Surviving 26 Days in the High Sierras

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In a single file line, I found myself walking on a rocky path with a breathtaking lake to my right and enormous mountains and boulders to my left. Soul food, as my mom would say. As lovely as the views were, I felt almost positive that I would die in this god-forsaken wilderness.

Anyone who knows me will say that the outdoors, much less hiking and I just don’t mix. I’ve always felt perfectly content sticking to my swim practices and occasional trips to the gym. I don’t hate nature or the outdoors, I just don’t enjoy walking uphill for miles drenched in my own sweat. I mean, does anyone?

My high school didn’t give me much of a choice, leaving me with two options: brave the wilderness or not graduate. Known as the Athenian Wilderness Experience, one of my high school graduation requirements involved spending 26 days backpacking in the High Sierras with my classmates. That meant 50-pound packs, no tech, no tents, no showers and definitely no Starbucks.

We were pushed to the brink of our comfort zones, constantly challenged to redefine what mattered to us. Even outdoors, some of us found ways to act selfishly, and in many ways I did. With blistered, sore feet, muscles screaming and tears running down my face, I had no idea how I would make it back home. Forget about trying to act like a team player for my group.

With every step, I dreamt of sipping an iced coffee or relaxing on a soft couch, watching an episode of Parks and Rec. Instead, I found myself face to face with the beating sun and relentless mosquitos. I stood at the base of mountains gazing up, unsure of the struggles the next seven or eight hours would bring.

Halfway through the trip, our itinerary called for three solo days. I was completely alone with only my thoughts for company. I looked around in shock. For two weeks I hiked with my head down, hands clenched in determination to make it home and be done. When I finally lifted my head and took a deep breath, I finally saw the lush forest that surrounded me. I breathed in the cool mountain air that enveloped me at night and spent hours lost, gazing into the crystal clear, starry night sky.

The next day I walked down to a river and sat there, wading and relishing the ice cold water on my swollen feet. Transfixed, I watched as layers of dirt washed away in the water. I literally sat in the middle of nowhere, a place where only a few hundred people traveled to every year. I finally grasped the unique opportunity before me. And I had wasted it until now.

Rejoining my group two days later, I felt invigorated. No, I didn’t grow to love hiking. Instead, I learned to live in the moment, to take things as they came. Though I never completely mastered it, I tried my best to put the needs of my group over my own. I learned that sometimes you’re presented with shitty situations, (ex: forgetting to pack breakfast on a day you’re supposed to scale a mountain), but in order to succeed, you need to take a deep breath and keep walking.

I didn’t realize how much this trip changed me until almost a year after returning home from the High Sierras. Sitting in math class, I felt stressed out of my mind and really and truly missed my backpacking experience. I missed the serenity and the silence, the pure air and the sunsets that ceased to take my breath away. I never thought that would happen.

The Athenian Wilderness Experience showed me I that I held so much more strength within me than I ever thought possible. If I could hike 10 miles with a massive backpack, climb mountains and cross rivers, what was another math test? For a brief 26 days, I disconnected from everything and everyone except for my group of nine. Very few people will ever experience that in today’s world.

Coming to college I felt terrified; moving across the country alone wasn’t something I took lightly. The night before my flight to school, my mom reminded me of everything that I accomplished in the High Sierras. I problem solved and hiked and navigated and cooked and tied knots, I climbed mountains and walked through valleys and sweat profusely all day only to freeze at night. What was moving across the country compared to that?

Emma is a Sophomore at American University in Washington DC studying Strategic Communications and Business. She loves photography, swimming, being outdoors, and searching for the perfect sushi roll.

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