“I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks that when you set out looking for the big answers in life, you gotta be as uncomfortable as possible when you do it.”
Warm blood dripped from my knee to ankle, the product of an unseen thorn hiding in the seemingly unending thicket of Rhododendron standing between me and a night of exhausted sleep. My feet screamed as hot-spots-turned-blisters protested step after step in stiff boots. The cone of light from my headlamp illuminated fellow group members ahead and behind, a crew of teenagers trudging slowly through the dark night. Our two instructors were nowhere to be found, though undoubtedly watching us from a distance as we tackled the student-led portion of our expedition. It was late, I was hungry and tired, and we were lost. I wanted nothing more than to pull my sleeping bag from my backpack and curl up under the gnarled, low-hanging Rhodo branches. I really didn’t want to hike any further, but quitting wasn’t an option.
Flash forward 15 years to the summer of 2014. It’s been a long day of hiking with heavy backpacks, and morale is sinking with the sun. With stomachs adjusted to meal times back at camp, our X-Craft backpackers were ready for dinner two hours ago. I’m at the back of the line this time as an instructor, encouraging a new generation of young outdoorspeople to continue moving toward this evening’s destination – the Walnut Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. The final mile to the shelter is a 700 foot ascent, a cruel reminder that this isn’t supposed to be easy. As we inch along up the hill, a camper tells me that she wants to stop; to pull out her sleeping bag and call it a day right here in the middle of the trail. “I’ve been there too,” I tell her, “and I believe in you.”
People spend time in the wilderness for a variety of different reasons. Some go for solitude, others to forge intimate connections with the land. While these things certainly play a role in my desire to spend days on end in the woods, my primary goal is to challenge myself; to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. My bed at home is squishy and wonderful, and I cook some pretty decent meals in my kitchen (and then throw my dishes in the dishwasher). Those things are great, but my best nights of sleep have been on the hard ground after long days on the trail. The most delicious meals I’ve tasted were made in a single pot on an ultra-light backpacking stove. Some of my most memorable sunsets were witnessed as I crouched near a river and scrubbed my dishes.
It’s not all pink skies and cool breezes, though. Sometimes we hike uphill for miles. Sometimes it rains for three days straight. And sometimes we spend nights shivering in a sleeping bag, counting the minutes until the sun crests the horizon. But that’s the thing – the sun always rises, and we always hike on. When things get uncomfortable, we get strong. And whether or not we realize it at the time, we all have the innate ability to persevere through tough situations.
When the X-Craft crew returned to campus after our 3-day on the Appalachian Trail we sat together and talked about our adventure. We’d all had a night of sleep off the ground, and remnants of the trail were washed away by hot showers. Our discussion found its way back to that first day and the seemingly never-ending trek to the Walnut Mountain Shelter. Several campers shared their doubts about making it to our campsite that night. They admitted that they wanted to quit. But they didn’t; they made it. And then they woke up, packed up their tarps, and hiked ten miles the next day. The campers beamed with pride as they re-lived the journey and their incredible accomplishments. They agreed that after this trek, anything was possible.
That’s it, you see. That’s the magic. When I was 16 and crawling through Rhododendron at 11pm with a heavy backpack and no idea when I’d get to eat or sleep, I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. After that experience I felt empowered, as though I could do anything. And now, a decade and a half later, I still feel that way. That situation gave me the faith in myself that I needed to push through tough days and face challenges with confidence, and it gave me the desire to help others learn in a similar way. The summer has ended and our long days on the trail have passed, but I believe there are a number of young people scattered across the country that will use their experiences at Eagle’s Nest as inspiration to make it through the uncomfortable and difficult situations they’ll encounter this year. My hope for them is that they will recall what it felt like to hike to the top of that mountain, to keep going when they didn’t think they could, and to remember that they are, in fact, capable of anything. Finally, I hope they’ll have the confidence to choose discomfort, as it always lends the greatest rewards (and the prettiest views).