Trails in the National Parks

My STEP project involved collaborating with five other STEP fellows in studying the national parks system while on a two-month road trip. We visited over thirty national parks sites in the United States and western Canada – during that time, I was studying the types of trail experiences particular to each of the parks we visited. I am currently in the process of analyzing my notes, the goal being to build a complete picture of the trip through our hiking.

I embarked on this trip in the hopes of “finding myself” out in the great American West. I’m studying landscape architecture here at Ohio State, but I wasn’t (and still am not) entirely clear on what I want my role to be within that field. The hope was that two months on the road with some of my best friends from school would give me some room to breathe; away from the pressing concerns of school life, I hoped to gain a clear head, and with it some direction in life. I also am finding myself here, at age 20, on the cusp of adulthood, and this trip felt like it could serve as a rite of passage into the next chapter.

We have been home from our adventure for six weeks now, and I still don’t have all the answers I was looking for, important answers to the timeless questions “Why am I here?” and “What am I going to do about it?” I’m coming around to the fact that sometimes, we have to go through life without knowing all the answers. There is something to be said about going forward into the unknown, doing one’s mightiest to improve on this life for others and ourselves, despite the haunting ambiguity and uncertainty of it all. This trip was certainly a move forward into the unknown – we were going to be gone for eight weeks, living out of a Honda Odyssey and Honda Pilot, tent camping where we could. If anything, I found out during the course of the summer that risk-taking is important, and can be incredibly rewarding. This roadtrip had a whole panoply of risks involved – but we did it anyway, and I’m returning to society with an incredibly rich experience.

What made it so rich? Well, I alluded above to the amount of thinking time this trip allowed me – during the schoolyear, especially my second year, I was always too busy to spend time thinking. As an individual that is constantly asking “why?,” time for thinking is worth gold. It wasn’t just me thinking, either. I was with a group of individuals I could talk to, late at night around the fire, after having hiked all day. Conversations that encouraged others to open up, to be real. I savored those late nights spent talking.

The physical work that is hiking also played a huge role in the experience. Speaking of being real – you can bet people drop their pretenses when they’re hot, they’ve been hiking for fifteen miles, soggy feet pruning up and the mosquitos beginning to feast. Our first harrowing experience occurred on day four: making our way across the Great Plains, we decided to attack Pikes Peak on four hours of sleep and no time to acclimate to the altitude. Needless to say, it was an intense struggle to make it to the top. Only myself and one of my compatriots arrived at the summit – through that adversity, the two of us forged a bond that can’t be explained. We made it to the top together, and that’s something we can share throughout our lives. Later in the trip, all six of us summited the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney in California. That was a great thing, the halfway point of our roadtrip, all six of us pushing each other all the way to the top and down in one go, some twenty-something miles.

As was to be expected from this trip (although I didn’t believe it at the outset), our patience with one another wore thin from time to time. Because we were with each other constantly (eating together, sleeping together, hiking together, driving together), there were several points along the trip, especially near the end, that our group was rifted by arguments. I found myself to be spokesperson for one side on the two main occasions of dispute – the first time, we managed to keep our heads cool and talk everything out. The second time, after we had been driving all day, crossed the international border from Canada back into Montana, had only four hours of sleep, and were on the home stretch of our trip, I found I took the argument personally from the outset. I had already lost it for everyone by that point, and there came a point when several of us were hot with anger around our campsite – at that point, I knew there was no point in continuing the discussion, so I left. And I went away for several hours, walked under the huge blue sky of the Montana wilderness, called my parents, and cried a bit, I was so frustrated with myself for getting angry. Although it took a full twenty-four hours for all of us to make amends, make amends we did, and the friend that I had been most furious with, well, we spent the following night finally realizing our wrongs, offering apologies, accepting apologies, and I can say our friendship is more robust today because of it.

Why does this experience matter? For one, I discovered a component of my humanity that I typically keep tucked away. I don’t get angry often, and I got to see how such an intense situation can affect me. In the future, I will know how to better handle anger, channeling it into something positive. I got to do something no one in my family has ever done before, and I see how dedication to a goal, with intelligent leveraging of available resources, can make it happen. I didn’t get all my life-questions answered, but I have a hunch that I will spend my entire life answering those questions. To return to research – by documenting many miles of trail experience, I now have a better appreciation and understanding of trails as a designer. I see how trail hiking is not only good exercise, but can be a revelatory experience. I’m still curating all my notebooks filled with sketches, documentation of the power that trail design can have on the traveler. I would know.

 

I went all over the country this summer. 12,000 miles, and it feels like just the beginning. I know this trip marks the start of many adventures to come

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