More is In Me Than I Think

By Natalie Rivera

In my sophomore year of high school, I was selected to participate in a unique educational experience called R.O.P.E. It stands for Reaching Our Potential in Education and was offered to 18 students per semester, selected in part because they represent a diverse group of students from all factions of high school life. I was one of only two sophomores. The rest were juniors and seniors.

The best way to describe this class is to say it was a wilderness survival class. But, that doesn’t really capture it. The program included four weekend trips and requires no homework, no papers, no desks and no grades. While not on our adventures, we learned about surviving in the wilderness and actively practiced group problem solving. We focused on questioning our self-imposed limitations and boundaries. In this class, the subject was me and the tool for learning was survival.

I survived it, barely, but in the final weeks of the semester, I did not feel I had accomplished anything. I had mixed feelings about the experience because some of it was wonderful, while some of it was horrible. My final exam was to write a speech that I would present to my class about what I learned during my R.O.P.E. experience. I sat down to write my speech. This is what I wrote.

I had run through my head a hundred times all the things that had happened and all that I had been through in those few months. I weeded out the most significant and even some insignificant things that happened that I thought would best illustrate what my experience in R.O.P.E. had been. Trying to arrange them in a logical manner on my paper to form a speech proved much harder than I ever thought writing could be. Something was missing. A list of events and a lot of complaining was not enough. There was something in those jumbled words, those confused thoughts, trying to get out.

There had to be some purpose, some realization, something more. The problem was that I did not know what it was. So, I started writing and hoped the meaning of the speech, the whole meaning of the class would reveal itself to me as I wrote.
I wrote about how the original reason I had signed up for the class was because it offered a half
credit for gym that I needed to graduate. I was scared to take it because I was afraid I would fail. I secretly knew that the real reason I chose to take it was to face that fear.

I wrote about the first trip we went on and how much I hated it. It was a 3-day, 20-mile hike carrying 40-pound backpacks, in September. I have camped all my life and hiked on occasion, but after 2 days and 13 miles with my 110-pound frame carrying a 40-pound backpack up a mountain, I had had enough.

I had more of enough than I ever thought possible. At one point I had collapsed on the trail. I took off my hiking shoes and looked at the giant, torn blisters on the back of both of my heels. I did my best to bandage them, but even to put on my shoe was excruciating.

I felt like a toddler having a temper tantrum. I did not want to get back up. I did not want to walk another foot. In fact, I couldn’t do it. I would rather stay there for days until someone rescued me. But, my logical mind knew I had to go on, despite the fact that my body had already reached its limit. So started a 24-hour, 7-mile long war between my body and mind that drove me closer to insanity than I have ever been before.

A kid in my class pretty much summed up my experienced when he stated that (excuse the phrase) “taking a crap in the woods” was the highlight of his weekend.

At the end of the trip, we wrote letters to ourselves. I re-read that letter to remind myself of what I felt then, and I was surprised that my feelings expressed in it had not changed much. Some of the phrases from it were “hell is not a strong enough word to describe it” and not only would I never do it again, but I wish I could erase the memory”.

In the past, when I have hated something at the time that it happened, when I have looked back on it I always thought that it was not as bad as I remembered. But, for some reason, this was something I could not shrug off. Why did it bother me so much? It is a question I did not know the answer to until after I wrote my speech.

Now I know it was my fear of failure. It had happened; I had failed. I may have made it to the end of the trip, but that was never a question in my mind. I logically knew I had no choice but to make it back; it is not like I could stay out there forever. I failed by not living up to my expectations. I have always had to be in control of myself and on this trip I lost that for the first time in my entire life.

For the next three or four weeks I was severely depressed, and I almost dropped the class. I
thought about quitting, but I couldn’t do it. I stayed. I did not stay to face my fear, for at that point I did not know that was what depressed me. I stayed because my classmates and I had formed a bond, and we had already felt the loss of two other members. I am thankful for that bond; without it I would have missed out on what was to come and the memories I have.
I wrote about the second trip. It was three days of sleeping under a tarp, mild hiking and extensive rock climbing. I went into it expecting to hate it, but I was wrong I ended up loving it, that is, except for the hiking, which brought back too many bad memories. So, rock climbing proved to be great, and I proved to be stronger than I had thought.

At one point, I was climbing, and I stopped to take a break. Holding onto the rock made my right leg start shaking. My left leg lost circulation from the harness and started tingling, and my arm
cramped up from holding on to a small crevice in the rockface. I noticed my fingers were bleeding and I was actually sweating, which I usually don’t do. If I felt that way right now I would be completely miserable, but at that moment I was able to put it out of my mind. I was on top of the world, literally, and in flow. I couldn’t have felt greater.
The third trip was a community service project at a wilderness-style alternative school. I loved doing the activities with the kids and being the “root puller” as we worked together to clear a hiking trail. With the third trip said and done, it was time for the final trip: four days and 17 miles of camping and hiking in the middle of winter in January.

