You Don’t Have to Hike Alone: Finding Community in the Outdoors

I spent most of my time outside as a kid. I climbed on my swingset and built tree forts and ziplines and played army in our one-acre backyard. On family vacations we went on quick hikes, rode on old trains with steam and branches and breeze whisping through the open cars, and parked at every scenic overlook.

In college, I worked for my university’s outdoor program that developed us into student leaders in the outdoors. I went on my first ten-day backpacking trip, learned how to follow cairns across alpine ridges, and spent a night by myself certain I’d be eaten by a bear. I navigated the chutes and big waves of class IV rapids, rock climbed outside for the first time in a New Mexican desert canyon, and rappelled deep into black cave pits. I also learned how to lead people—taught them paddle strokes, kept them safe, and motivated them when they felt like they couldn’t take one more step uphill with a 40lb backpack.

Camping tents at dawn in Chaco Canyon

I learned a lot about myself too. I learned that my hands get clammy and my whole body shakes when I’m high on a rock wall. That I love being on the water but not under it. That helping someone overcome fear is one of the most rewarding gifts I can share. That yelling, “GOOD, GIVE IN TO YOUR AGGRESSIVE NATURE,” in my absurd Palpatine of Star Wars impression over the roar of whitewater is great motivation for paddlers on the river.

The outdoors was my passion.

I thrived on its highs and lows and found a life rhythm in hiking, paddling, and camping that brought me joy, calmed my nerves, and made me feel most myself.

In December 2016, after graduation and our wedding, my husband and I moved across the world to Guam for our first duty station with the Air Force. We spent that Christmas in a hotel, away from family, adjusting to a new time zone and a new way of life.

Our first year in Guam was hard. I couldn’t find jobs in outdoor recreation, and without many friends or a clear path to fulfilling my passions, I felt lost. The independence that usually made me strong drove me into isolation. I had stomach ulcers and panic attacks, and I did it all alone.

Days of hoping for things to just “get better” turned into months of muddling through instead of thriving.

My mom and I on my parent's visit to Guam

Then my mom got cancer.

We found out one year into our Guam assignment, a few weeks before Christmas. I watched and waited from 7,000 miles away and felt like I couldn’t see two feet in front of my face. While we waited for tests and answers, my imagination spiraled into the possibility of an entire future without her. I might not be able to call her for help with a recipe, wouldn’t make plans to garden together, or get mom-advice for raising the kids we didn’t even have yet.

As we turned the corner into a new year, I had a new and very real face for the cause of my anxiety.

Months before we found out, my husband and I had planned a four week trip to New Zealand for that January. My mom’s tumor removal was scheduled during the trip, but my parents insisted that we go and enjoy our time.

Guilt for not being there during the surgery welled up in me, but I knew the chemo treatments afterward would be more difficult, so at least I’d be there then. We packed our bags for New Zealand, and I made plans to fly home as soon as we returned.

By then, I had adopted a mantra: don’t worry until there’s something to worry about. The mindset was hard to keep, but I tried my best. I wanted to make the most of our trip—to bring back stories and pictures to share with my mom.

For four weeks, we hiked along alpine ridgelines, in damp fern forests, and through glacier-carved valleys. We roadtripped along lakes nestled in the mountains and slept under Milky Way skies.

For the first time since our move to Guam, I felt that life rhythm of joy and peace peek out again. Every step on trail, each bite of rehydrated camp food, and damp, cold socks and boots from the day before felt more like home than Guam ever had.

My husband and I talked a lot about the future, at least as best we could with the what-ifs of military life, and I practiced my don’t-worry mantra as we did. We dreamed of bases we wanted to live at, half-joked about moving to New Zealand one day, and for the first time in a year I knew exactly what I needed in my life.