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.
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.
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.
The night before Mom’s surgery, buried deep in my sleeping bag in a backcountry hut, I finally let myself cry. I let my mind wander around the surgery and what the next few months might hold. The anxieties and frustrations that had consumed me that whole first year in Guam drowned in bigger fears of losing my mom.
The next morning we packed our gear, had instant coffee and rehydrated mashed potatoes, and pulled on our boots. The carpark was just a few easy miles down the trail, so we’d be back in town with phone service about the time my dad would have an update.
I’ve hiked around 1,000 miles in my life so far, tackled 3,000+ foot elevation gains, hiked in hail and lightning, and carried 50lb packs.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for those three flat miles.
Looking back now, it feels like walking through a fog—just a few clear moments peeking through the mist. I remember stopping at a tree when I felt like I couldn’t breathe and staring down at the woven patchwork of roots and earth under my feet. I remember breaking into a jog for a portion of the last mile, as if the surgery depended on my speed. I remember refreshing my phone over and over on the drive back to town through golden hillsides along the lake, even when I knew we still had no service.
Several hours later at a restaurant tucked away on the banks of Lake Te Anau, I got the all-clear.
I relaxed a little and postponed worries about the treatments to come. A week later we flew back to Guam, and I caught a Space-A flight home. I was terrified seeing my mom sicker than I could’ve imagined.
Those few weeks at home were difficult, but good news finally followed over the next few months. Her surgery went well, DNA tests came back negative for the scariest possibilities, and several months of chemotherapy sounded pretty good up against worse possibilities. I felt blessed.
When I got back to Guam, I knew I had to live differently. I needed the peace I had felt again on the trail in New Zealand. I needed to be in the sun and the wind and the rain. I needed dirt caked in my shoes and under my fingernails.
I needed to be with people—people that shared a passion for community and adventure, people that I could rely on when the worst times hit hard. I had spent too many days alone thinking that I could handle life’s hurdles myself.
I also needed to find a reason to love the island we called home—a way to make the most of a chapter in my life that had become so broken.
In July 2018, just a few short months after the surgery and my trip home, I typed and retyped a message on a local spouse Facebook page, asking if anyone would be interested in joining a hiking group. Afraid no one would care or reply, I made my husband count down from three, then clicked “post”.
Six months later, our community totaled over 500 members.
In groups of five, then ten, and eventually twenty or more, we explored secret beaches, swam in cave pools laughing at headlamped shadows, and summited wild island peaks. Each time we hit the trail together, love and community surrounded me. We shed tears about the tolls of hard hikes and military life, we laughed at muddy pants and life joys, and we found beauty and peace and strength together as we explored every corner of our island home.
As I neared the end of my time on Guam, I feared leaving the people and place that had become so special to me. The friends and the island that had taken me from one of the hardest places in my life to one of the best.
When we arrived at our new duty station, I was nervous posting on the spouse page again—I had to count to three again to write that first simple message, “Who wants to hike?” As hard as starting over in a new place can be, I know that the same community exists here too—that we can find one another, and explore this new place we call home, and laugh and cry and be fulfilled.
Some duty stations are easy to love, and some aren’t. Sometimes we find our community straight away, and other times we sit at home and wonder when we’ll ever feel that connection of genuine friendship again.
I hate that it took my family’s cancer battle to create Military Wild. That it took so much guilt and loss and loneliness to see the need for a community that, looking back now, seems so obvious.
I’m grateful for all that too though—that we’re here now and that we’ve found each other. That we can walk down the beaches in Guam, through the pine forests in the Pacific Northwest, or among the cacti in Texas, and laugh and cry and run out of breath trudging up steep slopes together.
Through the celebrations and heartaches, cross-country moves and adventures of this crazy military life, I hope you find connection and community in Military Wild. I hope you feel inspired to get out and explore the landscapes you call home. I hope you find a family in Military Wild that supports you in your struggles and shares in your joys.
I hope Military Wild means you never have to hike or face this life alone.