badassery, butterflies, and Brooke

It’s important to have personal goals for self-improvement but who or what else do you push your limits for?

My close friend Brooke was the first person to call me a badass and at the time, I did not deserve the title. To paint the picture of adolescent me, I was tall and chubby with braces, glasses, and a scoliosis backbrace. Needless to say, I was a vision. Besides being a physical specimen, I was more bookworm than mountain goat and so my outdoor endeavors were far from falling under classification as badassery.

Regardless, Brooke gave me the title after a conversation that went something like:

Me: “Yesterday, my family and I hiked up Arctic Valley and when we got to the top, we just kept going. Someday, I want to put on a backpack and hike and never stop.”

Brooke: “Wow, you’re such a badass.”

And that was that.

When I entered high school, I emerged from my developmental chrysalis, shed all of my braces, and learned how to move again. I started running and training for cross country ski racing and I slowly expanded my territory in the Chugach mountain range that surrounds my hometown of Eagle River, Alaska. I fell in love with working hard and sweating hard and grew obsessed with the concept of distance traveled. The ridgeline whose spine extended from my backyard became my playground and I spent afternoons traipsing through alpine brush, slowly cultivating my life outside.

The week before sophomore year started, I found myself on the docks in Seward, Alaska when my phone rang. My dad and I had just finished putting our boat in at the harbor and were prepping to head out into Resurrection Bay to try our luck with some rock fish, but I saw it was my friend Arielle, who had a sailboat in Seward and I figured the call was a potential invite to go sailing. So I picked up.

“Hey Ari, what’s up?”

And she said “Are you somewhere safe?” I looked around; crusty fishing boats, crusty fishermen, and a lone sea otter gliding through the smooth harbor water. “Yeah, I’m safe.”

And then she continued. “Yesterday, on her walk home from the mall, Brooke was hit by a drunk driver. She died instantly, she did not suffer, but she is gone.”

I told her “Okay, I need a minute, I’ll call you tomorrow.” And I hung up.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that day except for the sky. It was a wildfire of a sunset and I remember realizing that the entire world at that moment was saying goodbye to Brooke. I thought Heaven looked like a nice place to rest that night.

Brooke had been a part of Air Force ROTC. She was the real badass, dead-set at 15 years old on being an airplane mechanic. At her celebration of life, her ROTC instructor talked about how Brooke had won the Butterfly Award at the end of the past school year. It symbolized not only her social tendencies but her effervescence for life, and in the way that a butterfly is a beautiful creature, Brooke was a truly beautiful human.

And now, when I am outdoors, testing my limits and things start to get difficult, I see butterflies. And I know it’s not a coincidence. This past Labor Day weekend, I ran my first ultramarathon, The Rut 50K in Big Sky, and the three points in the race where I doubted myself – at mile 11 when I wondered if I could sustain the pace I was running, at mile 20 dropping off Lone Peak when the breeze disappeared and the temperature shot to 90 degrees which is far too hot for any poor Alaska kid, and the mile of climbing that snuck in at mile 30 – at all of these places, I saw a butterfly. Admittedly, the second one was a moth, but it doesn’t matter because it drove me to dig deep and keep going.

All of us in this room today most likely have a deep connection to the wilderness and towards doing things that push our limits. And it’s Bozeman, so there’s also a high likelihood that we are all chasing our own way of owning the title of badass. But I challenge you to ask yourself who you’re doing it for. It’s important to have personal goals for self-improvement but who or what else do you push your limits for?

I have found my temple in the wilderness and it is mobile because it is built on the back of a butterfly’s wings. And yes, I am eternally seeking the title of badass but it is because when I see Brooke again, I want to be able to say “I lived.” And I want her to look at me and say “I lived too.”

Author:Noelle Coniglio