Updated: Apr 29
So, I recently went on a Veteran’s Outdoor Adventure Retreat with Waypoint Vets, and it was both transformational and inspirational! But before I get into the trip’s details, let me set the tone and backstory for this trip! Waypoint Vets was founded by Sarah Lee and are a 501(c)(3) organization to unite and empower Veterans through activities and adventure. They facilitate unique opportunities of Camaraderie and Healing for Military Veterans across America at no cost to them. Their experiences combine mental and physical intensity with the beauty of nature. Their participants engage in various activities and challenges during the day, and evenings are spent reflecting and enjoying the camaraderie. Their goal is to deliver meaningful and lasting experiences that their Veterans can look forward to and reflect upon. Waypoint’s mantra is to “Honor our Fallen by Living” and take back our health and happiness together. On each of their Adventures, Veterans carry customized dog tags engraved with names of those they have lost in combat. A Waypoint is where troops come together to reset, refuel, and recharge, enabling them to continue and complete their mission successfully. That is precisely what they want their outings to deliver by providing camaraderie, adventure, physical challenges, mental empowerment, and lasting clarity.
So, when Sarah invited me to Waypoint Vets, I was so excited; however, I did not know exactly what to expect. The trip was set to a backdrop of Zion National Park. I have been to Zion before and know how beautiful the terrain is; however, its beauty can never be understood until you meet and experience the guides who assisted Waypoint Vets from Jonathan, and his staff, at Zion Guru (more on this later in the article). So as I arrived at the Las Vegas Airport, I was greeted with smiles from the Waypoint staff, who were busily gathering the 15 other Veterans from all over the United States. Once we accounted for all participants, we began our 2.5-hour journey to Zion National Park. This journey was enlightening as all 16 Veterans and staff started to engage in conversation and establish a bond through camaraderie, stories, and commonalities. Before we knew it, we were at Zion to begin processing, briefings, and our adventure. The evening quickly faded away and ended with an unforgettable view of the beautiful star-filled sky in Zion Canyon.
The next day started early with a Yoga session to stretch and relax our bodies and minds. This occurred in a beautiful Yoga Studio where we stayed at Nama Stay. Nama Stay is run by Jonathon and Atonka Zambella, who has lived and guided in this region for over 26 years. Nama-Stay is a journey and a destination. It is a place of LOVE with rich, wide-open views. It is thoughtfully designed to be in harmony with nature and surrounded by the beauty of Zion National Park. This beautiful property provides you with the comfort of actual sanctuary space. From the beginning, it was clear that this property could not be limited to only a “vacation and retreats.” Instead, it needed to reflect the energy of Nama, our origins, and our purpose. In meditation, Nama was defined as the original force that gave birth to Mother Earth. They have had many visitors from various countries enjoy the creativity of Nama-Stay and contribute to the different meanings of Nama from other cultures and languages. They are so grateful for all who feel guided to contribute to the Spirit of Nama. These contributions continue to expand their views far beyond where they initially imagined.
After Yoga, we were treated to a wonderful breakfast and the plan for the day. The plan was a guided tour down a beautiful trail called “The NARROWs.” Everyone was elated with joy with this plan and could not wait to get started. This historical beauty of the NARROWs is legendary and known around the world. However, today was different as it was January and the temperatures were very cold, especially in the canyon and water. Zion Guru was our next stop, where we were outfitted with specialty equipment to brave the cold water of the NARROWS. This equipment included a dry suit, neoprene socks, ice spikes, boots, and a large stick. Once outfitted, our guides led us to the entrance of the NARROWs trailhead. The beauty on this trail is almost indescribable, and it takes away your breath as all of your senses become overloaded. As guides took everyone down the path, it became apparent that distinct groups formed based on experience, ability, and fitness levels. Upon entering the water for the first time, a quick lesson on the use and trust of your equipment became quickly apparent with how it kept you warm and dry. It was a fantastic lesson and experience.
