Five miles into a hike on Yosemite’s Mist Trail, I stopped and panted, wondering whether I should (or could) continue for the rest of the planned twelve miles. I tried to fend off disappointment in myself as I pondered, recalling a similar crossroads I encountered twelve years prior during my first ever backpacking trip.
I was the quintessentially troubled suburban 13-year-old, perpetually grumpy and unrelentingly selfish. I fancied myself a punk rocker, my Hot Topic wardrobe and obsession with Green Day betraying any legit association I had with the genre.
That only aspect of disenfranchised youth I could authentically claim was that I was super sad, and I blamed the world for it. My mom, sensing I was heading down a dangerous path, signed me up for a month of backpacking with Adventures Cross Country, an outfitter that sends groups of teens (troubled and otherwise) to various parts of the world to learn outdoors skills, and in my case, how-to-be-a-functioning-human-being skills.
My particular trip was in British Columbia, and there I braved the Canadian wilderness while taking a good hard look at myself, and who I was becoming. On the first excursion, one that would take me five days through the Mt. Garibalidi area, I paused mid-switchback and wondered if I could keep going. Not only mentally, but physically, emotionally. I wasn’t prepared for what I had gotten into, and I couldn’t see my way out of it.(Garibaldi Lake, photo by Ali Wunderman)
Because I had no other option, I kept going (we won’t discuss the frantic collect calls home begging my mom to fetch me). Fortunately by the end of my four week stint deep in the heart of nature, I had become self-aware enough to identify where I was going wrong, and the steps I needed to take to rectify it.
I credit many factors with my teenager epiphany, including the transformative influence of nature, the humbling power of physical exertion, and the shock of being thrown into a group of strangers and having to work together with them. I went on to attend two more Adventures Cross Country trips during my teenhood, cementing the desire for my travel experiences to emulate this format: nature, movement, and like-minded strangers.
As my youth turned into adulthood, I traded outdoor adventures for grown up responsibilities. It didn’t help that I went to college in a rural area, and chose to express my newfound independence by eating Lucky Charms every day. My love of nature never diminished but the opportunities to experience it did, and with it my level of athleticism.
When I did manage to make it out into the wild, my escapades were typically self-directed and short-lived, and I rarely made any new friends in the process. Suffice it to say they weren’t anything like the experiences I coveted as a teenager, and I certainly wasn’t as fit as I once was, making my attempts at adventuring all the more frustrating.
Fast forward to today where I’m an urban professional with too many phones and not enough free time, like some kind of a sitcom stereotype. When the weekends roll around, I’m tempted to get out there, but if there’s one thing I’m good at it’s coming up with excuses to not exercise. The more excuses I make, the more out of shape I get, and the harder it is to get back into it. It’s a vicious cycle, let me tell you.
When a friend of mine posted online about her experience camping with Trail Mavens, I was extremely intrigued. She described it as an honest to goodness outdoor adventure, a group of women gathered together over a weekend to learn outdoors skills, experience nature, and make new friends. And drink wine.
Knowing it was just for women gave me the confidence I needed to sign up - I’ve done enough co-ed camping trips to know that mixing genders can make it hard to guarantee a safe space for women to fail.
I ended up booking the Labor Day Yosemite trip, since I haven’t been there in a long time, and it happened to be one of the weekends I wasn’t busy with an event related to my sister’s upcoming wedding. Plus it was two months out, so I had ample time to say I was going to exercise, and then not do it.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say I became a hot-bodied yogi, the envy of all the #fitspiration Instagrammers. The truth is I upped my exercise regime from none to minimal, which brings us back to one of my many belabored breaks taken along Yosemite’s Mist Trail.(photo by Sasha Cox)
I knew I was slowing everyone down; my pace laughable compared with the lightning speed of the marathon runners with whom I was traveling. It wasn’t for their lack of support – despite the stark variation in our fitness levels, the other women made no matter of it, staying with me when they could and congratulating me as I pushed myself onward. Even with their belief in me that I could complete the hike as planned, a belief which I shared, it was realistic to assume that my snail’s pace would put us well behind schedule, dangerous with the amount of trail left to cover in the amount of daylight provided.
I didn’t finish my hike.
Instead I opted to turn off at the John Muir trail, hiking up and down 4-5 more miles of switchbacks, leaving the rest of the Mavens to explore the Panoramic Trail without me.
Surely the Nikes and Shia LaBeoufs of the world would be disappointed with my inability to “just do it,” but I’m actually pretty proud of how far I made it (about 9 miles and over 1500 feet in elevation gain), as well as my decision to not exacerbate an already tricky situation.
We are constantly fed stories about how people push through their barriers to achieve what they never thought possible, and in many ways I did do that, just not to the extent that a heartwarming movie might require. Those stories certainly play their role, but there’s room to hear about people reaching and challenging their limits, and still having to turn it in before they anticipated.(photo by Sasha Cox)
As my triumphant return to fitness can teach us, physical aptitude is a journey, and my 9 miles were just a part of that process. The fact that turning around didn’t make me weep out of embarrassment is an accomplishment in itself, and I credit Trail Mavens staff and participants for ensuring I felt supported even when making a challenging decision.
The whole philosophy behind Trail Mavens is to create an environment in which women feel comfortable tackling outdoor skills, and CEO Sasha Cox, who was on the trip with me, embodied this spirit. Over three days she deftly showed my group how to raise a tent, keep bears (and Park Rangers) from bothering you, and why it’s worth it to spend a few extra minutes testing out potential hiking boots. Though she was our leader, she created no sense of hierarchy, instead she facilitated a cooperative vibe that made no one feel like their knowledge base was not enough.
In addition to the big hike, Sasha kept our schedule chock full of short treks, camp stove and fire building classes, campfire games, and so much more. I was grateful to belong to this group of women, whose ages ranged across generations, and whose hometowns spanned the country. Everyone was wholeheartedly non-competitive, something that can be hard to achieve in co-ed groups. I appreciated the safe space that was provided as I made my foray back into physical activity, and for those in the group raised in households where only the men were given the opportunity to become skilled in the outdoors.
It’s no surprise that I left Yosemite with new friends, reinforced backpacking skills, and the reminder that every kind of person can gain something from bounding into the wilderness.
I am confident there is always something to be learned on the trail. I’ve finished and faltered, continued and conceded, but each time I’ve gone into nature I have come back a better version of myself. Whether it was transforming my morose 13 year old self into someone a little more mature, or reminding 25 year old me that it’s never too late to get back in the game, nature will never cease having the power to teach.
We all want to feel like Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” to discover our true selves in the context of nature’s breadth and physical exertion’s depth. But before I disappear alone into the PCT, before I give up every last notion of the material world in pursuit of cosmic revelation, I’m glad I have the option to add weekend micro-adventures into my normal life in order to practically build and sustain a thirst for the wilderness.
My backpacking journey is only just beginning anew, but I’m nine miles ahead of where I was last year.
Ali Wunderman is a travel writer. She’s recently been published by Jezebel’s FlyGirl. She also has her own travel blog, and a personal blog where she can’t help but touch on travel topics.