“The Mountains are Calling, and I Must Go.”

My STEP Signature Project was a 27 day backpacking adventure through Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia and Inyo National Parks in California. My trip’s focal experience was Leadership, and we demonstrated leadership primarily through being “Leader-of-the-Day,” the day on the trip where each student had the chance to be in charge of the group for the day. Responsibilities included monitoring the morale of the group, arranging camping and eating locations, tracking elevation and weather conditions, teaching the group a wilderness skill and about a leadership theory (mine was Behavioral Theory).

The purpose behind STEP Signature Projects, and STEP in general, is that you leave the program transformed or changed in some manner. For me, this change can be seen in my appreciation for solitude, for being a small part of a much larger world, public parks and the environment, and that sometimes the best leadership can be demonstrated through being a good follower. Before this trip, I do not know if I could honestly tell you that I enjoyed being alone. Being by myself bored me – outside of reading a novel or newspaper. Afterwards though, I relish in having a bit of alone time each day, in which I can ride my bike, read, pray or think.

The purpose behind STEP Signature Projects, and STEP in general, is that you leave the program transformed or changed in some manner. For me, this change can be seen in my appreciation for solitude, for being a small part of a much larger world, public parks and the environment, and that sometimes the best leadership can be demonstrated through being a good follower. Before this trip, I do not know if I could honestly tell you that I enjoyed being alone. Being by myself bored me – outside of reading a novel or newspaper. Afterwards though, I relish in having a bit of alone time each day, in which I can ride my bike, read, pray or think.

Surrounded by mountains for four weeks certainly makes one feel small. Really small. It is humbling to realize that the world is so much bigger than I had ever imagined, even though I had read and seen maps and pictures. But realizing my smallness led me to become an advocate for public parks and the environment, because I was able to feel the impact of being in those spaces, and how valuable those places are for learning, self-reflection and widening one’s worldview.

Appreciating solitude was not easy in the beginning, but it was something that grew on me as the trip wore on. Being in the backwoods of the American wilderness with the same group of twelve people for such a duration makes one seek solitude. Daily required “silent times” allowed each participant the opportunity to reflect separately from the group setting. These times were relished, as these were the moments that I took to pray – for my group, for patience, for my family & friends back home, for strength, and for wisdom -, to read – to lose myself in a novel, giving my mind a break -, and to explore my surroundings.

One particular memory that sticks in my mind to this day is camping at Dollar Lake. We stopped hiking mid-afternoon due to unceasing rain, and we parked next to a little mountain lake to spend the night. While the rest of my fellow backpackers crawled into their tents, I climbed up to the top of a nearby ridge. Arriving at the top, I turned and looked all around at the most captivating view of my life. I heard bubbling mountain streams rushing from the peaks, gaped as craggy stone mountains glistened under the rain and sun peeking out from the clouds, and noticed the stillness of the trees and lakes shimmering below. I had a heart-to-heart conversation with God on top of that ridge, which calmed and cleansed me.

Appreciating public parks and the environment came easily out in the Californian wilderness. On one of the first days, we toured Yosemite and got to stand next to the giant redwoods. As we stood looking at the trees, we were standing on the outline of one of the biggest redwoods that had been engraved on the stone path – we had the entire group standing inside of it, with room to spare. Another moment was the sunset at the Guitar Lake. I have attached that picture; no description that I can write will be worthy of that view. That is why I appreciate public parks and the environment all that much more passionately. I will include the evening at Charlotte Lake as yet another poignant example of environmental beauty. The lake, with Mount Bago rising majestically behind it, was the perfect setting for a cool evening in the woods. The water entertained us as we skipped stones across it, and the wooded site was ideal for hanging up my hammock.

I had always appreciated a good follower growing up and taking part in leadership roles. This adventure brought home the importance of me fulfilling the follower role. Our group comprised individuals with a varying level of camping, backpacking, and outdoors experience. One of the first leaders-of-the-day, who had limited outdoors experience, was stuck with a dilemma of where to camp for the night. After several minutes of tense discussion, I told him that whatever decision he made I would firmly stand by him, even if it was not the option that I wanted. This gave him the confidence to make a decision just a few moments later. I also learned that being a good follower is not being a blind follower. That is, there is a necessary questioning of the leader and his or hers line of reasoning or thinking that can help them grow and better serve the group.

But does this experience actually mean anything? I definitely think so. I recently wrapped up my internship with The Wilderness Society, in which we ran a “Protect Our Parks” campaign. Before this trip, I enjoyed the outdoors, but I was not an active advocate for protecting those places. After this trip, I felt a desire to help protect these places so that others could share in these experiences in the future. I bought a bicycle when I got back, and now I go biking along the Olentangy Trail and around Columbus. Having a bicycle has opened up more outdoor opportunities, especially living in an urban setting.

As for the future, I plan on working with NextGen Climate this summer here in Columbus. NextGen is an environmental advocacy organization based out of San Francisco. By working with them, I would have the opportunity to continue with environmental organizing as I did this past semester working with The Wilderness Society.

In closing, this trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. I further developed my leadership, which is now being applied to environmental advocacy. This is a new direction career-wise than where I was previously headed, but I find this work both invigorating and necessary. I do not know if I would be in the position that I am in today if it was not for being a part of STEP.

All geared up a few days into the trip (somewhere between Twin Lakes and Ranger Lake)

All geared up a few days into the trip (somewhere between Twin Lakes and Ranger Lake)                         

Guitar Lake, a few days before summiting Mt. Whitney

Guitar Lake, a few days before summiting Mt. Whitney

Exploring Granite Basin

Exploring Granite Basin

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