By Delaney Kenyon | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
Normally one goes on a hike to escape from the “real” world, to exercise, to take the best pictures, or to hang out with friends. Everyone at Colorado College knows that the block plan does not allow for regular, constant emotional health check-ins. So, during block breaks and holiday breaks, I let walks in the woods — or even around the neighborhood — act as my time to think and reflect on my feelings and emotions.
I grew up fairly outdoorsy, as a result of my father loving the woods, prioritizing teaching me how to survive, and giving me a healthy sense of wonder and respect for our natural places. I have always had a close relationship with nature as a way of showing I had control over myself, my body, and my feelings. The woods were a place I went to self-affirm and validate myself. Unfortunately, I lost touch with the outdoors after a series of events: my mom studying in Scotland for a year, my grandfather dying, the debacle that is high school, an invasive surgery, a decent number of hospital visits, and an absurd amount of extracurriculars and academic work.
Before coming to CC, I had only recently reconnected with nature during my senior year of high school through joining the “Outing Club.” I had the gear and plenty of experience, but nature wasn’t what it used to be to me. It used to be a validation of my skills, an escape, a way to fight back at stereotypical images of women in the woods (as I was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts of America and their misogynistic views), a test of my ability, and control over my body. Near the end of my high school career I was so burnt out that I didn’t have the energy to plan a trip, spread the word, organize and buy the food, gather gear, or do the countless other things that you need to do to get a camping trip organized.
Getting outside seemed like a chore that was required of me.
When a few friends asked me to go with them on the Outing Club trip, I agreed, mainly because it was all pre-planned for me and it was a very rare weekend in which I had nothing else to do. We backpacked for the weekend in the Pennsylvania woods. That trip, the community, the boy I met on the trip who would turn out to be a (now ex)-boyfriend of one and a half years, and my environmental science class combined to reignite my outdoor vigor. I was determined to revisit the trails of my childhood.
But this point, I had greatly overestimated my ability to hold my life together. Not only was I taking multiple AP courses, applying to colleges (and then dealing with being waitlisted at CC), doing martial arts, dance classes, theatre with my Thespians troupe, and working with my Girl Scout troop on a sexual assault awareness program, I also decided to take an EMT-B course. This course was 12 hours a week, some weekends, and other associated course work. On top of this, I was managing a new relationship which, I’ll be honest, distracted me quite a bit.
So, being outdoors slipped through the cracks once again. I finished my EMT course and the testing associated with that and finished my fall semester. My dad mentioned that he would like to congratulate me on not only completing that class but also for getting the best grades of my high school career. He said that he thought a trip outside would be a good idea. So I ended up on a spring break snowshoeing trip with my dad to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. After five days in an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, day-tripping to various mountains around our Zealand Falls habitation, I came back again with a new fervor for getting outside. And then BAM! A concussion from club rugby. When the symptoms and a diagnosis settled in, I realized that I would not be going to school, let alone into the woods, for a long time.
Finally, that summer, I was allowed to take on a job as a ropes instructor for a Boy Scout camp about an hour away from my house. I harnessed my love for the outdoors and unleashed it at chubby boys in harnesses, hoping they would pick up some of it. I was so busy managing my fellow instructors, slowly working up the concussion protocol, and maintaining all of our equipment and courses that I was never able to go hiking. I decided to take in nature gulp by gulp when I could. Walking to the course after breakfast through the forest rather than on the road, hammocking in the tress during my rest periods, watching snakes slither through the marsh by the lake, drinking in the golden glint off the water at sunset, watching deer graze in the woods by our course, feeling the sun bake of the hot rubber on top of our rappelling tower — all of this I took in when I could.
Soon I packed up and flew to Colorado, excited to start my new life at CC and start my New Student Orientation (NSO) experience. I was giddy, terrified, nervous, and struck by how utterly different everything was. The mountains of my home would roll into the distance, fading bluer and bluer until they were the sky. Tava (Pikes Peak), however, jutted out of the earth in an elegantly harsh and utterly foreign way. The colors here were paler — faded greens and browns instead of the jewel-bright tones of Pennsylvania. And there were no trees. Well — not trees like East and West coasters would think of trees. The stunted sunbaked junipers of Colorado released a scent utterly different than the earthy musk of my pine and oak forests.
Fall came and went surprisingly quickly. I saw calico yellow, black, and green mountains studded with swatches of aspen trees. This was nothing like the rolling turbulent waves of red, orange, brown, and gold I was accustomed to. As I returned home for fall and winter break, I was struck further by the differences I was feeling. Colorado wasn’t quite home yet for me. Pennsylvania still was. Then came spring semester.
I returned “home” for the summer, only to be struck by the realization that, after the spring and finding a solid group of friends, Colorado was home. I lost all interest in Pennsylvania, it wilds, and yearned to leave it behind again, waiting for August when I would return and lead NSO. I went on a few hikes with friends and read by a lake a couple of times but I had lost all interest in appreciating the nature that we had at home. I didn’t possess the same fervor that I had before.