So as a quick disclaimer, I have been down the NARROWs in the summertime. It was a fantastic experience too, but it was so crowded, and my trip was limited due to a lack of equipment, causing the cold water to affect my abilities on the trail. In the wintertime (off-season, as they say), it becomes a different experience with the proper equipment, fewer people to distract you from your sensory overload, and the unique perspective and knowledge from professional guides. A simply AMAZING day of hiking with beautiful scenes of waterfalls, ice, rock formations, and sights/sounds that will be forever etched into our minds!!
So as we progressed down the trailhead, we encountered numerous water crossings and obstacles in the water. The stick we were giving was used to assist us through these obstacles and provide balance when our footing became uncertain under the water. This stick was later discussed in feedback/debrief with comfort, support, and security symbolisms. The question of the day was then presented to us, “Who is your stick!” Is it a family member, pet, or friend? Many different individualized answers transpired upon discussion. My answer was my amazing girlfriend, Becky. She has always been my support system, both emotionally and physically. This is amazing to think about when such a simple item as a “stick” could bring so much meaning simply from a hike down a river. Many of us take these simple items for granted. However, their use and what they symbolize can genuinely bring meaning to everything we do.
Another question that transpired from this discussion is, “What brings you joy?” The answer could be anything from a person, place, hobby, activity, object, etc. Of course, everyone gave different individualized responses that brought them true joy. However, based on their perspectives from their lives, the array of answers was very enlightening and educational. My answer was again my amazing girlfriend, Becky, and some of the adventures (places) that we have encountered together. Joy is taken for granted as well. Sometimes we get overly caught up with work or family as we forget what brings us joy. Never hesitate to participate in anything that you are passionate about. A favorite pastime can relieve you from daily stress and add a layer of fulfillment to your life. Hobbies provide you with opportunities to capitalize on your interests and get started exploring what makes you happy. Permit yourself to do something you are passionate about. If you love sports, spend time on a sports-related activity. Prioritize yourself and put everyone else’s interests behind your own. Choose an activity that you will not grow tired of and brings you excitement. An exercise you are passionate about will allow you to meet like-minded individuals and create a community. The process will make you a more exciting and multidimensional person. We should find our joys to help treat addiction and any concurrent mental health disorders that make us suffer. We know having a happy diversion can help you cope in ways other than engaging in substance abuse or trudging through depression and anxiety.
The rest of the weekend was jam-packed with fantastic camaraderie, yoga sound bath experiences (I will discuss this experience in a later article and podcast), beautiful Zion scenery, and canyoneering adventures that transformed my perspective on life, reenergized me, and gave me a renewed focus on what is truly important in my life. It gave me direction and purpose! It also allowed me to realize that disconnecting from our lives and experiencing the true beauty of nature is vital to our mental health. I will always treasure this experience and deeply value its transformational qualities. I plan to revisit Zion and the staff at Zion Guru regularly to maintain balance and focus on my life, along with a newfound interest in Yoga, its benefits, and how it truly influences the mind/body. Yoga offers fantastic physical and mental health benefits for all ages of people. If you are experiencing an illness, recovering from surgery, or living with a chronic condition, Yoga can be utilized as an integral part of your treatment and recovery. Yoga improves strength, balance, and flexibility. By using slow movements and deep breathing, blood flow increases, and muscles are warmed up while holding a pose to build resilience. Yoga has many valuable qualities like improving health and sleep, bringing more energy and brighter moods, manage stress. According to the National Institutes of Health, research shows that Yoga supports mental health, stress management, healthy eating, mindfulness, weight loss, and quality sleep, promoting better self-care.
This newfound respect for nature and Yoga will become a regular part of my life to help improve my physical self and my mental health maintenance. I ask you to do the same and consider the renewing qualities and appreciation of nature, camaraderie, adventure, and Yoga. We must make time to maintain and improve our bodies and minds. Experience and appreciate life every chance you can. You owe it to yourself, and you will genuinely be thankful in the end!
Image Provide By John Heintzelman (April 2023)