15 years old, with two paper routes for income and no bills, I could easily afford it. But the issue of going on the Minnesota church-sponsored backpacking trip had never been one of money - it was about who else was going.
Try as I might, I couldn't get any of my close friends to sign up. "Come on guys," I remember pleading, "This is the Bighorn Mountains we're talking about. Snow-covered peaks. Ice cold lakes. Hungry trout. Pup tents and backpacks and campfires. Where's your sense of adventure? Whattaya say?"
They said no.
I went anyway.
It doesn't look like such a big decision now, but back then, conformity with the group was so important, I couldn't even find the courage to part my hair differently until moving away to Florida. Striking out on a nine-day trip without the security of a friend was definitely out of my comfort zone.
After weeks of training alone, researching sleeping bag, backpack and hiking boot specifications, filling shopping lists of items like zinc-oxide, space food sticks, bug spray and collapsible fishing gear, the big day arrived.
The orange school bus rolled into the church, towing the wooden trailer that would carry our gear the 800 miles from Minneapolis to Buffalo, Wyoming and the Bighorn Mountain, Cloud Peak Wilderness Area.
"Oh great!" I remember lamenting, as I watched one kid after another arrive who wasn't in my social order at school. There were plenty of "Coolies," the most popular kids. "Jocks," the most athletic. "Dirtballs," the ones with low grades or on drugs. But just a few of us "normal" kids, as we thought of ourselves, unaware of the derogatory labels we'd probably been tagged with.
I shouldn't have worried. Within hours on the highway, the magic of group dynamics began working its spell.
Kids of all social classes gathered for card games. The pastor cracked jokes we actually thought were funny. Sing-a-longs erupted by spontaneous combustion. Pillows were borrowed, food was shared, people slept in the aisle without a second thought. As unlikely as it seemed, this random sign-up sheet of social-group strangers had become fast friends in the course of the 18-hour bus trip.
It only got better.
Outfitters met us and provided the heavy gear - tents, solar ovens and dehydrated rations. We packed and repacked. Hiking boots were laced. 30 to 60 pound backpacks were strapped on. And then it was off on the 15-mile hike to our base camp near Florence Lake and Bomber Mountain, for five days in the wilderness.
It was the hardest I'd ever worked. I felt sorry for the kids who hadn't trained. Pathways led across fields of boulders, eager to twist weak, suburban ankles. Tortuous switchbacks cut deep grooves into mountainsides, too steep to be traversed except for back and forth, turning 100 yards into a mile.
And the thin crisp air! Altitudes of 7,500 to 10,000 feet brought on dizziness, nausea and fatigue. Breaks came often and I was really concerned how several kids would ever make it.
I shouldn't have. The "Jocks" and "Coolies" who I'd thought were too good for the rest of us at school, shattered my perception of them once and for all. The strongest in the group, they reached base camp first and did what was inconceivable to me - returned to carry the loads of those really struggling. Thanks to their heroics, by the exhausting day's end, all were safely in the base camp.
The remainder of the trip exceeded the very best of our expectations. Full stringers of cut-throat trout, campfire stories, day hikes, and mountain peak views that took our breath away.
One evening, I found myself alone on such a peak. To my left, I could see clear into Montana. To my right, nearly to Colorado. Below lay crystal-blue Florence Lake, surrounded by patches of year-round snow.
Too young to notice, that moment tried to teach everything I'd need for the rest of my life.
Everything is perfect now. Everything I needed at that moment - and every present moment up to that point, had occurred in perfect order.
There's more than enough. The world was mine as far as I could see. Provided free of charge, I didn't need to own it, merely enjoy it - for as long as I liked.
Have no fear. There was no fear of losing anything, because it was obvious that better things, things I hadn't even imagined - like this view - would be provided along the way.
Anyone can be your friend. After just four days, I'd made more new pals than I'd left back at home. The illusion of social classes had been exposed. People were people were people - and there was an entire world of them out there! Those not yet friends, were merely not yet fully known.
Life occurs now. That instant on the mountain was so powerful, it knocked all past memories and all future worries from the landscape of my mind. In that present instant, I was alive. Everything else was revealed as nothing more than a dream I'd thought was living.
Of course, back then, these insights weren't recognizable to my 15-year-old mind. I wasn't even aware they'd been planted. But they're growing now. And that experience in the Bighorn Mountains was so powerful that I spent 20 years wishing to live there. Today, 14 years after moving to Wyoming, I live near those same Bighorns but enjoy an even better version right out my living room window.
And that's why it was the best $50 I'd ever spent.
Mike Johnson is an energetic writer & entrepreneur. Learn more about Mike's offerings at www.MikeJohnson.biz