I have poor circulation and I hate the cold. I had also discovered how much I loved to hike. When I decided to stay in the class after the first trip, I secretly planned to drop out before the winter trip. Well, I did not, partially because I had already made it that far and partially because I did not want to live the rest of my life knowing I had bailed out. So, I went.

This last trip pulled together everything we had learned; to trust each other and work as a team, to trust ourselves to handle more than we thought we could, to pack appropriate gear, food and supplies that would literally keep us alive, to cook in sub-zero temperatures, and to sleep outside in the winter. Aside from days of frozen rain, a three-inch layer of ice atop the snow making it hard to walk, and below zero nights it turned out being the best trip of all.

I was afraid to continue after the first night. I lost my body heat part way through the night and woke up shivering, which is a very bad sign when it’s negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I remembered what to do; I left my tent and started doing jumping jacks. I realized I had to use the bathroom, which was the last thing I wanted to do. But I used the outhouse and realized I did not know it was possible for my butt to the that cold. I joined a couple other students who had woken up cold too, and we did more jumping jacks.

It was exhausting when we would set up camp at sunset and then have to spend the rest of the evening keeping each other moving, up and down the path, up and down the path. Don’t let the warmth of the fire lure you in, keep moving. We sang a chant as we trudged through the snow, encouraging each other to keep going and looking out for anyone with signs of hypothermia. I snuggled a bottle filled with hot water while I was tucked into my sleeping bag, with the draw string tied above my head. When I awoke on the second morning, still alive, and the tent was covered in a blanket of soft snow, giving it the appearance of an igloo, it was magical.

In fact, it was the greatest experience of my life.

I did not feel cold, wet or tired the entire trip for the simple fact that I did not let myself. Plus, I had learned how to survive in the wilderness by bringing the right gear.

On our second to last day the temperature raised, which was a welcome change, but it started to frozen rain. Some of us got wet. We took inventory for changes of dry cloths and in the end we decided as a team, a family, that it was too risky to stay the final night and complete our treck down the ski slope in the morning. We did not come this far together to lose someone to hypothermia. We were all a little disappointed when we hiked to meet the bus at midnight. But despite the early finish, we had made it. Together.

This trip proved what I had begun to doubt after the first trip, that I have control over myself and how I feel. All of this I had written in the first draft of my speech. I had written strait through and it was at this point that I stopped and read it over. It was after I read it over that I realized how much I had learned.
First of all, I learned that my fear of failure kept me from taking any real chances in life, and never taking any chances caused me to believe I could do anything. By not succeeding at that first trip I realized my fear of failure, and by being forced to face it I proved to myself that I was right in the first place. I can do anything.
I learned that the class is not about making it to the top of the mountain or through the cold night.
It is not about learning how to make a shelter, start a fire, get along in a group, rock climb, camp, stay warm in the winter, prepare, or heal blisters. It is not about the small victories. They are merely obstacles, stepping-stones to the bigger picture.

It is about breaking down boundaries and realizing there are no limits.

It is about learning that you are whom you make yourself.
One last thing I learned was that I do not know myself quite as well as I thought I did. I have
found some qualities I did not know I had, like stubbornness and what I call ‘chicken syndrome’, but due to the new confidence that I have gained I know, now, that I can change.

So, out of my list of confused, jumbled thoughts came a speech and a realization of who I am. I have finally made amends with the first trip. I no longer want to erase the memory; rather I would like to keep it forever to remind me of all that I have learned. I am proud of my achievements. I have faced my fear and realized that I will never stop learning  about myself.

I no longer live behind the mask of day to day life. I now look beneath my achievements and bring as much to the surface as possible. As for any fears that have yet to come, I welcome them, for often it is only through an experience of sadness, pain, fear or difficulty that we learn our most vital lessons and make our greatest achievements.

I no longer doubt myself, for like the R.O.P.E. slogan says, “Plus est en vous'”.
More is in you than you think.

Natalie Rivera is a firestarter, speaker and entrepreneur. She is passionate about empowering others to GET REAL and live authentically. After a decade of living a life that wasn’t hers and developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Natalie let go of everything and completely transformed. Through her journey to healing she rediscovered her true self and greater purpose—to inspire others to transform their lives. Natalie “retired” from the rat race at 24, put herself through school as a freelance designer, created a non-profit teen center, and later created Transformation Services, Inc., which offers motivational speaking, curriculum development, life coaching, event management, and publishing. She is also the Publisher of Transformation Magazine. Visit

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