The Moments That Changed Us

Our writers talk about the incomparable thrill of experiencing something new—whether it was big or small, and regardless of how it turned out.

The power of defining moments is that they don't have to be major events. (Dana Halferty/TandemStock)
Photo: Dana Halferty/TandemStock above water

There are points in life that forever change who we are and who we will become. Often, these are our “firsts.” It could be something heavy, like falling in love or being thrown from your raft in the Grand Canyon and pinned underwater until your heart stopped. But the power of defining moments is that they don’t have to be major events. Maybe you grew up with a wooded backyard that ingrained a love of nature, or maybe it was the first time you lived out of your van that gave you a real taste of freedom. Like you, our writers have their own moments that forever changed their lives. Below, we’ve collected some of our favorites.

My First Time: Saving a Life

Twenty-five years ago, writer, director, and photographer Jeff Johnson was a lifeguard on Oahu when 30-foot waves started detonating on the reef.

I didn’t have a plan. I had someone’s life in my hands and there was a huge audience on the beach waiting for the outcome. (Jens Goerlich/Gallery Stock)

I arrived early to set up the lifeguard tower at Sunset Beach, on Oahu’s North Shore. It was 1994, my first winter season as a lifeguard. I’d made a few mellow rescues but hadn’t been involved in anything serious yet. This morning, the waves were small and clean. The water was packed with bodies.

My First: Emergency Landing

When the engine light flicks off, do you listen to the voice that says it’s time to panic or the one urging you to calmly set the plane down?

emergency landing
Always look for somewhere to put down, Just in Case. (Jim Waters)

When the engine on my ultralight cut out, I was supposed to be ready. Pilots aren’t pessimists, but we practice worst-case scenarios over and over. I’d been flying for years, yet I hadn’t practiced for that sucker punch of adrenaline, the way my hair stood on end, the shock of the sudden silence.

My First: Daffy

Quite possibly the most storied, most coveted, most majestic of all tricks—held for three glorious seconds.

The daffy has hot-dog roots but enough vestigial cred to induce a new-schooler to tip his trucker hat. (Christian Bachellier)

I can get down a ski hill nice and clean, but I’ve never been an air guy. Now that I’m almost 50, I prefer to keep the skis on the snow. Even in my oblivious, invincible years, I was wary of the ether.

My First: Kiss

After 13 agonizing years of waiting, it finally happened for writer Wells Tower—and then the moment disappeared.

I knew that not to have kissed was a deadly social deformity whose only corrective serum was teenage saliva. (Gallery Stock)

At 13, I was sure I was the only American boy who hadn’t yet gotten his mouth onto someone else’s mouth. They were doing it on the school bus and down at the teen center, really kissing.

My First: Great White

Trolling the Pacific Ocean for sharks on a boat called the Dinner Plate.

A strong wake, a swirl of disturbance, then the dorsal fin rising like a periscope, headed directly for us. (Michael Muller/CPi Syndication)

What I noticed, in the moments before I saw the shark, was the silence. It was a deep silence, full of myth and primordial fear.

My First: True Love

How to love someone like you love a mountain, and how to allow yourself to fall.

I had loved some men over the course of my life, but not all the way, nor without walls. (Kae Penner-Howell)

Last fall, I met a Forest Service lifer named Mike, a long and lean natural athlete who, like me, chose southwestern Colo­rado’s high country as the place to spend his life, and who, also like me, loves more than anything to hike long distances and sleep on the ground.

My First: Bear Scare

When all else fails, run around like a raving lunatic while you swing a burning log.

Animal Themes
Stand your ground. Remain calm. Make yourself as large as possible. (Gallery Stock)

In the summer of 1993, when I was newly married, my husband B. and I took his nephew and my two little brothers camping in the Sierra Nevada. Neither I nor the boys, who were ages 12 to 14, had ever been on a serious hiking trip—an unthinkable experiential deficit, in my outdoorsy husband’s view.

My First: Summer Living in My Van

Writer Ian Frazier learns that if you want to impress anyone while you’re living in your van, for God’s sake, don’t tell them you live in your van.

It was awkward, living that way. But what the hell, I felt free. (Aaron Cameron Muntz/Gallery Stoc)

I had not expected that it would tick. As soon as the sun hit it in the morning—at 6 a.m. or so, in June, in northern Michigan—the metal would start to expand in the heat: tick…tick…tick. My first summer living in my van, in the Pigeon River campground near the town of Vanderbilt, I almost never succeeded in sleeping past dawn.

