Last fall break, I went home, cuddled with my dog, watched lots of Netflix, and didn't practice piano as much as I probably should have. This fall break, I also didn't practice as much as I probably should have, not because I was too lazy to get off my couch but because I was busy hiking a 44-mile loop through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. While those 44 miles are probably the most intense physical activity I've ever put my body through, the experience was incredible.
So how did this practice room-inhabiting, fairly unathletic, inexperienced sophomore end up spending six days of my break in the Smokies? Every spring and fall break, the Oberlin Outings Club organizes a variety of hiking/backpacking/camping trips across the US. Backpacking trips cost $100 and canoeing trips are usually slightly more, with a no questions asked financial aid policy. As someone who loves the outdoors, signing up for an outings club trip seemed like a great chance for me to try something new, take a breath in the midst of this crazy semester, and meet new people, especially since I tend to spend most of my time in the conservatory.
I could never have prepared myself for the amount of physical and mental strength that week required of me. After a huge upward climb on Day 2, followed by 12 miles and a great downward stretch, my feet were blistered, my hips bruised, and my legs sore. I didn't know how I was going to be able to keep going for four more days. But I did. We all did. There were always unexpected complications, things not going as planned, including but not limited to the brownies we tried cooking on Day 5, which turned into a delicious chocolatey goo instead. On a more serious note, on Day 4 I tripped unexpectedly and hit my head on the ground at the beginning of our 8 miles. Feeling completely off-balance and dizzy, I had no clue how I was going to make it that far. Luckily, my group was full of some of the kindest, most supportive people. When I continued to struggle, they offered to take some of the weight off my back, go a little slower, and eventually we even shortened our path due to everyone being exhausted after our 2,000-foot upward climb.
There was a wonderful simplicity about being out in the middle of the mountains with a group of people I had only met a week ago: we read stories around the fire, played many games and swam in many streams, taught each other a variety of songs and lullabies, met and talked with so many interesting people along the trail: a group of Wheaton College students, three people who have been hiking since June (?!?!), two kind professors, a whole lot of hikers who were much too surprised to see seven females roughin' it in the wild...and even an incredibly kind old man who played his recorder along with one of our lullabies.
Also, enjoy these randomly placed photos of this lovely stream:
However, there were also some less relaxing moments during the trip. On Day 4, signs were strewn across our campsite with big bold letters reading "DANGER: ACTIVE BEAR AREA," but being that it was the only place nearby with water, we had to stay. That night as I was curled up in my hammock, I was woken by two bear cries, a rattling of the bear cables from which we hung our food, and a lot of heavy footsteps around our campsite...
Then, on the night of Day 5, it started pouring rain. Despite the fact that I had draped a rain tarp over my hammock, I still woke up soaking wet and freezing cold. I ended up spending the rest of the night sitting cross-legged under a shelter with my forehead in the dirt, just trying to keep my feet warm and stop shivering.
But despite having to endure those few rough patches, I loved the Smokies. They were absolutely beautiful in Autumn. I had to remember to look up from my feet every once in awhile to take in the gorgeous array of colors falling from the trees.
It was nice to arrive at our campsite in the afternoon after a full morning of hiking and be able to lie in my hammock, gaze up at the tops of the trees and listen to the unfamiliar sounds around me without any responsibilities, worries, or distractions -- just total peace.
Not to mention, cooking in the woods was a joy because somehow everything managed to taste good, even when our lunches were mostly just tortillas filled with peanut butter and honey (I'm pretty sure we actually packed 60+ tortillas, no regrets). We managed to transform our simple foods by getting pretty creative with spices, which is why I ended up smelling like nutritional yeast for six days.
It was strange to arrive back in Oberlin, where I no longer had to worry about purifying my own water, rationing my food so I didn't run out, or hiking eight miles to get to our next campsite. Two days earlier, we had been worried about not finding water...and suddenly I was preparing for my piano lesson? It was an odd adjustment. When I recount to some of my friends the insane experiences I had on this trip, some of them tell me it sounds like the most miserable fall break. But when I look back on my fall break, I see it as one incredible adventure.
Spending a week out in the wilderness made me realize just how small my worries are in the huge scope of things. Even when I put on the heaviest backpack I've ever carried and started up the trail, it was still as if I was freeing myself of all the weight I had been carrying around all semester. I didn't have to worry about things like the dirt in my burrito, the ants in my backpack, the tons of scratches on my arm, or the fact that I hadn't showered for a week. Before the trip, I was a bit anxious about being away from the piano and organ for a week, but it ended up being so regenerative.
Doing something like this was a leap out of my comfort zone. I realized I am stronger than I think and am forever grateful that I pushed myself out into the uncomfortable this fall break. I made six wonderful new friends and have come back with a clearer head, realizing that the daily stressors that seem to stand before me like mountains don't even compare to the size of the Smokies. When I packed up my hammock, I also made sure to pack up that feeling of peace that I felt when I was gazing up at the tops of the trees. I want to retain that sense of peace this semester, even through the busiest days. So next time I'm afraid I won't survive an exam, I'll just remind myself of that time we all kind of survived a bear.