I spent the first day of 2017 filling my lungs with crisp winter air near New Paltz, N.Y., with two fellow rock climbers. That morning, the three of us had trudged through empty woodland and ground covered by 4 inches of fresh snow to the quartz cliffs, where the freezing rock—in some places, still covered with ice—was torturous to bare fingers.
In these conditions, we managed to complete only three easy trad (or traditional) climbs, and we quickly gave up on climbing well in favor of simply finishing the routes. But still, we climbed, in blissful agreement that our New Year’s Day in the cold was kind of perfect.
A few years ago, that scene—with me in it, at least—would have been unimaginable. I’ve always had an outsized wanderlust, but for some reason, the outdoors never called to me. Instead, my desire to explore was reserved for destinations of cultural interest, typically in foreign countries.
This, perhaps, was a byproduct of my childhood. I grew up a shy bookworm in a small central New Jersey town, where my family was one of only a handful of immigrants. Feeling out of place, I spent my days in books and my own head, imagining grand adventures in the wider world.
As soon as I could, I took off to satisfy my curiosity: to Spain as a high school exchange student; to my native China to rediscover my history; to Ethiopia and Chile during college; and finally, after graduation, to Afghanistan, where I spent two years working in international development. In Afghanistan, I found not only professional fulfillment but also enough culture to spend a lifetime unraveling.
But for the first time in my travels abroad, I grew homesick in Afghanistan. I returned to the United States with a newfound desire to set down roots—even if it was tempered by a persistent itch for adventure. I moved to New York City, hoping the metropolis’s famous energy and proximity to family would appease both needs. But something was off, and I felt simultaneously trapped and untethered.
It was rock climbing that grounded me. I first started climbing as a distraction from a hard breakup, reasoning that, in building physical strength, emotional resilience would follow. On the wall, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, inching my fingertips to the farthest reach of my wingspan, I was grateful for the temporary shrinking of my world to only my body and the vertical surface before it.
In those moments of flow, when I let instinct silence my overthinking mind, I realized how limited my previous notions of travel had been. Even as my sphere of awareness shrank, all I had to do was shift my gaze to the magnificent vistas behind and below me to remember the vastness and diversity of the world—well beyond the human artifacts that had previously fascinated me.
In the year and a half since I started climbing, I am less addicted to total immersion in a new culture and more addicted to the feeling I get on the wall, especially on fresh rock. In search of that feeling, I have climbed in the high deserts of California, Arizona, and Nevada; above remote villages in rural China; and, during many weekend trips from the concrete jungle, in the quartz ledges of the Shawangunk Mountains in New York. Every potential trip becomes an excuse to climb, as I inevitably find myself researching the nearest crag.
And every time I’m on the side of a mountain, just me, the cliff, and the world at my feet, I see new details in the landscape around me—and in myself.