Dylan Manderlink the wilderness therapy instructor

By Dylan Manderlink
on Apr 17, 2019

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If you had asked me five years ago where I would be at 27 I can assure you it would not be “working as a wilderness therapy instructor in the middle of the Utah desert and living on the road out of my tent/car/the homes of those I am house sitting for”. 

Five years ago I was attending college in the middle of a major city, studying theatre, not leaving my apartment until my hair was hot-ironed and my face was made-up, walking confidently down the city sidewalk in whatever dress that matched my ripped black tights and wannabe-hipster black boots. Five years ago I was convinced that I was going to change the world one play and one grassroots movement at a time leading the charge with my love and passion for the arts and activism.

Five years ago I was sure that I would be like this forever. I didn’t realize or understand that people change overtime and although that can be frightening, it’ll be okay eventually. I also didn’t realize that there is tremendous power in being open to change and the impact that certain experiences and people can have on your life.

I will spare you adventurers the nitty gritty details of how my life sort of turned upside down, sideways, and then upside down again but I do want to highlight some of my most defining experiences that lead me to the adventure-seeking, fulfillment-chasing, nomadic life I live right now because it’s a life that five years ago, I would have been shocked by the thought of. But, it is also a life I am glad I found after much messiness, resistance and then full on embrace of change, and challenge.

Fast-forward through my city escapades of college where as I mentioned earlier, were filled with pounds of make-up, an internal turned external struggle between being more hipster or more hippie, a severe Type-A personality that required a paperback planner and black ink pen on thy person at all times, and a youthful ambition and drive that makes my late twenties self rather envious.

And in 2013 I hit “submit” for a job application, was accepted, and uprooted my life from Boston, MA to the rural farmlands of northeastern Arkansas. Now believe me, Arkansas was not my top choice for places to move as a recent post-grad but the way this program and job commitment worked, I didn’t have much of a choice in where I was placed.

For two years I felt like I had to preserve my northeast, city-loving, fast-paced part of me. If I felt like Arkansas, my new community, my new job, and new life were starting to challenge who I thought I was, I would push harder against these perceived “threats to self”. If I started to remotely enjoy the landscape of the rural farmland, the hikes I’d take in surrounding nature, the clear night sky, and the expansive sunset over flat green fields I would start frantically researching flights back to Boston or New York City. I was so scared of all of the changes happening in my life that the last thing I wanted to change, the only thing that I felt was stable and constant, was myself and my idea of who I was.

And one day I realized, while hiking through a state forest, staring at the sun naturally shining its way through the congregation of leaves, that I was tired of resisting and pushing against change so hard. I realized that there was a reason I was almost subconsciously escaping to nature every weekend (whether it be a national park, state park, or forest). There was a reason that I started to not miss cities anymore. There was a reason that I craved traveling more than I ever had before. And there, in this forest in the silence of nature, I cried. Like, loud, gross, messy cry. I cried because I could feel myself changing and didn’t know how to come to terms with it. I cried because the lifestyle I used to lead in the urban northeast seemed unappealing and anxiety-inducing for me. I cried and cried some more because I was finally opening myself up to how life naturally takes its course and the impactful adventures that can be experienced within that. Change is difficult, rewarding, emotional, taxing...It’s so many things all at once and can be overwhelming for people to sift through. And I had a lot to sift through.

So I sifted and sifted. Dug and dug. Lost some self-esteem and then gained some. Fluctuated between self-love and self-deprecating thoughts. Took camping and hiking trips all over the state of Arkansas to seek solace, clarity, and alone time. It was the only thing that made sense at the time; to find and experience more nature and have more adventures. It made sense to me because being surrounded by nature helped widen my mental and emotional perspectives and pushed me to step outside of myself. 

And through all of these little adventures, I learned more about myself, felt more comfortable sitting with my own thoughts, and started to feel more confident in the changes I was making and allowing in my life. With each experience in nature, I felt more fulfilled, challenged, and genuinely happy. 

Uprooting myself from a northern U.S city to the rural south was initially the worst decision I had ever made and soon became the best. After experiencing moments of fulfillment, personal challenge, and the rewarding benefits of change through each traveling experience I had, I ached for more and was growing restless. 

Believe it or not, I actually wanted more change. I wanted to see and experience more. I wanted my restlessness and thirst for personal growth to continue propelling me to new places. I wanted to let nature naturally challenge, mold, and change me. 

So, I spent a month in a canyon in Utah volunteering on an organic vineyard and hiking through ancient ruins, backpacked in Glacier National Park, spent a final year in Arkansas escaping to wilderness areas and parks every chance I got, uprooted my life again and moved to the desert of southeastern Utah, became a wilderness therapy guide in Utah and had the ability to travel wherever I wanted every other week, visited over 23 national parks and 33 national monuments, volunteered on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for 2 weeks, traveled with teenagers on a 40 day road trip around the western U.S and Canada, visited Paris and Italy, lived out of a coach bus for a couple weeks traveling down the coast of Baja Mexico, and above all else, I kept changing and continued to embrace those changes even when it became almost impossible to do.

I am boundlessly grateful for the opportunities I have had to adventure and travel around the U.S and beyond. And I certainly recognise the privilege I have that even allows for those opportunities to happen. I am grateful for the experiences in my life that I have made happen or have happened to me that have lead me to the trajectory I’m on now. 

Five years ago I didn’t think such change in a person was possible and although I have more personal work to do, more growth to experience, more challenges to face and overcome, more painful experiences to unpack and move forward from, I am ultimately grateful for the way it has all played out (even when it was all messy and chaotic). I am glad I have changed over the last five years and now, instead of pushing hard against future changes, I feel more confident in boldly facing them. 

As a society, we are so focused on having our shit together all of the time. We are obsessed with appearing like we know what we’re doing and where we’re going in life. We are scared of change because that inevitably means things will start to be different, instability may creep in, and uncomfortable feelings may surface. But that is how life naturally works. That is what brings growth, fulfillment, and adventure. That is what makes us better people in the long run.

We naturally change over a lifetime. And immersing myself in nature and learning to love the wildness of our planet helped me realize that. So let nature and its adventures change you, naturally.

By Dylan Manderlink
on Apr 17, 2019

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