall was a full moon. Glorious. Absolutely glorious.

A mild representation of the night sky from my disposable camera. I WISH I could have perfectly captured it.

I woke up in further astonishment at the sunrise on the desert landscape.

Time for our last desert hike.

I wrestled with bitter-sweet emotions. The night before was my favourite of the entire trip thus far. We made pasta, saw a stunning sunset and an unforgettable night sky. I got to climb the structures of the desert, nap in rocks and observe such fascinating plants. The “des” has an extraordinarily large and special place in my heart.

We hiked for less than 2 miles in the early sun (so it wasn’t too hot or dehydrating) and made it to the truck that was moving us to the “base.” The base is where we prepared for the last section of our trip, rafting.

We spent somewhere between 8–11 hours doing preparations. Specifically packing the boats/bags and deep cleaning our old gear (backpacks, dishes, etc.).

After our labours, we slept on an outdoor concrete ground (comfier than it sounds) in Moab, Utah.

The next morning, we drove to the boat port to commence our 100-mile rafting journey down the Colorado river (all by hand; no motors).

Upon arrival, we started by pumping our three rafts up. We had one electrical pump, but we mostly used hand pumps to inflate our raft “boats.” Every morning from then on, we’d only have the hand pumps available, so it was best to get used to them.

Our trio of rafts

We loaded the rafts with our dry bags (where we kept our clothing and toiletries), a makeshift refrigerator (a box with ice), our kitchen supplies (a stove and table), food for the next 8 days, our bathroom system (a metal can and a bucket), PFDs (not a document type, personal floatation devices), our paddles, tent supplies and a first aid kit. It was exactly everything we needed.

Once pumped and loaded, we split our group across the rafts, and we learned to row as teams. After our initial lesson, we used ropes to tie our three boats into a “floatilla” (floating meets tortilla structure). After that, we took shifts rowing 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off for the next few hours until we reached our campsite. 7 miles in, 93 to go.

Life on the water begins!

Sandy Sandwich and Rainy Reflection

Sandwiches, I’ve learned, are a true joy of life. Perhaps I accepted this truth because I was nearly 3 weeks into a wilderness expedition. But seriously, I completely admire sandwiches.

One day for lunch, we prepared the aforementioned admirable sandwiches. Interestingly, mother nature really wanted us to experience the word in its entirety. Immediately as we positioned ourselves for our picnic, a massive windstorm blew through the area. Sand went everywhere. I swear I am still finding sand in the cracks of my body from this sandy wind strom. It happened on-and-off for a few hours.

After the winds settled for a period, I looked at my sandwich, or more appropriately, my SANDwich. The only emotion I felt was peace and bliss.

I ate the SANDwich, and just appreciated it for its extra crunch. Life happens. Global wind patterns happen. Sand exists. Whatever.

Any frustration, anger, or similar emotions will only foster negativity within me. The emotion of peace allows me to accept the world. [However, peacefulness should be balanced with intentions. One should not accept sexism or racism because “that’s the way the world works.” The relevant mindset here is choosing emotions that positively influence the change or outcome you want to see in the world].

A large inspiration for this peace-oriented energy was the very river that flowed in front of me. For 8 days straight, I was either on or adjacent to a constantly flowing stream of water. In the back of my mind, I could always hear the water crashing.

The river is one big immersive metaphor. The river flows despite the rocks, the rain, or any naturally occurring obstacles. Only extreme oppressive forces of human dams stop its flow.

The river taught me that we can flow past our obstacles when reasonable and do so calmly. Sometimes, our obstacles create rough waters, but all we can do is keep flowing consistently.

Me docking one of our rafts

However, it was during another storm that I really soaked in the importance of “flowing” and staying peaceful.

Minutes after we docked the boat for the evening, the blue sky morphed into a deep gray. We hadn’t even unloaded our things when the lightning from the storm got too intense to ignore.

Soon, we were semi-squatted in lightning position under a shower of pouring rain. Around me, I observed the flora, including some beautiful green bushes, saturated with water from the sky.

Sure, I was wet and cold. But everything around me was receiving a resource that they crucially depended on. Why does my discomfort trump everything else’s survival? I suddenly rejected the human superiority complex. I recognized my life as insignificant as the scorpion we saw one night, or the birds in the sky, or the tree over there.

I felt very relaxed to be in an uncomfortable state trapped in the earth’s water cycle since many other living things benefited.

