Last spring, I decided to put my undesirably clean and unworn hiking boots to use. With a little financial help from a fellow outdoors enthusiast (thanks Gramps!), I ventured down to Asheville, N.C. to meet up with 10 strangers for an eight-day foray into the wilderness sponsored by an outdoor education school.
In eight days, our group traveled over 30 miles by foot through the southern tier of the Appalachian Mountains on the Bartram Trail and then almost 20 miles by canoe on the anything-but-tranquil Chattooga River. We made it to the second-highest peak in Georgia on the first night. It was atop that mountain that the learning began. Lesson No. 1: wear your hat to bed ‘cold” is the only season in the mountains, and it’s hard to breathe if you zip your sleeping bag up all the way.
Three days, 30 miles of hiking, eight hours of downpour, gallons of trail mix and one blood blister later, we had reached the edge of the Chattooga.
My learning curve on (or, maybe more appropriately, in) the river was much slower than it had been on land. For the first mile in the canoe, my partner and I could hardly go straight, let alone steer in a certain direction on purpose. I heard lesson No. 23 ‘Don’t grab the gunnel or you’ll tip!” on countless occasions, yet by the end of the trip, I had gotten very used to swimming through rapids.
Being the cheesy, journaling type, I had wanted to keep a log of everything I did and felt and saw during the trip so that I would never forget it.
After trekking uphill for five hours the first night, however, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.
My feet were too sore, my mind was too numb and my headlamp battery was too low (oops, I knew I should’ve sprung the extra 60 cents for Duracell).
But it ended up not mattering, because, by the time I was boarding the little puddle-jumper in Asheville to go home, I had been imbued with more than just a constellation of bruises on my legs and the good sense to always dress in layers. There was also a sense of fulfillment and contentment that I associated so strongly with the trip that I knew it would be hard to forget.
Even beyond that, there was also this feeling of empowerment that told me that I should, if nothing else, attempt to conquer my fears.
Six months have passed and, sadly, the feeling of empowerment has faded a little bit. That is, until Saturday, when I finally got fed up with the inevitable tower of empty coffee cups I assembled thanks to hours on end of doing work in Starbucks on Saturday afternoons and decided to go hiking in Letchworth State Park.
There, as I sat on a ledge overlooking the gorge, having lost my friends somewhere in the woods (no worries, they came out alive), that feeling of empowerment and fearlessness came rushing back. For a moment, I was back on the Chattooga, paddling hard to steer to the left in an attempt to avoid a rock and hearing the shout of one of the guides echoing behind me.
Lesson No. 29: if you are about to hit a rock with the side of your canoe, don’t lean away from the rock. Lean toward it.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.