Before college, I had always loved playing outside and fraternizing with the natural world, but only in the past few years have I begun really probing that. Through Pittsburgh Connections and the Explorers Club, I've gone skydiving, rock climbing, caving, horseback riding, hiking, camping, skiing, whitewater rafting, and I think that's it. It's been an amazing time, and I'm very grateful for all of the friends who dragged me along to these with a nudge and a "Just try it!".
This week, I added backpacking to that list. I went on a 16-person trip to North Carolina with a couple of friends and a lot of strangers, and we spent five days and four nights together in the Blue Mountains, many of us trying this for the first time. Over those few days, I learned a lot.
The first night was easy: we huddled by the fire and feasted with wide-eyed ambition, knowing that whatever we didn't eat we would have to carry on our backs. Very quickly though, I learned how fragile we are as humans. The farther we get from urban sprawl, the sooner our priorities get whittled down to food, water, shelter, and warmth.
The next day, we heard from some friendly passers-by that fresh water was near, so we trekked to refill. With vague verbal directions, our confident hunt for water became a dubious adventure, with talk of conserving our remaining supply and debating when to give up and turn around. We ran into a pair of dehydrated backpackers on the same quest who were in much worse shape than we were. Together, we found a trickling stream and filled up our empty bottles, an ounce of filtered water at a time.
That night, we ate the last of our S'mores around the fire, ready to trek down to the gorge in the morning.
We settled at a riverside campsite in the gorge before a rough night. To start things off, one of our tent poles broke during assembly, leaving a droopy, half-hearted shell between us and the weather. It rained from around 6 pm until 6 am the next day - I know because I was awake for all of it. My sleeping bag got very wet, and it diffused through to my skin over the course of the night. From Wilderness First Aid training I knew that if I got so cold that I stopped shivering, that would be very bad. In the race between my residual warmth and sunrise, the sun won.
But that's not what saved me. It was my pack. My tribe. The people around me, and their skills and resources. Jack had stored dry leaves, tinder, and logs under a rock overnight and he started a fire. Ava gave me her spare dry shirt. I wasn't the only one who had a rough night, but in the morning, we fragile strangers came together and united against the situation we had thrown ourselves into.
We settled on an agenda for the next couple of days. Ava, the seasoned adventurer, assured me that nothing would go according to plan. The surprise blizzard the next day proved her right.
Among the struggles were some really beautiful moments. A mountain sunset, thoughtful conversations, pure unselfish cooperation, new friendships.
That's why it's all worth it. It's empowering - to know that you can go to the woods and come back not just okay, but stronger and happier, with a fresh perspective. I'm so thankful for all of these luxuries I often take for granted.
When reuniting with a friend upon my return, she asked the usual, "How are you?".
I said the first thing that came to mind.