At the intersection of these experiences, the sandy sandwich, river and rain stitched a new mantra. Although my existence is insignificant, I might as well try to experience it peacefully while respecting those things around me; my comfort is not superior to others’ comfort.

Swimming in Two Rivers at Once


Splash. Splash.

Everyone was in the water. In the distance, I saw the white island just beyond the confluence of rivers. The water was slightly green, slightly warm, and beautifully freeing.

My smile seriously felt permanent. As I swam to the shore, across the confluence of rivers, I couldn’t help but be entirely mesmerized by my life.

I was swimming in the river that created the Grand Canyon. The other river I was swimming in created numerous stunning physical phenomena. I felt engulfed by a sea of goddesses.

This confluence of rivers now holds a warm and fuzzy memory in my mind. It symbolizes a place where all the previous chapters of my life form into a new one, from a time where I felt completely alive, free and accepted. Although I haven’t attached a philosophical breakthrough to this memory, it has just enough value as a memory of happiness.

The campsite we swam to after the confluence of rivers

Big Drop 2 and 3

3.5 days of our river section were dedicated to white water rafting. But the last full day, by far, had the most extreme rapids: big drops 2 and 3.

During my first few white water rapids, I really enjoyed the thrill of the waves and the aggression of the water. When we entered the rapids, we had to row hard and in sync: it was a blend of teamwork and challenges.

We had a lot of water tides crash into our entire boat. Near-accidents from crashing into rocks or not angling the boat well enough. We spent lots of moments screaming in panic.

Sometimes, if a rapid seemed too extreme on the surface, we would dock our rafts and send teams out to “scout” the rapid to create the safest plan of attack. While scouting, we’d identify large rocks or dangerous parts of the rapid to avoid, safe streams of water to target, and we’d make some plan Bs and Cs.

But the 22 or so rapids we did before were nothing compared to big drops 2 and 3.

When we pulled into big drop 2 I immediately felt like I was on the edge of Niagara Falls. We parked just before the big drop part. My instructor, Nikki, chose another person and me from my boat to join her in scouting. Initially, only our course instructors would be the captains for this rapid.

We climbed up a series of big rocks to reach a decent overlook for the rapid. It was BIG, loud, and monstrous. However, the biggest monstrosity seemed to arise when Nikki told me that I should captain the next rapid.

Looking at this dangerous, potentially deadly section of the river, I thought she was full-on bananas. But I somehow said yes.

I studied the rapid for 30 minutes. I memorized the trajectory, and I set a plan. As well-prepared as I was, in my head, my only thought was, “uh oh.”

I climbed down from the overlook back to the rafts and all our folks. Within minutes from saying that we were ready to go, we were inches from Big Drop 2.

I used my captain’s paddle, a slightly larger paddle in size, to angle the boat. Then, I screamed “ALL FORWARD,” indicating that our raft team put all their strength to propel us forward. Soon we were voluntarily blasting through the scariest water of my life.

My adrenaline and thrill were at a lifetime high by the end of the rapid. I was left with the jaw-dropping feeling that I captained (lead our raft through) big drop 2.

My moment of awe had a short half-life because before I realized, we were almost drifting into big drop 3. We docked again because this one is the real beast; it was time to scout.

Scattered across big drop 3 were rocks massive enough to flip boats, holes with water suction that could slurp people, and waves that crash into pointy stones. Our instructor, rightfully, took control to captain this one.

We started off rowing directly into the rapid, as hard as we could. I put all my strength, every working cell, into my rows. We need to push against the current. We needed to go to the left. But, as we rowed with all our might, we were not strong enough: the current pushed us into a rock, the very rock we were trying to avoid.

One of my teammates flew across our raft but ultimately was ok. No one was lost yet. But we almost lost everything in our raft from the crash (thanks to some quick handwork, we salvaged flying items).

However, we had a conundrum: we were stuck, shifting right. The opposite direction of where we wanted to go. Although my adrenaline beat my previous lifetime record, I still tried not to panic. We had to unstick our raft then push ten times stronger than before to beat the current to ultimately go left.

Row. Row. ROW. ROW. ROWWWWWWW. We’re to the left of the rock. Yes.

I felt momentary relief. Momentary, emphasis on extremely temporary because now it was GO TIME. Immediately a wave crashed into us, blinding our vision. We moved forward, but the force of the water was so intense our raft spent half its time in mid-air. We pushed past the spiky stones, another dangerous MASSIVE rock, and a large suction hole of water. No one was slurped.

We pushed and pushed and pushed until finally, the current calmed down ever so slightly. And a little more. And soon, we are back in calm water.

