There and Back Again: A STEP Leadership Reflection

On June 24, 2015, I set off with 13 strangers to travel cross country for a 26 day, 130+ mile backpacking trek in the back woods of California to summit the highest point in the lower 48 state, Mount Whitney. On July 6, 2015, I returned home, alone, after 13 days, only 43+ miles and the only summited was my fear or oatmeal.

I had never backpacked before; I had never even camped before I set off on this crazy trip. I was nervous and excited. I felt in over my head from the moment we had started packing our packs; the group had Eagle Scouts and Golden Girls, and people who had gone on multiple Outdoor Adventure Center trips before. Although I felt this overwhelming feeling that I was about to step into a territory I had never even come close to being near with the weight of the world on my shoulders, I had never been more determined or thrilled.

Anticipation and nerves were in the air, literally. We flew to California soaring over flat fields of the Midwest and banked around the ever imposing mountains of the National Parks that we were supposed to summit. Our first few days were meant to get us acclimated to the elevation difference between the High Sierras and the smooth land of Ohio. We took this time to see the natural wonder – El Capitan, General Sherman, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove, In-N-Out Burger. Walking among these trees, that are hundreds and hundreds of year’s old made feel so small and so insignificant, only a small blip in their lives. Gazing upon these unyielding land masses that can be rewritten by the tiniest of droplets, made me feel as though I could do anything. My soul had ignited with a flame that I never knew existed, let alone ever fathom it could burn so searing hot.

Being immersed in the grandeur of nature made my allergies rage, which was particularly strange considering I don’t have any allergies.

The walk out of the camp and into the wilds of Yosemite National Park was like walking the gauntlet towards Death’s Door it seemed. This was the last chance to turn back, last chance to take off this heavy as hell pack that was breaking my shoulders, crushing my back and weighing down my I’m-a-rain-drop-I-can-beat-this-mountain spirits.
The first three days on the trail were wonderful, they went by quickly, and my pack seemed to be not even there at all, I could not have been happier! Ha, just kidding. Those three days seemed as if I had actually crossed through Death’s Door and into the 9th circle of Hell. I was miserable. I continuously thought with each dragging step that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, and there were over 20 days. My back and shoulders felt like they belonged to a circus pony after years of being ridden by screaming obese children. My legs felt like they belonged to the pony too. I wanted to cry ever few minutes, luckily I was always so thirsty that I never did, could not waste the precious fluids. It did not help that mutant swarms of blood-glutinous mosquitos blanketed the entire landscape like a nefarious insect blizzard. On top of all of this, my dang allergies would just not let up, no matter the amount of Allegra I took.

It is often said that the 3rd times the charm, in my case, the 4th day was just that, a charm. When I awoke on that morning, it was as if I had crystalized into a new person. The miserableness and negativity had cycled out of my being. Not once from then on did I feel I had made a mistake by coming or reconsidered my choice of going, I enjoyed myself every second from that moment on. I had finally found my trail legs and spirit. For the first time I had my breath taken away, well actually I was out of breath most of the time but metaphorically speaking, it was the first time. I saw the vistas not as a certain amount of steps or minutes until the break, but for what I believe they are, the souls of the Earth. Plus I ate oatmeal for the first time ever! Grant it, I was starving and probably would have eaten pine cones, but this was a huge breakthrough for me, one I will never forget, or do again.

The next few days on the trail were actually wonderful! They went by quickly but not fast, the conversations on the trail were hilarious, heartbreaking and humbling while the views were just as equal. My pack was still super heavy, but 50 pounds of gear will always be heavy. Just as I began to experience what I thought and hoped I would, it was all taken away.

Those allergies I had, well they were actually a severe cold that I had gotten from the plane ride. Hiking up one of the passes on a sandy trail in 108⁰ weather, I had my first asthma attack in years, and then just a mile from out evening camp, I had my second one. That night across a bridge, far from the laughter around the fire, I was told I would have to leave. Asthma attacks are cause for immediate evacuation. My heart broke. I felt an ache I had never felt in my life. It was so deep I knew it would stay with me forever, in some shape or form, a regret and hurt you remember well into age even if you don’t remember what it is from. The next day was supposed to be our group toughest yet. Over 11 miles up Avalanche Pass and down the other side comprised of a dizzying staircase of stone.

I set out early before the rest of the group with two of the group leaders. A thunderstorm pursued us the entire way up the pass, but it never caught us. I suppose there is a metaphor or a great analogy to life in there somewhere. Summiting the top of my own little Mount Whitney, I felt I had done what I came there to do. Yes, this was an infant compared to the real thing, but it was the best I was going to get, and I couldn’t leave this place empty handed or hearted.

I spent the July 4th weekend alone at a campsite while the others celebrated together in the wilderness. But just because I was in civilization doesn’t mean my time was any less wild. I had three days to get from the middle of Yosemite National Forest to the Fresno Air Port. Armed with no cell phone, no previous knowledge of the area, no idea how to get there and a handful of quarters, I set out to go home. This is where I should mention that I typically am a very composed person and hardly ever cry to strangers.

I was able to book a hotel room and shuttle for the night before my fight with the help of the wonderful people at the Cedar Grove Lodge, and I had a bus ticket to go from the edge of the park into the city. The only problem was that I had to get out of the park to a bus station over 30 miles away from a place where the closest thing to Uber is a donkey. Only one option: hitchhike. After $7 worth of quarters were eaten by this horribly antiquated contraption called a “pay phone”, I finally go through to Ohio. Now just to put into perspective, I am a 20-year-old, 115-pound girl, in a strange place, all alone, disgustingly sick and had to ask a stranger for a ride to a bus station. This may actually be the definition of unsafe. My mother also decided to remind me of this. After the pay phone had cut off our run around I-can-yell-louder, no-I-can-yell-louder phone call, I went to a bench by the river and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. Oh yeah and I sobbed some more. I was in a full three-year-old missing their teddy bear meltdown. And that my friends, is when it happened, like an angel sent by God himself, bathed in the golden midday sun of the river bank, Mamma Weasley asked if I was alright. Just like a three-year-old finding their teddy bear, I was shocked into calmness, for about five seconds. Once I tried explaining my situation I began to sob again; it is amazing she understood any of it at all, to be honest, or that I hadn’t died of fluid loss yet. But somehow that yellow haired ethereal spirit did understand my incoherent bawling babble and she spoke to most wondrous words to ever be spoken aloud: “We can give you a ride if you’d like.” Well, that was easy, I didn’t even have to put my thumb out, only cry and lose the little remaining pride I had left.

At 8 o’clock in the morning, the real life Weasleys picked me up. When I say the real life Weasleys, I mean it. First there were a million of them, all boys, one girl. Second they all had bright red hair and adorable faces covered with freckles. Now I know I am no Draco Malfoy, but they must have been Weasleys, Mormon Weasleys from California, who like to give stranded hikers rides to bus stations.

After a sickening bus ride up a winding road, an awkward shuttle ride to the hotel, an evening of nonstop showering, two long airplane rides and a billion tissues, I was finally home, again, after only being gone for 13 days.

I expected to use my STEP money to go on an amazing journey of pushing my physical limits, discovering the parts of myself I had never known existed, and to meet amazing people I would never forget. And, you know what, I did just that. Though it turned out much differently than what was on the itinerary, I had an amazing time that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I still feel that deep ache, I still wish I could have done what I originally set out to do, but I see this as an excuse to return one day to summit that great mountain, and to fill that ache that’s still there. This was not the journey I expected or wanted, but I feel like it was the unexpected journey that I needed.

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