September 17, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Photo by Sierra Romero
“When I decided to get off [trail] for the winter, I was able to rise into this incredible space of self-awareness and self worth,” Zinnia Voss ’25 said. “I had made that decision to get off the trail myself, which was really healing for me, because a lot of the year and a half before that had been spent finding worth pretty exclusively in…extreme conditions.”
She sat in silence for a beat, taking in the smoky silhouettes of the Front Range and the grass cut just-short-enough. Voss is visibly unsteady in the stillness of it all.
Voss, a first–year at Colorado College, took a gap year out of high school and spent her days thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,190 mile trek running from Maine to Georgia. Most people take months or years to plan for a thru-hike like this one, but it was with much enthusiasm and very little planning that Voss and three friends decided in the summer of 2020 that they would spend the next season of their lives on trail.
“I didn’t know how many states it went through. I didn’t know where it started or where it ended. It was completely from scratch,” Voss said.
The group spent ten days gathering what gear and knowledge they could and after a minimal amount of planning, they were at the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Their approach to the trail was unconventional for multiple reasons, the first being that only 4% of thru hikers hike south bound from Maine to Georgia.
Furthermore, most people start hiking the Appalachian Trail between the beginning of June to mid-July, but they were setting off in the last week of August. Starting so late in the season meant the group might hit winter storms and temperatures in the single digits.
“We got crazy looks left and right. People didn’t even believe that we were doing it,” Voss said.
Within the first 300 miles, they traversed the most remote and challenging section of the entire trail and were separated in a storm. They ended up hiking in pairs a day apart from each other, the humbling forces of Maine and New Hampshire realigned the group to the realities of trail life.
By the time Voss reached the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, her friend and hiking partner had developed crippling shin splints and was forced to leave the trail. She was suddenly alone.
“I really started going inward and having to ask myself very regularly, ‘why am I here,’” Voss said. As the days got shorter and colder and lonelier, Voss’ list of answers to that question dwindled.
Around Thanksgiving, her father joined her for a couple days on trail. “I think it reawakened me to what it felt like to have somebody to share in the cold and in the pain and also in the beauty and the art of where we were in what we were doing… It’s the human condition to want to share, and to be affirmed in what you’re experiencing,” Voss said.
It was after her father left the trail that Voss “started to realize how much fear and dread was overriding the space that [she] had for the beauty and the awe.” She no longer could find an answer for why she kept walking and realized that it was no longer an experience of self-discovery, but instead an “ego trip.” Acknowledging that discovery, Voss decided to leave trail for the winter.
With 800 miles remaining, Voss returned to trail in the spring travelling northbound from Georgia. Between the Southern terminus and where she got off in Virginia for the winter, Voss was exposed to a completely different Appalachian Trail, one filled with opportunity for human connection.
“I’m really grateful that I actually had those polar opposite experiences,” Voss said. Now, since arriving at Colorado College, school presents a different reality from trail life.
Voss looks at Mathias Dorm looming above her, “Waking up in a bed everyday has been interesting,” Voss said.
Since starting her first year at CC, Voss has been spending a lot of time attempting to find a sense of place on campus. “Being in this space, I’m immediately looking for trails, looking for rivers…trying to map out the area,” Voss said. She is trying to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities on campus, from engaging deeply with her class material to exploring the Colorado Springs area on bike.
“I’ve been reflecting on how I find livelihood here when I’m not in a state of survival,” Voss said. “It feels a bit confining. I feel a lot more tethered than I have in a while.”
With the extra time granted by having all her immediate needs met, Voss spends a lot of time studying how people present themselves. “I like taking a step back and just watching how the mechanics of things work, in developing friend groups and…the systems of this school, and doing a lot of objective watching… instead of attaching immediate emotions to things,” she said.
More than anything, though, Voss spends her time daydreaming. “I’m itching and starting to look into the Great Divide and biking that…And I definitely am eager and drawn to both the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail as those long thru-hikes…. I’m also very tempted to get back into whitewater rafting,” she said.
As Voss spoke of her aspirations for adventure, it became clear to me that she no longer knew or wanted to know how to find comfort in the stillness of front country life. She wanted to be walking, hiking, biking, or rafting — anything that kept her in constant motion. It seemed it was only in that movement that she could truly settle into herself.