My First: Drowning

After a legendary career in adventure writing, Tim Cahill thought his story was over. Thrown from a raft in the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls, he was trapped underwater and out of air. When he finally reached land, his heart stopped for several minutes. Then he came back—and decided to risk Lava again.

(David Hughes)

Now, on the matter of my death in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, specifically after an alarming swim in Lava Falls—universally considered the canyon’s nastiest and most difficult rapid—I confess that I miscalculated badly. I miscalculated previous to the run and then again in the aftermath of the excitement to come.

My First: Rattlesnake Bite

When Kyle Dickman set out on a monthlong road trip with his wife and infant son last spring, he was fueled by a carefree sense of adventure that had defined his entire life. Then he got bit by a venomous snake in a remote area of Yosemite National Park, and the harrowing event changed everything.

Rattlesnakes don’t want to bite people. They don’t even want to be seen. Sometimes we just step on a piece of bad luck. (Steven Gnam/TandemStock)

My parents like to say they raised my older brother, Garrett, and me in the Church of Seventh Day Recreation. As a kid growing up in Oregon, I remember asking them if we could actually stay home one weekend instead of camping or hiking or canoeing. They relented, but that was the exception to the rule. Through that prism, you might say I was preordained to be with my family on that bridge, with that snake, on that warm April morning in Yosemite.

My First: Encounters with Nature

If you’re lucky, you encountered nature for the first time by running out the back door. During our writer’s boyhood, a suburban forest was a gateway to learning, exploration, and natural splendors that shaped his life and career.

(Jason Holley)

When you’re a kid, the world seems big and ordained. Things are as they are because they are. Even your neighborhood seems big and ordained, until you outgrow it, depart, and consider it again from a distance. Then you might start to see its deeper dimensions—its ­layers of time, contingency, and meaning.

My First: Oxygen-Free Everest Summit

No one knew if it could be done. But when Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler climbed Mount Everest without oxygen in 1978, they smashed one of the last barriers of human performance. Almost 40 years later, both legends talk about their first ascent by “fair means”—and the long-running feud that followed.

(Keith Negley)

Tenzing Norgay wasn’t buying it. Neither were the five other Sherpas who’d summited Mount Everest since 1953, when Tenzing and Edmund Hillary first knocked the bastard off. The Euros had been too fast—too fast to have climbed the mountain with bottled oxygen, let alone without it. But such was the claim that Italian Reinhold Messner, then 33, and Austrian Peter Habeler, 35, were making about their Everest summit on May 8, 1978.

My First: Home Sweet Home

Memorable lives combine tough choices, an adventurous spirit, hard work, and luck—and who knows where any of it comes from? For our writer, the wellspring was a Colorado spread that she was barely able to buy in 1993. It became her escape from a violent childhood and the magical ground that changed her life.

(Giselle Potter)

When I look out my kitchen window, I see a horseshoe of snow-covered peaks, all of them higher than 12,000 feet. I see my old barn—old enough to have started to lean a little—and the homesteaders’ cabin, which has so much space between the logs now that the mice don’t even have to duck to crawl through.

My First: Battle with PTSD

When alpinist and photographer Cory Richards dug himself out of an avalanche in 2011, he emerged alive but scarred—an ascendant star in a community that tends to shun the very idea that trauma can have lasting effects. As his profile climbed ever higher, his career and personal life imploded. Six years later, one of the world’s best artist-adventurers comes clean about the panic attacks, PTSD, and alcohol abuse that nearly killed him.

Richards at photographer Nigel Parry's studio. (Nigel Parry)

As soon as Cory Richards realized that he had survived the avalanche, he turned his camera on. It was February 2, 2011, and Richards had just summited 26,360-foot Gasherbrum II—the 13th-tallest peak in the world.

My First: Ayahuasca Trip

Was it the time travelers, the jaguar people, or the song from Pocahontas? All I know is that, as my exploration of psychedelics grew from a few camp-out mushrooms to full-on ayahuasca ceremonies, I felt better than I ever had in my life.

Are you feeling the plants? (Christian Koepenick/Stocksy)

“Are you feeling the plants?” Pluma Blanco whispered. It was nearly midnight, in the darkened great room of a mansion in a nice neighborhood overlooking San Francisco. I was kneeling behind a makeshift altar arrayed with objects of spiritual significance set out by the 20 or so other houseguests lying prone on blankets and camping pads on the floor.

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