I think I remember the exact moment I fell in love with the mountains.
I was a camper for the first time at a little summer camp near Brevard, NC called the Green River Preserve (a magical place that I could write a LOT about, but that’s another post for another time). It was the summer between seventh and eighth grades—the same summer that I grew about a foot, going suddenly from normal-sized middle-schooler to gawky preteen who had no idea what to do with her new lanky limbs.
To make things even better, I was mentally and emotionally a late-bloomer. So not only did I tower over all the boys my age, but I also didn’t quite understand why all the girls were so worried about them anyway. I felt self-conscious and uneasy in my own skin. Like most kids at that age, I just wanted to fit in, when I—quite literally—stuck out.
But back to camp. One morning, early on in the session, I went on a hike with a small group of campers. It was supposed to be an easy hike to a waterfall, but somewhere along the way we completely lost the trail. I remember bushwhacking up the side of a steep slope through lots of actual bushes. I remember scrambling up rocks, grabbing tree trunks for stability and even crossing a stream or two. It was NOT an easy hike. Although we did eventually make it back to camp, we definitely never made it to any waterfalls.
There’s one exact moment that sticks in my memory. On the way back down the mountain, we were rushing to get back to camp in time for lunch, and I was leading the pack. Flying down the trail, sweaty, dirty, and scratched up, I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pure joy. In that moment, I didn’t feel betrayed by my long, lanky legs—I felt empowered. I was so proud of all the bruises and scratches and dirt stains. My little battle scars reminded me of what I was capable of.
I’ve always loved the outdoors, but since that summer I’m drawn to the mountains in particular. Luckily, I’ve grown into myself quite a bit (both literally and figuratively) since then. I’ve even come to love my height—all 72 inches—most of the time, anyway. But the feeling of losing myself on a trail has never become any less exhilarating.
Sure, some of it is related to endorphins, or the excitement of a beautiful view and some fresh air. (There’s even some science to suggest why looking at waterfalls makes you happy!) But I think what I’ve come to understand is that a challenging hike—the knowledge that you’re miles from civilization and carrying what you need to survive on your back—is so thrilling because it brings you back to what matters. It makes you appreciate what you have and the simple beauty of putting one foot in front of the other.
The trail to the summit—one with a view worth working for, anyway—is never straight. Sometimes you have to go sideways just to keep moving forward, and sometimes it’s unclear whether you’re actually moving forward at all. Sometimes you lose the trail entirely for a while.
But the good stories happen in the switchbacks. The tough parts. The “why am I doing this to myself again?” moments. Even if you can’t see it at the time, that’s where the magic is.
Something tells me I’m going to be chasing after those moments for as long as I can.