My life is simple. The sun rises, I walk down a little hill to the boathouse, pump rafts, and entertain people from all across the states on a whitewater trip down the Yellowstone River. The sun sets, I listen to and occasionally share stories with my fellow raft guides, and the next day I do it again. The river fluctuates gently with each day: hidden rocks become exposed, new waves form and old ones fade away, the water grows murky with silt after a rainstorm, or becomes crystal as the sun beats down. Nearly every day since the middle of May, I have boated the same section of river in the same sleepy town in Montana. In a different stage of my life, this routine and simplicity would have felt monotonous, constraining and lazy.
I’ve always pushed myself to achieve the most, whether it be in the outdoors, with fitness goals, in the classroom, or in social circles. My pride and purpose used to come from being busy and productive, always surpassing goals, and doing as much as I could. Many times, I’ve beaten myself up for not achieving goals that were too lofty. This past year I even developed stress-induced asthma because I became extremely anxious about my performance during runs and bike rides. The literal and figurative peaks in life no longer brought me the same joy because I put too much stress on always ascending.
My life this summer is built around very different goals. There is no peak on a river — in fact, I am always going downhill these days. Each day, my joy comes from the connections I form with the people on my boat. While I raft the same 7.9 mile section of the Yellowstone three times a day, I have never guided the same trip because every single boat is filled with unique humans who have unique stories, truths and joys.
Some customers climb into my boat frightened while others are stoked. But no matter the situation, my goal is to always take them through the rapids safely, encourage them to share more about themselves, and inspire them to appreciate the natural beauty of the Paradise Valley of Montana. It never fails to make me feel accomplished when a little kid tells me they want to become a raft guide, or when a customer who was wary laughs through every rapid, or a mother (who hours before was a complete stranger) tells me I feel like part of the family trip.
After a year of lockdown due to the pandemic, I feel so lucky to meet new families, couples, and adventurers every day. Hearing about their experiences through the pandemic brings me hope and inspiration. I have felt excitement for a kiddo who just completed first grade online, respect for a freshman college student who managed to start a new life during a pandemic, admiration for an adult navigating a changing job market, and happiness for an extended family who came together for their first trip since the lockdown. We are all rising up from a time of turmoil and change, and I feel so lucky to observe such a diverse crowd of humans in this period of hopeful ascent, even if I’m only floating on a piece of rubber with them for a couple of hours on a summertime day.
I’m learning that the joys of ascent don’t always come from climbing the tallest mountains, or scoring the highest grade on a Canvas midterm, or setting the loftiest goals. It doesn’t even have to come from “ascent.” Sharing the beauty and simple excitement of whitewater rafting with complete strangers has brought me the most hope, happiness and peace I’ve felt in ages.