What aspect of the outdoors do you connect with the most?
Honestly, my first semesters here at OSU were a complete mess. I was an incredibly awkward kid throughout high school and rarely went out with friends, and so going into college I was completely unprepared for how different an experience it is. There were so many opportunities available and it was so easy to hang out with people all the time that I took every opportunity I could. This led to some fun times of course, but it came at the cost of becoming incredibly complacent at the classes that were the whole reason I was there, and inside I would later realize I wasn’t personally satisfied at all. I would skip so many classes if I was even a little tired and check my phone all the time in the classes I did go to, reasoning that I could just look through the notes online later. That’s how I ended up with a 0.9 GPA after my first semester, which should’ve put me in my place but it only barely did. I got marginally better going into sophomore year but the habits were all still there, and by the end of sophomore year I’d raised my GPA to literally 2.01, only barely above the mark for being allowed to stay at OSU.
However, during sophomore year I got the chance to participate in the STEP program and do a project of my choice. Early on my cohort leader mentioned the High Sierra Leadership Expedition, a 28 day trip centered around 22 days of backpacking over 162 miles through the High Sierra Mountains, California. I knew I wanted to do a trip of some sort, so I looked at other trips and study abroad options available, but with things like Australia or Europe costing thousands of dollars over the award grant, and two parents working minimum wage jobs, I knew none of those would be feasible. The High Sierra Leadership Expedition stayed in my mind all year though, and after finding out its cost equaled the grant awarded, it would appear the stars had aligned. I could always see buildings in other countries any time, but this would genuinely be a once in a lifetime opportunity. So it was I ended up going on a month long outdoor expedition having never backpacked before.
During the summer the 14 of us finally flew off to California to begin our journey. We kicked things off with three days of front country camping, seeing some cool things like General Sherman and other redwoods then seeing Yosemite. It was all a very nice, carefree time pretty close to what I had pictured. On the fourth morning we finally began the actual backpacking that would take up our next 22 days, and I was in for the rudest awakening I’d ever been in for in my entire life. Those first 15 minutes finally carrying our 50+ lbs. of supplies are the most brutal I can remember. I can vividly remember the stark realization that this was going to be the next month of my life, and seriously thinking I might have to give up soon because there was no way I could keep this up. I remember being so self-conscious that I must be so much weaker than everyone else. Pretty shortly after that we took our first break to have some water and catch our breath and it was pretty clear most of us were just as tired as I was, which was pretty reassuring. We were all in this together.
The first couple of days were pretty rough, but we were getting the hang of things. We only travelled around 4-8 miles a day in those early goings and looking back it was a great way to build ourselves up. On the 13th day our group dynamic shifted a bit and we were able to be a bit more independent. Until then we’d all travelled as a group, taking breaks as need be in one big line, but starting the 13th day we let people walk at their own pace until we all reached pre-planned markers, such as mountain passes or camping sites. This day we planned to meet at the top of a segment of trail called the Golden Staircase; I remember it vividly because this is when everything about backpacking just clicked for me. I was genuinely starting to enjoy the work we were putting into to climb all these mountains and I was so happy just trucking up this trail. Just 12 days before I’d been thinking I might have to give up early on, and now here I was barely even tired and having the time of my life. I genuinely mean it when I say I’ve never felt better in my life than when I was climbing up the Golden Staircase that day. Reaching the top was so incredibly satisfying, and of course it didn’t hurt that the views were some of the most beautiful of the entire trip.
This rest of the trip was smooth sailing from there. It felt like we went going over pass after pass, often hiking between 10-16 miles a day, and I was loving every minute of it. I even got to lead the group for a pair of days during this period. All this culminated in climbing Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, which was pretty surreal. I was so incredibly thankful that I could experience that moment and that every part of the trip despite everything I’d been through.
So in the end, I’d say the part of my outdoors experience that I connected with the most was that I couldn’t give up, no matter how much I wanted to. I thought this trip would help put me in the right place by giving me a chance to clear my mind and relax, but instead it put me in the right place by challenging me every single moment of the day and putting me through the most physically intensive experience I’d been through. Everything in the outdoors was so simple and clear, you have to make sure everyone gets from Point A to Point B, make sure everyone has water, make sure everyone has their roles, and so on, all the while there was absolutely no giving up. This simplicity really helped put everything in perspective for me, and every semester since then I’ve done better than every semester before by a great margin. There was no more coasting through life, just as there had been no coasting through that trip. There was no more putting things off for later, just as I couldn’t put things off for later on that trip. I learned that to not just reach life’s rewards but to feel personal satisfaction inside, I would really have to put in the effort to work through things and there could be no giving up.