Time passes in such a blur that it’s hard to memorialize every moment that has changed our lives in some way. But there are a few…a select number of special memories that stand out, that we hold onto with endearment, clarity and vividness. Every traveler has these moments.
You know that feeling when everything just clicks? Something special happens—you’re in the great outdoors with new friends, and somehow, for no apparent reason, everything just feels right in the world.
There’s no way to manufacture that feeling, and I don’t think we can even explain what it is. But when it does happen—when we feel it happening—we know it exists. There’s some intangible ingredient that brings the people, the place, and the time together. And, for me, it always happens outdoors.
There’s no question—getting outside into nature can positively impact your mental and physical being. And with over 400 national parks all over the country, Humana, the National Park Service and I urge you to get outside, raise your N.E.L.s (Nature Engagement Levels), and live these inspiring moments of your own.
It was hard for me to curate this list, as I’ve had so many inspiring experiences—all of which have positively impacted my life and no doubt raised my N.E.L.s! Here are a few moments from my life that almost made the list:
- Sleep away camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire was my first “solo trip” away from home, where I met other kids from around the country, and went hiking, swimming, and kayaking every day.
- Seeing (or not seeing) the Grand Canyon in complete whiteout conditions—I caught a glimpse of this magnificent sight for just 20 seconds before being totally engulfed by blizzard conditions.
- Hiking through the Energy Vortexes at Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, where my sister was inexplicably “pulled” off the trail and up the side of the mountain thanks to the draw of nature.
Those experiences were, no doubt, incredible, but the following six are the life-changing moments that stand out to me the most.
1. Climbing to the Top of Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos
I met a group of 18 travelers (yes 18) at a mountain guesthouse in Pai, Thailand. They had started as just two or three somewhere in the south of the country, and as they traveled north, acquired more and more travelers in their group, like a storm gathering clouds.
We were all heading in the same direction—east to Laos—so for two days we traveled down the Mekong River together. By the time we got to Luang Prabang, we couldn’t handle it. The group had gotten too big.
Nobody could agree on things to do, so we would split off into smaller groups during the day and meet up for drinks at night.
On one of those days, our group was four. Sayf was half-English, half-Middle Eastern. He had an incredibly wise perspective, especially for someone who was just 22 years old. He was also one of the most genuine and judicious people I’ve ever met. Nele and Lisa were best friends from the Netherlands and were traveling together through Asia for a few months.
We had just one day together. We dove in the aquamarine pools of the Kuang Si Falls, explored the thick jungle that surrounded it, and waded shin-deep in the swamp at the top of the waterfall alongside a group of young monks dressed in their traditional robes.
It’s hard to say exactly what it was that made that day so special. It could have been the camaraderie, the perfect alignment of personalities, or it could have been the simple adventure of being outdoors and exploring together. It’s a day I’ll never forget with a group of friends I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
2. Backpacking & Canoeing the Northern Appalachian Mountains in Maine
As a kid who had a hard time sitting still, I was constantly in search of adventure and excitement. One summer, at about the ripe young age of 14, I headed into the Appalachian Mountains with Outward Bound on a two-week backpacking and canoeing trip.
It wasn’t an easy trip—I remember that much. No, our group of ten was not an instant match, yet we were forced to overcome our differences and learn to work together. We had to dig deep within ourselves to find strength, determination, and patience that we probably didn’t have at that age.
With the mountains and rivers as our classroom, we were left to learn through trial and error. Though we had two guides, they let us make, and subsequently fix, our own mistakes. As novices to compass navigation, we spent an entire day walking in the wrong direction before one of our guides mumbled that we might want to double-check our coordinates.
The ten of us had our differences, that’s for sure. We spent much of those two weeks fighting, screaming, crying, and getting lost. But there were also a few precious moments when we came together, learned from each other, and held each other up. I’ll always remember the night I had to cart a physically injured and emotionally broken team member two miles to our campsite through the pitch black and drenching rain.
No summer camp or after school program could ever impart the same lessons. This type of learning could only take place in the wilderness—I can’t remember a single one of their names, but I’ll never forget those mountains.
3. A Solo Tour Through Tasmania
I had initially set off to travel Tasmania with an old friend of mine. When we arrived, however, and after just a week of our planned three-week journey hiking and camping through the virgin landscape of central Tasmania, we realized that our trip was doomed, and so, too, was our friendship.
