Since Europe is still more than a month away, I figured it would be helpful (and fun! ) to tell some stories about other trips I’ve been on. This one is from the summer after my sophomore year of college. For anybody interested, the program is called Wildland Studies – I highly recommend it!
A drop of rain, cold as ice, manages to find a way inside my tightly zipped jacket, trickling a triumphant path down my spine. As the skies above continue to dump torrents of water on us, more beads of water follow. Water, sweat – at this point I don’t know what it all is; everyone in our group, myself included, is hustling as fast as they can. I’m trekking across the top of a mountain with fifteen other people I’d just met a week and a half before. We’ve all got backpacks of at least 30 pounds, making running clumsy. Oh, and did I mention – we’re in the middle of a lightning storm that seems intent on killing all of us? In the middle of bear country?
I’ve always been a nature girl, which seems at odds with the fact that I like dressing fashionably and enjoy trips to any big city. Those who know me may say I’m more cosmopolitan, but my roots – and my heart – belong to the woods. So when I heard about a program through CSU Monterey Bay that set up trips all around the world for college students looking to get into nature, I was stoked. I didn’t have anything else to do that summer, so why not?
Many of the trips included backpacking, which I’d never done, so I wanted to start small. The program in Yellowstone National Park was far from California, but not too far, and would be two weeks long.
The first week in Yellowstone was spent in the actual park. We camped by a river for 6 days, using that as a base from which we set out everyday. Each morning usually started out with an early wakeup – 5am – before driving to a popular spot for wolf watching. The sun rose to shine on our backs as we talked and laughed at how funny we looked squinting through binoculars. Only two mornings actually yielded any successful wolf sightings, and there’s a certain kind of beauty watching a small group of wolves descend the hillside like a bunch of wraiths.
Other than those mornings, the rest of our days were quite different. One day was spent touring a bison management facility on the outskirts of the park; the next was a ~6 mile hike along a ridge that we dubbed 100 Shed Ridge, due to all of the antlers we found that herds of elk have shed there. Lunches were spent anywhere from a field of wildflowers to the big white van we drove around in. We visited an abandoned wolf den, laid down in a bear nest (a large, circular swath of grass that a bear had matted down and slept on), and swam in a section of river famous for having both hot and cold water.
The second week would be a 25-mile backpacking trip through the Greater Yellowstone Area. We’d be trekking through what is dubbed “bear country.” The weather conditions were unknown and could range from 95 degree days to cold and rainy. None of this scared me as much as the idea of carrying a 30lb backpack for 5.5 days of almost nonstop walking.
I learned a lot that week about survival and limits. I learned that, while I’m not terribly athletic, I possess the determination and endurance to continue hiking even when I’m tired and every single one of my muscles hurt. I learned that four girls should not share a two person tent (and I learned that when you do, there are problems but also a ton of laughs). And, finally, I learned that shitting in the woods is a lot easier for the bears. In fact, it downright sucks for a human.
Our run in with the lightning happened in the middle of a day of hiking. We weren’t close to a campsite; in fact, we were still several miles away. We’d spent the morning climbing up one side of a mountain, and when we reached the top we’d descend the other side as we trekked toward Fish Lake. So far during this second week, the weather hadn’t been our friend. We spent a dreary and wet Fourth of July camped on the edge of a lake, waiting for the rain to stop so we could light a fire and dry off. The climb up the mountain had been drizzly, but not overly cold. We covered our packs and our heads, fighting to stay cheery despite everything.
We reached a leveled off clearing at the top, emerging from the thick trees. There was water and wind coming at us on all sides. For 100-200 yards, we were in the open with no trees overhead. This fact became terrifying as lightning flashed right above us. I’d taken enough science/bio classes to know that when there’s lighting, being a human in an open field is potentially a recipe for disaster. We were about to become targets, but we didn’t hesitate. We took off, running for the tree line in the distance. I remember the burn in my legs, and the noise: my head was filled with thunder and I didn’t know if anyone was speaking. The only thing coming out of my mouth was a yell, like I was headed into battle.
I don’t remember actively thinking, “I could die right now, right here, on top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere.” But I do recall the bolt of lightning that came down, not a hundred yards from our group, and struck a tree. My pack became weightless and any soreness disappeared as we b0lted into the shelter of the trees.
It is amazing how easily a group of people can go from scared shitless one second to laughing the next. We still had miles to go that day, but it didn’t matter: we were alive. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life; now, I’m on to an even bigger one.
xoxo until next time,