About the Author: Amy Lees. Amy is a dream chaser and believes in living a life untethered by others’ expectations. For too long, she catered to her family’s and friend’s wishes before her own. After realizing she was on a path of self destruction and unhappiness, she made the promise to herself to change. Moving forward, she decided to live her life according to her own desires and ambitions. So she spent 2018 on a self-discovery journey traveling the country with the intent to conquer a few of her biggest fears: heights, the unknown, and being alone. You can find her on Instagram @amy__lees (two underscores). 

A New Year: time to refresh, start anew, and look at the world with those big bright eyes and a take-on-the-world mindset. Tis the season to reflect on where we are, assess our goals, and plan to get what we want. But there are those of us who have a hard time finding inspiration going into the new year because the year that passed was less than inspiring. 

We are grateful for family, jobs, and decent health but that sometimes doesn’t feel like enough; that’s the bar of expectation. We do what everybody else is doing to live another day and support our loved ones. Those of us who feel a genuine lack of fulfillment in our years are not wrong. We are not ungrateful. We do not lack passion or enthusiasm. We are not lazy. We lack clarity. We lack self-awareness. We lack direction. We lack the confidence to try what peaks our interest because we are told from a young age that outsiders are bad and fitting in is good. We are taught to follow order. 

Mt. Ranier National Park

After years of telling myself that this year will the be the year, without actually seeing much change, I made the decision to take Mark Twain’s advice and “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in my sails.” What better way to become more cognizant of my own being and dreams than to force myself into complete discomfort!
This is a reflection of my most epic, life-changing, soul-finding year I’ve experienced thus far. In 2018, I lived out of my Suburban, traveled the United States, and hiked every non-island National Park I had never been to within the 48 states. There are 60 national parks (with the name ending in National Park, to clarify) preserved by the United States of America, 44 of which I have now been to. 
First of all, let’s start with the fact that I’m in my mid-late 20s, a millennial. I grew up in a world of expectations and blind beliefs. I was taught growing up, like everyone else, to do the thing now so that life will be better later. I didn’t have a great childhood, but I was promised a better future if I hit certain milestones. So I did the things. I finished high school. I went to college. I graduated with a “good” degree and got a decent paying job that was “respectable.” I had a long-term boyfriend and lived in my own apartment. 

Left: somewhere in Washington State. Right: Sunrise at Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park

I reached the future that I had been planning for but, to my utmost surprise, my future was not perfect. I owed more money than I have ever seen for a fancy piece of signed paper. My job was a joke and my relationship was not developing the way I thought it was supposed to. Life was NOT all rainbows and butterflies as I was led to believe. It was so different from what I expected so I did what people tend to do in these situations: I self destructed. I felt cheated by this long-past promise of a great future and turned the color of jade as I stuck my middle finger up to the “the man.”
And then it hit me. 

I am in control of my life. If I am unhappy, that is my fault and mine alone. I am my own responsibility.

I had too many conversations with people wiser in years than myself who were so full of regret and wishes that they had done more, seen more, traveled more, experienced more when they were younger. So I decided not to be tied down by the chains of expectation. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to live a life I could be proud of. I wanted to look back at the end of each year to see the growth I progressed through and take pride in the goals I accomplished on my own terms.

Sequoia National Park

The choices I made were hard. I was choosing myself over everything else, which was the opposite of what I was told to do as a girl growing up in my generation. I ended a six year relationship with the person I thought I would marry. I sold, donated, or trashed my material possessions. I sacrificed my safety net and put my family in a state of worry. For some, this new life I was creating was too much for them. My life was no longer a life they felt they could support and they walked away. I blew up an air mattress in the back of my Suburban and headed out on the open road to the most natural and beautiful places in the country, and I chose to do it alone. 
Each leg of my journey was different. The beginning was the easiest, in a way. I was at rock bottom before I left – depressed and fearful of the unknown. Getting away from it all and losing myself in nature would only help, right? What else could I do? I knew that taking myself out of my comfort zone would force me into a figure-it-out-for-myself zone. I would adapt and grow. 
The second part of my journey was the hard part. Accepting the consequences of my choice and my own dark fears of being alone were not easy to face. I started the year with a simple goal, see all of the continental national parks in the country. So when I struggled (and I knew I would), I would focus my attention on achieving that singular goal. Drive to park. Talk to ranger. Hike. Eat. Sleep. Move on to the next. In the chaos of living on the road, I found order to keep me going and learning and growing. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

By the time I checked off the last few parks on my list, I truly felt fulfilled, accomplished, and proud of the decision to make such a bizarre idea come to fruition. My future was now a clean slate and an open book, ready to be scribbled on with bad doodles, poor grammar, and different colors because the year behind me taught me to own my own mess. It taught me that it’s okay to be where you are and to actually love yourself for all of the uncertainties. I no longer believe that being an adult means having life figured out. To me, life is a continuous journey of “figuring it out”. I am constantly changing and shaping the human I am daily. I may feel lost at times but that’s okay because it means I get to put myself in a position to learn more about who I am and who I want to become. 

I am proud of the woman I am today and the choices I will continue to make to grow into the woman I want to be. 2018 was the year I learned that not all who wander are lost, but some are; for those who are, getting lost is one of the best ways to be found. 

(Looking for a guide to all the national parks? Try this one.)