Everyone finally breathes.

“What a mental scare,” I thought. That was terrifying. That was fun.

The white-water rapids of Southwest Utah were magnificent conglomerates of nature that taught me the most essential part of facing challenges: being presently adaptable. No matter how much we studied the rapid, or read the maps’ descriptions, sometimes we didn’t ideally approach the rapid. If our raft gets stuck or gets flooded or goes flying we need to adjust. To adjust, we need to be present, aware, and open to change.

Although, on the surface, rafting on rough waters seems like a thrilling sport, when combined with reflection, it can be a profound anecdote. For me, tackling the rapids has inspired how I tackle challenges and hurdles.

5:55 AM Raft Pumping

Living on the river meant constructing and deconstructing our campsites every day.

We had two leaders each day throughout our course, each person leading 2–3 times across the trip.

On the second-to-last day of our trip, we had our most extensive agenda yet. This packed day was my time to lead.

On the agenda, we had: a morning reflection and meditation, 5 white water rapids, a 5-mile row in flat water, hiking through an entire canyon, another solo reflection, dinner on a small island, and flipping our boats (weighing hundreds of pounds) such that we can do a night float.

[Side note — when I now reflect on what my “perfect day” looks like, I would essentially replicate this agenda with a group of people I love.]

I woke up right at 5:45 AM, 45 minutes earlier than the others, so I could help us get a head start on boat duties. When I opened my eyes and put my glasses on, I noticed that the sandy campsite was covered in a thick layer of fog. We later learned the fog was smoke from a California fire through some radio signals.

Thick morning fog on the river

I did my morning routine of brushing my teeth and putting in my contacts before heading down to the shore. Then, with the sun rising through the fog in the background, I spent the next while pumping all my strength into the rafts.

I didn’t find this repetitive manual task labouring or monotonous. In fact, I derived significant joy from it. It was pleasurable to contribute to a team, have a responsibility, allow others to sleep, experience the morning, and contribute to the launch of another journey.

Even now, from my comfortable mattresses and from living under four walls and a roof, I long to hand pump a raft at 5:55 AM.

This vibrant emotion stems from a plump list of internalizations:

  • I love the mornings, the sun’s debut, and starting my days with a purpose.
  • I love contributing meaningfully to a team.
  • I love being ahead-of-goals, a form of anti-procrastination.
  • I love adventures disconnected from the general public or the journeys of the “many.” (Summarized to unconventionality)
  • I love going to bed after a tiring day of accomplishments.
  • I love living on the water.

The prerequisite work of pumping set us up for the rest of the day.

When we tackled white-water rapids, we needed our boat. When we docked at the island, we needed the boat to stay afloat with all our stuff (otherwise, it, along with everything, would sink). Our boat was our life mechanism. I helped prepare it.

I felt happy contributing to our survival. I had no other desires. I loved breathing in the foggy air pumping our rafts; so exhilarating.

Finding Home and Sandcastles

Our day began with a beachside meditation. Afterwards, we built some symbolic sandcastles that were wiped away by the shore. Tapping into both the meditative trait of calmness and the child-like playfulness created a tasteful cocktail of energy. This cocktail was so opposite to my previous rushed and serious life in the “real world.”

I was two and a half weeks from my 18th birthday and I was spending my morning sitting in sand and building wet sandcastles. I felt free and unashamed.

The world beats into us ideals of perfection, and there I was pounding that ideal out of myself. I’d much rather have fun. I’d much rather laugh. I’d much rather have a water fight.

Soon we said goodbye to our sandcastles. Next, we said goodbye to our beautiful home that we borrowed for the night. Finally, we gave a warm hello to the river that, in addition to our rows, would move us forward.

Living on the river and equally anywhere in the wild, you learn to create a home as you go. Hominess is not tied to one particular location but to a tribe of people and whatever mindset you choose to interpret your life from. Each time we left a campsite, each goodbye left a spark in my heart rather than a hole. I was grateful for the experience, but my true home is everywhere.

A shelter we built from 3 hiking poles, desert rocks and two tarps. The people and the energy turned this shelter into a home. In the photo from left to right: Amelia, Zippy and Eric.

I can find a home by looking at the mountains in the distance or hugging my friend oh-so-tightly, or eating an undercooked bowl of rice, or bandaging my many blisters. I found a home, or what I define as comfort, wherever I can set my mind at ease.

