When I received the email notifying me that I was one of the recipients of the S. Bryant Kendrick Award, the idea of actually hiking through parts of New Mexico suddenly seemed far less attractive. The confidence and worthiness I'd practiced, refined and engrained in my proposal weakened. I recollected my application, my intentions — I assured myself that I was healthy enough, worthy enough, determined enough, all around good enough to hike through parts of the Gila Wilderness. I tried to believe those affirmations, and superficially, I succeeded. But at my core, I was mush. I was afraid that I couldn't rightly fulfill what I'd planned, afraid of not returning with happy stories of my nature-born spiritual transformation.
I've come to better understand that there are different kinds of fears, some useful, others detrimental. Some fears save your life. For example, clapping and yelling upon seeing a mountain lion, as my companion for this outing, Oliver Miltenberger '14, did, is an example of a respectful fearfulness which recognizes one's place in the food chain. Alternatively, there are fears that keep you from living. The fear I was experiencing, which was broadly based on the notion of having to be vulnerably me, was the latter. I was trying to earn my hardcore-bad-boy points, totally for and by myself. I wanted to hike as much as possible, as effortlessly and quickly as possible, without breaking a sweat. I wanted to do "right" by me and the Kendrick.
After the first 14-mile day with around 40lbs on my back, a weight at an elevation I'd not yet experienced prior to the Gila, it didn't take much time to realize that I was very uncomfortable and showing it. Muscles contracted into knots that spread throughout the body. Bruises were already discernable on shoulders and hips. Ears and lips were sunburned. My humor, while thankfully never absent, slowed down. We slept poorly that night; I think I managed two hours. But the following day, we covered the same distance with the same hefty packs. Fortunately, by this time my ego, which had been excessively heavy, had fallen away. Each pace was still painful, but I was moving in a pretty and meditative rhythm. Though I wasn't happy, comfortable or particularly enjoying myself, I was calm, present, breathing. The fear of failure which would normally buttress every other emotion had long since been left in my wake; my fear of feeling disconnected from intentions, from what I said I was going to do, seemed so irrelevant.
I was exactly who I needed and wanted to be in that moment. I was being vulnerable and hiking through a vulnerable wilderness. And how beautifully paradoxical the idea: a wild world, unreservedly good in its vulnerability. In 2012, the Gila Wilderness was the location of the largest fire in recorded history in New Mexico. Three years later, the landscape was still drastically affected and regrowth was just beginning in many areas. Much of the vegetation was partially or totally charred from the fire. Fallen trees made many trails non-travelable or undetectable. Branches were broken, split, gone. Honestly, I wouldn't immediately describe the trails as either "beautiful" or "depressing." But the ashen, collapsed trees were as dead as ashen, collapsed trees. And the emerging green leaves were as young and hopeful as emerging green leaves. It was an impressive landscape — uncertain and confident.
To seek and then venture forth on an experience or idea you've never had before requires a certain measure of vulnerability that I definitely didn't want to accept. But it's the willingness to devote time to something that may or may not work that begets any valuable outing, project, relationship or idea. Even if you're only able to relax your eyes away from the shaky panorama of greens and browns for a moment, and exhale a frustrated "I'm damn tired," you may (and likely will) hear those two amazing, weighted words: "Me too." For me, it's this connectedness and symmetry (to a person, a tree, a bird, a song, a motion, whatever) that affirms that we are too many things to be just comfortable, just certain, just happy. It would be a disservice to not acknowledge those parts of ourselves and the feelings they stimulate.
While I'm far from a master of vulnerability, I can verily say this trek opened my heart to the uncomfortable. It has precipitated falling in love with the rainforest while in Peru, growing in my personal yoga practice and eagerly planning travels to parts of Asia after graduation. The outdoors for me have become the birthplace of mindfulness and creativity and "enoughness." Ironically, I believe that in recognizing the reciprocity, the give-and-take/give-and-give that exists between humans and nature, I'm perpetuating the idea that the two are disparate. In reality, I reject the idea that we're apart from nature. The very fact that people have defined it, seen it, wanted it a certain way, pinned it to a cushion and "found" it to be something other, demonstrates that nature is still unseen for what it is: our own existence. But of course exposure to unknowns — ourselves — is scary.
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