The mountains in Pennsylvania didn’t compare to the mountains in Colorado. The summits here were less satisfying and were often muggy, buggy, and ankle-turning. For some reason, I had created a definition of what “nature” was and Pennsylvania no longer qualified. Returning to Colorado, I was happy to be back, happy to see my friends, happy to start classes. But this sense of loss seemed to follow me. I slowly realized that I had lost an opportunity that I wouldn’t get back to fully explore Pennsylvania.
Flash forward to hearing the news that I would be returning to Pennsylvania for Blocks 7 and 8. Obviously, I was devastated that I was losing half of my spring semester at CC and would be unable to properly say goodbye to seniors and friends. I felt horrible for those who were slipping through the cracks and scrambling, as I understood that my ability to return home on the turn of a dime was heavily privileged. I knew that I wouldn’t starve at home, that I was going to be safe physically and (somewhat) financially, and that I would have the ability to finish my classes without worry. I was concerned about those getting infected and those dying. I was frustrated with our president and his inability to do what health officials told him to do. I was sad my Beginner Backpacking Trip to New Mexico was canceled. Then I felt guilty and selfish for mourning something that, in the end, didn’t matter when people were dying. I allowed my thoughts to play through my head, turning like an old film projector as I packed my stuff, as I said my goodbyes, and loaded stuff into my car.
Once I was back home safe, I let the depression wash over me for approximately a week. I was going to let it happen a little bit longer, but my dad didn’t let me. He woke me up one “morning” (it was technically no longer morning) by letting our puppy, Kenzie, jump on me, lick my face, and then sit on me.
“We’re going to go on a hike this weekend,” he said. “Pick which forest you want to go to. Kenzie is getting stir crazy and my back hurts from sitting so much and walking will do us all good.” I was feeling bad about not exercising — and I agreed, based on the number of things of mine Kenzie had destroyed, that she needed to work off some energy.
And so we went. We parked one car at the end of the trail and then parked the other and started on our way. It was misty and humid enough that when you breathed in you felt the fog slip down your throat. Obviously, this is very different from Colorado. Throughout the hike, I again realized my mistake in my classification of “nature” and fixed it. I was just as astounded at this version as I was at summiting La Plata Peak. To see spectral trees and radio towers thrust into the sky was a spectacle as great as a sunrise summit. Lichen and leaves cluttered my trail. I compared this to the dusty, clear trails of Colorado and found beauty in both.
Soon hiking in the time of quarantine became a necessity for me. It was a way for me to see the beauty in the world after seeing so much sadness. It gave me a purpose. I was denied from working at my local EMS corps due to misogynistic administrative oversight, so I felt useless and stuck about not being able to use my medical skills in the field.
So I decided I would use my skills elsewhere. Hiking is one of the few outdoor activities still allowed for people in my state. A lot of unprepared, inexperienced hikers are on the trails because of this and my dad and I have often helped wayward people on the trails in finding their way while maintaining six feet and no contact. My purpose became preventative medical care. If I could stop someone from becoming a patient, I felt that I was doing my part in helping lighten the load. I cleaned up after the new people too, using my Leave No Trace teaching experience to educate and help newbies on the trail stay environmentally conscious.
Hiking and being in nature also became a place I could center myself. I left the news and the death count and Trump’s stand-up comedy shows (sorry, press briefings) behind as I walked into the woods. I was able to focus on the rocks in front of me and getting to my goal rather than nervously dodging people in the grocery store and the ever-encroaching anxiety that accompanies the news today. As I watched the flowers burst from trees and the grass in my woods I could let some of the darkness go. I could see little florets of hope spring up around me. While the worst is still happening, we are still seeing success. While people are coming off ventilators, others are building, innovating, and coming together to combat this virus and others are finallydoing their part. The Great Lake states are stomping “the curve” into the ground.
Outside I was able to clearly see those things in my head. They clicked into my brain with every step I took. Every drop of humid air on my skin washed away a little bit of worry.
And so the color-coated trails of my Pennsylvania past have helped me reconnect with hope. They became a source of reconciliation, of reclamation, of reassurance. They allowed me to get out of the house and do something other than statistics and housework. The trails let me share time with my father that I haven’t had in a while. Nature has helped me recoup my mentality and my physicality. For that, I will forever be grateful to the emerald green moss jewel-studded rolling hills and rocky trails of my childhood. They have eased me into this new reality and have given me a hand out of hopelessness. For the rest of my life, I will try my hardest to say thank you in the best way I know: fierce and unending gratitude, protection, and love for our wild places.
To say thank you to your trails: pick up litter, practice leave no trace, help people find their way, fund conservation, volunteer with trail maintenance charities if you can when quarantine is over, and respect wildlife. Do what you can and what you know.