The rhythmic rows and subtle splashes were a metronome for my mental easiness on the water. Sometimes my mind would wander, but the consistent, subtle beats would bring me back to the present moments. Each noise, from the birds, to the chatter of my friends, brought me a sparkle: I was happy to be alive, happy to hear things, happy to experience life. Happy to create homes wherever my journey leads.

A subset of home on the river; from left to right: Micah, me, Amelia, Grayson, Tim, Aiden.

Wet-Dry Disease

After our sandcastles, we rafted through rapids and then rowed our hundreds of pounds of weight across the river. Then, 5 miles later, we docked at a small island. One that looks like it’d be the scene for a ‘deserted island’ movie. We left our things, switched from our river boots to our hiking shoes, and started walking to the edge of the island.

We had about 50 feet of swampy water to cross. I dove in. Mud covered up to my shorts. But it was time to hike an entire canyon! Exciting !!!!

Over millions of years, the pressure of a river can create a canyon. As we hike inwards in the Canyon, there are piles of beautiful but massive boulders. The Canyon, in some spots, was almost 100 feet tall. The end was nowhere in sight. It gave me goosebumps as I reminded myself that this beauty is from water.

Scurrying through the Canyon was intense. Intense because the rocks were tough to climb, and multiple parts of my leg were bleeding. But also intense because it was cinematic. My mind was stunned by the imperfect, asymmetrical earth surrounding me. All the lines and sharp edges, the little ponds of brown water, and the occasional cactus. Cinematic.

It took tiring hiking, mild climbing and three scars to reach the end of the Canyon, a cusp with a beautiful pool of water coated with soft mud flooring. In my opinion, it was more beautiful than any ocean, any fancy infinity pool or any mansion’s backyard water. The muddy water at the Canyon’s end was imperfectly beautiful.

Our group in a secret Canyon oasis

We stayed in and by the water during the ripe hours of the afternoon. Some swimming, some pretending to be mermaids, some admiration of the sculpting of the canyons, some journaling and lots of peacefulness.

My friend Amelia in the Canyon pool.

On our return from the canyon paradise, I dubbed one of the most iconic terms from the trip: wet-dry disease.

Living under the sky constantly for weeks means loads of sun exposure. So I tried my hardest to apply sunscreen consistently for my protection. But a few days into the river section, my right thigh started to develop a deep red appearance, one that stung like a sunburn. I would go to bed with slight aching, but I thought nothing much of it. It was the price to pay for the outdoor thrill. However, in the last few days of the trip, it started to scab and itch more heavily, the skin looked entirely dehydrated. I would get the most relief when I was in water.

We ran out of water to drink on our way back from the Canyon. We found a small source in the middle of the Canyon and purified some water with bleach. Our instructor noticed that many of us had these dehydrated skin spots and gave us some lotion to put on while we waited for purification.

I screamed when the lotion first touched my thigh. The pain was so sharp and lasted about a minute. When I would put more on, the intensity of the pain would never decrease. Apparently, the dehydrated patch came from constantly being in and out of the water and under the sun… essentially, from switching between wet and dry skin.

We put lotion to moisturize the skin, and we’d hold hands to squeeze through the pain. Dramatically, we called it wet-dry disease because being hyperbolic was the best pain medicine we had. The extreme name made it more laughable.

My wet-dry disease stuck with me for months after. In November, I had to get a special ointment for my thigh because I had a reaction in the area of the “disease.” I even have tan lines from the scabbing and being in the sun.

My legs after this trip are more scuffed up, but I like them that way. I like the scars and the asymmetry: they remind me of the edges, corners and irregularities of the Canyon: the imperfect paradise.

A 23 Mile Nap

Following our hike, we went back to the island through the muddy swamp.

My chore group was in charge of dinner while the rest of our group worked on flipping the rafts. They were flipping two of the rafts to create a flat surface (the bottoms were flat) such that we could sleep on them over the night. A “night float.”

Meanwhile, we had two wobbly tables in the ‘kitchen’ that resembled tall ironing boards. They inevitably slanted from sticking in the sand. Still, they worked well enough to hold our camping stove and provide cutting surfaces. We set up a blaster (a large flame of fire) away from the tables that boiled some water for the rice and ramen.

We were just about out of food, so we chopped and cooked everything to chef-up everything-we-have-left burritos. In the end, although we burnt most of the rice to the crisp, they were very successful burritos.

Notably, the ramen was quite good albeit completely brown from the river’s brown water.

The reality of dinner time: backcountry ramen in a plat

Soon after, we did the dishes, collapsed the tables, and tied the last things to the edge of the flipped boats. By the time the sun was setting, we were ready to snuggle in our sleeping bags on the upside-down raft.

