By Emily Padgett
The bend in the river represented our life. To the right, upriver, was our past, where we had pushed tentatively off the sandbank into the unknown, challenging ourselves to captain our rafts and swim through whitewater rapids. To the left, downriver, was our future— the largest rapids on our trip, and long, endurance-testing sections of flat water. Able to look out in both directions, we stood in a gap atop the red canyon wall—our present. The steep wall we had had to hike to get here felt equally symbolic. I was standing on the edge of adulthood—my first job, leaving my home city, and building a life. No footstep on the cliff, or in life, felt certain or secure.
Each year, El Pomar Foundation Fellows embark on a weeklong journey of leadership and self-discovery with Colorado Outward Bound, bonding through shared experiences while learning how to overcome challenges as a team. Last year, we rafted Cataract Canyon from Moab to Lake Powell. In addition to the relationships formed, Outward Bound taught me a lesson about self-awareness that I will carry through the Fellowship and beyond.
One month before standing at the edge of my future in Utah, I stood deep in a valley in Peru, gazing several thousand feet up a sheer mountain face at our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It was my fourth time at the spectacular monument, and I took a moment to appreciate the wonder on my students’ faces as they stared at the barely-visible ruins. The day felt right—I was certain I was doing exactly what I was meant to do.
At that point, I had led student programs throughout Latin America for about nine months, and this was my last program before starting work at El Pomar Foundation. Remembering this finality, my certainty was replaced by a twist of anxiety. Because I had been working in international student programming since I was 15 years old, this single activity had become central to my identity. While I was excited for a new opportunity, I was taking a big risk by leaving the industry I loved.
Back to the canyon. Two days after contemplating our past, present, and future at the river bend, it was time for our “solo.” Solo, spending a period of time completely alone, is a time-honored tradition on Outward Bound courses and it was the part of the trip I had been dreading. I was perfectly comfortable with the outdoors, but not at all excited to be left with only my own thoughts for company and forced to sit with the wave of anxieties that I had been pushing away in my new “adult” life. For so long, I had defined myself through leading international travel—so what was I doing at an office job in Colorado Springs? Would I have enough opportunities for exploration? Wasn’t I going to miss getting to see that look on my students’ faces when they encountered something unfamiliar and extraordinary for the first time? Was I doing the right thing?
As we prepared to head off to our individual campsites for the night, one of our instructors read from “Riverteeth” by David James Duncan, and asked us to write about the memories, experiences, and relationships that have most defined our lives.
Listening to the rapids churning past the riverbank, I wrote about my family’s roots in Mexico. I wrote about waiting to learn to ride a bike until 19, about my irrational fear of being locked in museums, and about the time I earned 14 stitches trying to beat my brother in a climbing race. Most importantly, I wrote about the many moments of true joy I had experienced in the last few years and realized something critical: it wasn’t international travel that defined my joy, it was the wonder of helping people create new experiences. I felt my anxieties wane and my future expand before me as I let go of the fear that I could find fulfillment only by leading international trips. With relief I saw that the Fellowship would involve plenty of exploration, because exploration takes many forms, not the least of which is the exploration of ourselves.
My transformation was only one of many that took place on the river that week. I watched with joy as one Fellow found her voice and another tackled his fear of water head-on. Each of us found these moments of self-awareness, big and small, paddling the Colorado River and standing at the riverbend of our lives.