Emily Stewart grew up with what she calls an unreasonable obsession with “West Side Story” and a love of singing. She and her twin sister would often grab hairbrushes for microphones and act out all the parts of their favorite musical theater songs.
As Emily matured and her singing talent developed, musical hits were replaced with arias and she soon was heading for a career as a promising opera singer. In singing, both watching someone perform, or on stage herself, Emily found a transcendent space and felt like she had found her future.
After spending her teenage years in a grueling schedule of practicing, performing and traveling around the country to audition for music colleges, Emily was accepted to the country’s most prestigious music school. But just at that time, when things should have felt like they were falling into place, Emily became aware that something was not right.
A bullying and misogynistic singing coach, in addition to her new school’s ultra-competitive atmosphere, challenged Emily’s love of singing. They also planted a seed of doubt in her mind: Maybe her life’s dream was misplaced?
Without a backup plan, Emily hunkered down and completed her first year of college, eventually winning the respect of her singing coach. But the feeling persisted. Something just wasn’t right. Short of answers on how to fix this and searching for inspiration, Emily turned to an old favorite book, Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction classic “Into the Wild.”
When summer eventually arrived, Emily followed the book’s protagonist, deciding that she, too, would head for the extremes of Alaska. This brazen, seemingly random decision set off a chain of events that radically changed the course of Emily’s life. As she headed North, the beauty of the landscape coaxed her thoughts outside of her own internal struggle and as they became directed into the world around her, Emily found a new path in life.
The original version of this story first aired on “Out There,” an award-winning podcast that explores big questions through intimate stories in the great outdoors. “Out There” is produced by radio journalist Willow Belden and is available on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.