Soon, the sun left for the night, and the bright, countless stars lit the sky.

I didn’t sleep for a while. My eyes were wide open, admiring the network of light in the sky. Beneath me, I could ever so slightly feel the gentle water. I was wide awake, captured by this rare moment: a night sky, unaffected by our human light pollution, viewed from a moving landscape.

It was all rare. The night smelled different from the water. It was fresher. Even as I closed my eyes, the darkness had an extra glow. And, when I finally woke up from the sun’s brightness, I earned a front-row seat to the sunrise.

A typical riverside sunrise! (Captured after we docked)

When I opened my eyes from a restful, unforgettable slumber, I sat up with my spine erect. My legs were crossed like a kindergartener. My eyes were looking directly at the sunrise’s pink and orange beginnings.

It was our last mile on the raft.

The water seemed to splash louder. The canyons and scenery seemed to glow brighter. I felt so much love for the map, our remaining peanut snacks, the warm air, the gentle breeze, and all the puzzle pieces that brought my life here.

We did our final dock and unloaded our last raft items; it started to click that this was the end of one journey, but the beginning of so many more.

The End of This Stream

Alpine backpacking through the La Sal Mountain range, canyoneering the Moab desert and rafting 100 miles along the Colorado River was a philosophically enlightened experience for me. It pushed my physical boundaries (in a good way); however, it more significantly acted as a catalyst for self-reflection; reflection I leveraged to prepare for the next chapters in my life.

Travelling across three drastically different terrains enabled me to experience diverse landscapes and various challenges.Even during the most challenging parts of my trip, I realized I had access to so much joy and happiness with a slight mental shift.

Most impactfully, my trip edited my definition of happiness. I think the actual feeling of happiness is the process of finding contentment in any experience. In contrast, societally, happiness is typically synonymized with pleasure. My trip taught me that I can simultaneously feel happy overall while feeling pain, fear, frustration, disappointment, or similar feelings.

Furthermore, I realized I was happy despite being stripped of traditionally pleasurable things (my phone, showers, music, ice cream, etc.). I attribute a lot of my happiness to my use of gratitude to combat complaining and meditation that helped me focus on the vibrancy of the present moment. I learned how to find joy wherever I was; a structurally similar philosophy to how I found home wherever my mind could be at ease. My thought process is that if my basic needs are met, I am fine.

I brought these insights of happiness and embracing challenges to the final section of my trip: rafting on the Colorado River. The river acted as this beautiful metaphor for life: it will flow. We can’t stop that, but we can control our relationship with the flowing river. Equally, we can’t change our circumstances, but we can work with them. But also, the river can flow, and we can ride along with it, but it is easier to travel with less baggage. Simplifying your needs helps you travel further, allowing you to see and experience more.

During a sandstorm off the river, I found a rock to sit under that blocked me from the flying sand. I sat and reflected on what I needed to live happily. I made a list, and I was surprised by its simplicity and attainability:

1. A dry place to sleep most of the time

2. Functional clothing

3. A way to prepare food and a place to store food/ingredients

4. A shower would be nice.

5. A toilet would be nice.

6. First aid kit

7. Clean water

8. A strong community (people I love)

9. A place to write (I love journaling !!!)

Connecting the dots between happiness and simplicity lifted a weight off my shoulder. I now feel more peaceful, self-aware and relaxed. I feel little pressure for my life to look a certain way, especially an extravagant way, because I found happiness within such non extravagant circumstances.

A snapshot of me smiling on the river :)

Now that I’m out of the woods, I still use what I developed and learned daily.

Instead of stress, I find peace, acceptance and patience.

Instead of seriousness, I choose playfulness, dancing, and smiling.

Instead of getting carried away by ambition, I choose to be present. I take small steps, constantly referencing the map, while appreciating the grass growing and water boiling.

Instead of more pleasure, I seek steady satisfaction.

I steer away from anger, complaints and ego.

My compass is now pointed in the direction of fulfillment. Ultimately, everything feels okay. I’m still breathing.

Thank you for reading! My name is Isabella Grandic and I am a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill, an avid adventure seeker, and I have a strong passion for systematic gender equality. I have an occasional newsletter where I share life updates, stories and things I’ve been loving. Sign up here.

Feel free to email me at any time! My socials are @izzygrandic and my website is



Isabella Grandic

Aspiring healthcare infrastructure designer, technologist and scientist.