Elk awakening

We have all heard expressions like “stop and smell the roses,” “time flies,” or “you only live once,” but it seems we seldom act on them. In my busy life, I’ve rarely acknowledged the small moments, like laughing at lunch, a smooth drive to school, or the cup of  Dunkin’ coffee that tastes just right. This all changed last fall when an elk taught me how to slow
down and appreciate the present.

One cold morning in late August, my watch alarm beeped. Overnight, I had rolled entirely out of my tarp onto the cold, wet grass, and my sleeping bag had frozen. As I put on my socks and hiking boots, I realized they were frozen too. My clothes, washed in the creek the day before, had never fully dried—the last straw of an already difficult morning. As I struggled to get ready for the day, I contemplated what I was doing with my time. A week into my first-ever backpacking excursion, a 15-day trip in Colorado, I was still adjusting to the backcountry lifestyle.

My morning miraculously managed to get worse, or so I thought. I realized I had to go to the bathroom. I grabbed a shovel and began trudging up the hill to find myself the perfect spot. As I trekked, I could not help but think about home. I thought about how nice it would be to wake up in my cozy bed or take a shower. On a trip in which I was encouraged to live in the moment, I was doing the exact opposite.

Still dreaming of the luxuries of my life at home and eager to return to camp as quickly as possible, I began to dig a hole. As I was nearly ready to return, I heard an unfamiliar rustling in front of me. I looked up and—in the most compromising position possible—was shocked to see something staring back at me. An elk, much bigger than I had thought possible, watched me with curiosity. I was immobilized. Unsure what to do, I waited for it to trot back off into the woods and hoped it would not charge at me.

My exciting and somewhat nerve-racking encounter inspired new excitement about my trip. I sprinted down the hill back to camp, where my friends were cooking hashbrowns. Still out of breath, I immediately began telling them what happened. After my harrowing experience, I was on high alert for the rest of the day. I could not afford for my mind to wander and risk another unplanned run-in. Remaining vigilant throughout the hiking day, I began noticing more than ever: the small rodent-like pikas peeking out from under rocks, the stray raspberries, and the spaceship-shaped clouds. I realized what I had missed out on when focusing on frivolous things, such as a warm bed or clean sheets.

This elk was the wake-up call I needed. For the next week, I made a conscious effort to notice and appreciate everything I had previously overlooked. I realized how cool trees are and that in a group of Aspen trees, every tree is genetically identical. I learned about all sorts of birds and that they all want to steal your food. Though I could go on about everything I saw once I began to pay attention, most importantly, I learned that there is so much to appreciate in what feels like a mundane day. Rather than waiting for a rare, life-altering moment, give yourself the chance to notice the little things we experience every day.

Seeing an elk taught me to pay more attention, to acknowledge even the smallest victories in my life, the random but cool occurrences I see, or the little moments that make me smile. Overwhelmingly, my best stories have all taken place in small moments.

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