My STEP Signature Project was a photography project and hiking trip along parts of the Appalachian Trail. I spent 10 days driving and hiking, and I visited 8 of the 14 states that make up the AT.
As I reread my STEP proposal and attempt to write this reflection, I realize how immensely I underestimated the impact this project could have on me. In my proposal I wrote that I wanted to learn how to love the unknown and try new things—a superficial exposure to the wilderness at best. Looking back, I never expected to learn so much about myself. While researching day hikes and other sights to see on my trip, I came across a photo that was captioned “do one thing a day that scares you.” This became somewhat of a motto for myself during the trip; it was ultimately the root of my transformation. My idea of the transformation that would occur was to expand the “single story” I had been told about the world (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) into many stories that I myself have witnessed.
Enthusiasm and excitement reached an all-time high as I submitted my proposal on the day of the deadline. I was giddy with anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve, until my backpack and laptop were stolen the next day, along with my hand written notes researching day hikes and destinations. I felt discouraged; my months of planning had been snatched from me in the blink of an eye. Luckily, the trip turned into a spontaneous, day by day excursion. This allowed me to incorporate advice on must-see day hike destinations from fellow AT hikers and locals, and ultimately made the trip much more meaningful. This experience taught me to live more freely and venture out of my comfort zone. I was incredibly overwhelmed in the beginning of the trip, nearly alone in a massive forest; it was a world completely unfamiliar to me. I found myself questioning my decision to take this trip due to the threat of bears, snakes, dehydration, and getting lost – just to name a few. Despite my uneasiness, I was for the first time in my life able to step away from daily stressors and fully enjoy something that was entirely my own. It was liberating, although terrifying. I had the opportunity to express myself through photography, with the most beautiful views of our country as my focus. My only deadline was a sliver of the mountain sunset; my only worry was that I could never see it all.
One of the most impactful aspects of this experience was interacting with such a variety of hikers on the AT. Some of the most noteworthy of these were thru hikers, whom I encountered only briefly on their journey of over two thousand miles. The immensity of the trail encompassed such a wide array of hikers, all walking for different reasons that I never felt the need to inquire during my time with them. Their dedication to their cause for the hike was admirable. Whether in search of the solace in solitude or the company of fellow hikers, the same footpath connected each and every one of them.
On the day of my first strenuous, long hike, I met two exceptionally experienced hikers. We crossed paths on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee after running into a black bear cub, and proceeded to hike the entire 10 miles together that day. These hikers were camping for the weekend, living the life that I hoped this trip would teach me to one day live. They lived in the moment, spent more time outdoors than in, took time to appreciate nature instead of a computer screen—I’d never met anyone as genuinely happy. During our hike, they told me stories of their journey as small business owners and frequent adventurers. They shared how they had changed careers and travelled from town to town in order to experience more and more of the world. All along, they’d lived a dream they did not know was their own.
When I was thirteen years old, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I have never seen it as a disability, nor have I let it interfere with living an adventurous, active life. Many people, however, diabetic or not, challenge this attitude. I made it a point to call attention to this during my trip by taking photos wearing a JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) Walk for the Cure shirt. I hoped my journey could inspire just one individual who had let their condition become a disability. I plan to contact JDRF with these photos in attempt to advocate for anyone who lets diabetes hold them back in any way. In this way, my project has not only transformed and inspired me, but intends to inspire others as well.
I heard the stories of many incredible people while on my trip and added them to my previously single story. In doing so, I witnessed a kind of happiness I’d never known before. A happiness that can only be found when doing what you love. Spending time with these other hikers made me realize their reason for walking was not necessarily because the trail held a meaning deeply personal, nor that hiking its entirety was a life-long goal. Without prying or intruding, I came to realize that their reasons were nothing greater than just because they wanted to. This simple idea is foreign when living among the constant need to improve, to succeed, to always be moving faster and further ahead. While living beyond these restraints, away from technology and other people, I not only added others’ stories to mine, but told my story to the world from a mountain’s peak.
In a silence found only in a forest, the true significance of my trip became clear to me. This solitude was overwhelming to me at first—I was unable to wrap my mind around how small I am in this world. The same, intimidating solitude is what guided me through an introspection I’d never undergone. Stepping away from my normal life forced me to see it from an outsider’s perspective, and here’s what I saw. It’s easy to get stuck in a predictable, repetitive, daily routine. The problem I’ve encountered with routines is that they leave me avoiding challenges and failing to reach my full potential. Consequently, I become stuck in my comfort zone and stop growing as an individual. I make excuses for why my life isn’t how I want it to be, rather than take action and demand change. My routine is rarely questioned because it makes me feel safe.
My STEP Signature Project broke down the confining walls of a daily routine. It taught me to live in the moment, to embrace novelty rather than consistency. It served as an example that I am never too busy to take some time off, that enjoying myself is beneficial in a multitude of ways. It taught me a skill that a hectic schedule has conditioned me to overlook. It gave me experience that can not be acquired from a classroom or internship. I had a very limited idea of how I could improve myself by taking this trip, but I knew my life lacked something more. By seeking out more, I learned the magnitude of time spent alone, of valuing myself, and of a healthy change of scenery.