Earning Our Stories

WORDS BY Laura Zerra

PHOTOS BY Tyler Sharp 

The rain was relentless, mixed indistinguishably with my sweat. The last streaks of daylight faded as darkness descended, and I felt the icy coldness of the night seep in. I was on a month­ long, solo antler hunting trip in the mountains of ldaho, and I had walked thirty miles with a pack nearly the equivalent of my own body weight. Exhausted and soaking wet, I knew that if I didn’t find a way to warm up soon, I would be in trouble. The narrow path I was on had a steep drop co a river on one side, and a cliff on the other. There was no viable option co stop and start a fire or crawl into my sleeping bag, so I pushed on.

Every muscle in my body was screaming, but it was my feet that commanded attention. Several large, pillowy blisters had formed, and gradually expanded to include every roe and even the soles of my feet. These filled, burst and ripped through layer after layer of skin, all of which now dangled limply like wet tissue paper. Several of my toenails were barely hanging on, having been pushed to almost a right angle by blood-filled pockets. I gritted my teeth and peeled them off. The heavy weight I was carrying had expanded my feet laterally, the compression of my boots com­ pounding the excruciating pain. I could feel my heartbeat in my wounds. I cook them off and pushed forward. The patchy snow on the trail numbed the raw flesh of my bare feet, offering a brief reprieve in a trail of bloody footprints.

Every fiber of my being was yelling for me to give up, but I convinced myself to take just ten more steps, and then ten more, for what seemed like an eternity. I knew something my body didn’t – I couldn’t stop. There was no one there to save me, and no room to feel sorry for myself. It didn’t matter what I thought or felt about the situation at that moment. I was in it, and there was only one way out. So I did what I had to do. I kept going.

Resilience is more than a word to me; it is the collective drive behind experiences like this and countless more, all uniquely dif­ferent and yet somehow the same. They stand alone, distinct, yet they are all colored in the same hue. They have become etched, irrevocably, on my bones.

When I think of resilience, I remember some of the darkest times in my life. I remember when the pain became a character so real that I could almost see his face; his voice echoing in my head, telling me there was no way I could keep going and that I had to give up. I remember my own self-doubt, and fleeting thoughts of differently, if it even mattered anymore or if it was too late.

I don’t seek out these experiences because I enjoy pain, or because I want co die; rather, it is because I want to live. These are moments I hold closest co my heart, that have significance and value beyond any time of comfort I can recall. After the dust settles, I feel profoundly alive, and I know what it means to em­brace my humanity. It’s simultaneously empowering and hum­ bling. It has made me aware of the fact that I’m not different or special, and that like all of us, I’m subject to the same forces that have affected countless generations before me. In this way, we are deeply connected to our ancestors, who survived because of their ability to be resilient; co face the unforeseen and sometimes unimaginable, co meet it head on, and to push through despite all odds.

Resilience is part of our collective story. It is innate for all of us. We are capable of so much more than we know, and it is in these defining moments of hardship that we have the opportu­ nity to uncover our own strength. Though often dormant in our lives of routine and imagined safety, this latent hardiness is always there, hidden, just waiting to be unlocked.

The raw reality of life is displayed with a stark honesty in the wild, and I’m grateful for the lessons that it has taught me. I’ve learned that our power lies not in our ability to control the uncontrollable, but in how we respond to these situations. Our power comes from focusing not on what you don’t have or what you wish you had, bur on what is around you and how you can use it. We can revel in the opportunity to control our reactions instead of feeling like victims of circumstance.

Regardless if we are on a mountaintop in the wilderness or in the heart of civilization, uncertainty is inevitable. This thought can be harrowing for some, but there is so much hope if you know where to look.

It becomes a choice between letting our greatest trials defeat us, or letting them become our greatest teachers. Confidence in our ability to be resilient is what allows us to overcome our fear of discomfort, to live fully, to never give anything less than everything, and to truly earn our stories.

And I promise you, it is always worth it.

Laura Zerra is a survivalist and hunter who currently calls Montana home. She has spent her entire adult life honing her craft in every major ecosystem on the planet, and used her expertise to survive for a combined total of 156 days on the Discovery show Naked and Afraid. Driven by a desire to interact with the wilderness in a real way, she is constantly seeking experiences to push her edges and learn new skills. 

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“The word ‘matagi’ is derived from ‘matagu’, meaning to cross over, step over or straddle, bounding an image of people between two worlds — the realm of humans and that of the mountain deity: yama-no-kami.” Scott Schnell, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emeritus in Anthropology

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