We parted ways, and with no other choice, I rented a car for myself and planned to explore on my own. I was furious at my friend for not being more open-minded, but once I got in the driver’s seat, and found my own little moments of zen, none of it mattered anymore.
I have clear memories of those two weeks spent wandering the empty roads of Australia’s nether region. With no camping gear (my friend took it all with him), I slept in the backseat of the rental car, next to unspoiled beaches and inside lush national parks.
I was mostly lost during those two weeks, unsure of where to go or what to do, but that’s also the brilliance of it. I found small stretches of isolated beach near Port Arthur, I ended up stranded by a flood in Bicheno, and I discovered the most opulent coastline I’ve ever seen in Binalong Bay.
The whole journey started out all wrong, and though I didn’t end up having the trip I expected, I’m convinced I got the trip that I needed. Sometimes, the universe just knows what’s best for us.
4. Digital Detoxing in Tayrona National Park, Colombia
After living in New York City for six months, I was feeling claustrophobic. I had recently made some hard decisions and, frankly, needed to get away for a little while.
So I went to Colombia. I had a month to kill before I would return to China—I had just accepted a six-month job contract in Beijing as head bartender at an ultra-luxury hotel with a killer cocktail program.
With a lot of pent up stress, I figured I was due for some beach time. What I didn’t realize, though, is that I wouldn’t have any cell service inside the Tayrona National Park. As a so-called digital nomad, that’s a big problem.
I was anxious the entirety of the first day, feeling quite certain that my mother was emailing me trying to figure out if I was still alive or not (she wasn’t). By the second and third days, all my worry had drifted away. I was on the beach, sleeping in hammocks, and I didn’t have a single thing in the world to do.
That weekend, I remembered how important it is to “just be,” and how vital it is to our wellbeing to unplug and connect with nature. After just a few days, I returned to mainland Colombia to find that absolutely nothing important had happened while I was gone. I still keep that lesson first and foremost in my mind when it comes to remembering the impact of immersing myself in nature.
5. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China
This is the trek I was most looking forward to. It was a short one—just a few days—but I knew the scenery was going to be spectacular.
Having bumped into a few other travelers somewhere between Dali and Lijiang, we decided to hike it together. We had a good crew; I was the odd one out (they all went to school together), but I was okay with that—the mountains were going to be no less spectacular.
On the second day, I remember feeling like I had stumbled into the perfect balance between lost and found. Inside the deepest river canyon in the world, I was reminded of how small my life is in comparison to the rest of the world. It took thousands of years for these mountains to materialize, but I was just a speck occupying a tiny, tiny moment in the entire lifespan of those peaks.
Something changed in me after I hiked those mountains. To this day, I still can’t put a finger on what it was. But above all else, I was reminded exactly why it is that I travel: for moments like these, scenery like this, and an epic memory unlike any other.
6. A Mountain Sunrise in a Small Village in Sapa, Vietnam
In two short days I would return home for the first time in 3.5 years. I had spent that time working and traveling in Australia, New Zealand, China, and Southeast Asia, and after spending so much time out of the States, I didn’t really know what to expect.
I knew the reverse culture shock would be hard, but I didn’t think it would be that hard.
My final few days in Asia were spent hiking the rice fields of Sapa in Northern Vietnam. I stayed in a small village somewhere deep in the mountains. The last night of our trek, however, I was feeling restless.
I awoke at about 5am—the sun hadn’t even begun to peek over the horizon yet—and I decided to go outside, walk around the village, and watch it come to life.
I found a small path, though; one that led all the way up the mountain. It was in a state of severe disrepair and had obviously been used and abused for quite some time.
I passed even smaller villages on my way to the top, herds of cattle, small huts, and even a few children with their lunch boxes and galoshes heading to school for the day. They were heading down the mountain, and they looked at me in utter disbelief as I continued to hike up.
On that short hike, I saw a side of Vietnam that most people never see. And with just a day left in Asia, I took the time to admire the sun as it perched itself over the mountains. I reveled in the warmth, savored the simplicity, and I smiled.
Don’t forget how important it is to spend time outdoors and connect with nature, even if you’re not traveling—the impact on your life can be tremendous. Check your own Nature Engagement Levels by taking this quiz from National Geographic. And be sure to share your own inspiring moments with us in the comments below.