How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground

Gustavus Adolphus College

Waking up somewhere cold and hard is not an occasional occurrence for me. Just a few weeks ago, I took my first solo trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the snow and ice receded from the landscape. Earlier this year, I slept a night on the ice of Lake Mille Lacs while I explored a lake that is still big and new to me. A couple months before that, I endured one late-October night (in a slightly leaky tent) while I tried my hand at netting whitefish in far northern Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to catch a modest number of fish each time, for which I was grateful, but everyone knows there are easier ways to bring food home for the table. So what makes me embrace physical exertion and discomfort doing these or any such things? 

Sometimes when the outside temperature bumps up against the comfort limit of my sleeping bag I ask myself the same thing. In my heart I know the answer. While all those trips- and so many others- were ways of bringing food home for the table, on a deeper level they satisfy a rabid curiosity and fulfill goals inspired by a thirst for knowledge. One might ask where that thirst for knowledge came from in the first place. It’s a worthwhile question.  

Time and again, I am reminded how my Gustavus education played a principal role in forming me to be adaptable and naturally curious, stimulating my mind and turning me loose in the world to be a lifelong learner. This is no small thing. When I was an undergrad, I was still largely under the impression that I was there to learn things, i.e. facts, skills, etc., that would gift me a career. What I didn’t know was that I was learning a way of being. I knew the “value of a liberal arts education” in a college pamphlet sort of way, but lacked the life-experience perspective that could make it real. Now I’m living it. 

For the past 19 years, I’ve been a classical musician. The building blocks for this career were carefully laid in college, but I remember how my brain lit up when I also learned about things like archaeology, psychology, and my own faith. And while I knew I had no interest in a career in any of those fields, I still found them fascinating and dug in while I could. Thus it has been ever since, whether I have tasked myself with remodeling a bathroom, learning and performing new music, training my own bird dog, or cooking with chokecherries. Little did I know that kind of cognitive versatility would someday swoop in to catch me in the free-fall of career crisis. 

About 17 years into my music career, burnout began to overtake me. It took a while to see it for what it was, too. So, for a time, feelings of frustration, disillusionment, and defeat took the wind from my sails and stole my visions of the future. Fortunately, I had good people around me who collectively encouraged me to take the pressure off myself and take a step back from the rat race. While I paused to take stock of my situation, I clung to my educational foundation, knowing my ability to learn would allow me to bend without breaking in spite of whatever lay ahead. In that way, there was still nothing I couldn’t do. 

And so, with really nothing to lose, I took steps toward parlaying my accumulated outdoor experiences into the beginning of a career in freelance writing. That’s right, all my past and future excursions have now become the underpinnings of my nascent career as an outdoor writer. It doesn’t promise to be terribly lucrative, and I can’t know where that will take me, but that’s okay. What’s important is that I can find fulfillment in bringing things I believe are important before the wider world, and I have infinite opportunities to be creative in doing so. And if I have come to know just one thing about myself, my creativity needs an outlet. 

This kind of transformation and self-realization doesn’t come cheap. I am convinced it would not have been possible without my liberal arts foundation, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have that on my side. It provides constant reassurance that I am capable, I can find my way, and I can overcome. You might say it’s enough to make the ground a little warmer and softer at night. 

 

 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018