I am a woman. I am a feminist, a Christian, an athlete, a singer, a nerd, a perfectionist, a goofball, and the founder of Alta Trails.
I could list a hundred labels that describe me, but none of them would sufficiently answer the question “Who am I?” Labels are tricky because often they are assigned to us rather than chosen by us. Additionally, labels come with a myriad of assumed connotations. There is a prescribed image that pops into your head when I say I’m a woman or an athlete. Labels are useful for categorization, but they fall short when it comes to describing individuals.
Stories, on the other hand, tell us the why’s and the how’s. They reveal a person’s character, passions, weaknesses, and journeys. Personally, I love stories – listening to them and telling them. So here is one of my stories that might help shed some light on why I love Alta Trails.
(excerpt adapted from my senior thesis on the culture of thru-hikers)
In total darkness, I carefully loaded my backpack for the last time and silently marched out of camp. I hiked with determination like every day before, but this mountain was different. This was my final climb of the Appalachian Trail. The trail was steep and littered with boulders, but my legs powered over every obstacle with strength and agility. The morning sun rose behind me, illuminating the vast expanse of nature. After nearly three hours of scrambling uphill and over rocks, the iconic sign which had been my destination for four months emerged through the fog.
Four months ago, at the beginning of my hike, I would have been disappointed that there was no view on Mount Katahdin, the peak that marks the end of the Appalachian Trail. But that morning it wasn’t about the view. In fact, I could not have cared less that I was surrounded by clouds at the summit because all I needed to see was that sign: “Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail,” with an arrow pointing south to where I had begun: “Springer Mountain, Georgia – 2189.1 miles.” I raced toward the sign, kissed it, and proceeded to scream at the top of my lungs. I had always wanted to yell from the top of mountains, but I’d always chickened out when I saw other hikers nearby. I was nervous they would judge me or laugh or think something was wrong. Not this time. On Mount Katahdin, I let it rip. My shouts dissipated into the wilderness, and tears flooded my eyes. I couldn’t tell if I was sobbing because I was sad or happy or exhausted or scared or excited or simply overwhelmed. Perhaps all of the above.
I sat there crying at the summit until my growling stomach took charge, and I ate my last Pop-Tarts of the Appalachian Trail. I was completely alone yet connected to generations of thru- hikers who have stood in triumph on that very rock. “Now what?” I pondered. Lunch? Or feast? Nap? Shower? I was thrilled to have finished, but I wasn’t ready to be done. In the words of a fellow hiker, “I went to the Appalachian Trail to get hiking out of my system, but I discovered that hiking is my system.”
Hiking IS my system. When I am wandering in the woods, I am the most confident version of myself. I feel strong and self-reliant, while simultaneously supported by an intangible connection with every other hiker. At school, it’s easy to be in a room full of people but feel totally alone. On trail, I am often by myself, but I am never without community.
Alta Trails is founded in the spirit of the trail – once you set foot on an Alta program, you are forever part of our trail family. Our quirky, uplifting, and deeply loving family. We are not perfect. I certainly am not perfect. But we are excited to discover and grow in our future together.
My name is Emma. I am a hiker. I am your sister. And you are mine.