A long walk

This January I spent three weeks hiking, camping, and hostelling through iconic California landscapes, and I am forever grateful for the experience. I’m blown away by how much there is to share and remember–and how much there is that I can’t put into words, but here’s the “short” list:

I learned to pitch a tent and cook dinner on a camp stove/fire in the dark, hiked through waist-deep snow with avalanches falling nearby, fell in love with Pinnacles National Park and its incredibly diverse ecosystems, drove “the one” along the Pacific coast until a landslide forced us to turn back, walked among massive elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park, camped next to strawberry fields at Sunset Beach, went tidepooling with marine biologists at Carmel Point and later by ourselves at Point Reyes, panned for gold and gemstones and visited Sutter’s Mill site, where gold was first discovered.

I hiked with elk on the coast near Point Reyes, walked among redwoods in Big Sur and giant, two-thousand year-old sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, toured Cline Cellars and enjoyed a wine tasting after petting their donkeys and learning about their sustainable farming practices, visited a petrified forest, squeezed through Yosemite’s spider cave in total darkness with no visibility and only the person in front of me to guide me, spent an afternoon on the beach at Point Reyes enjoying the sunset and campfire conversation, and greatly expanded my taste in music thanks to our lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng hours in the vans and our collaborative playlist.

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But the true highlight of the month was the wonderful humans who put up with my stench, made sure that I had nut-free food to eat and managed to avoid sending me into anaphylactic shock, loved me well when I got sad news from home, made me laugh with impersonations and rap battles, and were sources of endless deep and encouraging conversations about everything. I signed up for this trip entirely independently of my friends, and really, I didn’t know anyone well going into it. These four gals and nine dudes are family now, and while I never would’ve picked us out, I’m so thankful for them. We’re a diverse bunch, but we all share a passion for adventure, the outdoors, and the environment–and that bridges all other differences. If you’re reading this, team, I love ya. So much. Thanks for being you. Let’s go camping soon.

This month was full of the unexpected, but it was also full of rest and reflection. We rarely had service, and I was free to experience every day in the moment without the pressure of work, school or the ever-intimidating job search. Even the little things, like not wearing makeup for an entire month and not feeling any pressure to shave, was so freeing. I signed up for this class in order to fill some missing holes in my outdoor and environmental education, but also because it’s something I know my late classmate, MacGregor, would have loved. I wanted to honor her somehow, and this adventure seemed appropriate. It was–beyond my imagination. As we left Yosemite, I wrote this in my journal:

I feel that a bear has been watching us as we walk. And maybe it has… maybe MacGregor is with us. We’ve shared so many trails before–it feels wrong that she is not among the small cohort of women amidst the mostly male class. She should be here… she would be here, were she still alive. I’m convinced of it. So maybe she is here. Maybe she was the condor we knew was above our heads but could not see; maybe she was the bear hunkered warm in its winter place while we stomped and stumbled through waist-deep snow, pelting each other with snowballs and overflowing with laughter. Maybe she was in the wind, or among the redwoods in Big Sur where we found banana slugs on the slopes and hoped to spy the largest. Her adventurous spirit certainly was. Either way, I feel that something in me has been restored, though I can’t yet identify what. Maybe I should just keep walking. 

That’s what last year was for me: a long and unexpected walk among avalanches that seemed to barely miss me; bruises from falling through crusted drifts and dragging myself back to the compacted trail; gratitude for the trailblazers ahead of me and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath my feet; an exhausted body that protests my every effort to continue on the trail; crisp air that at once thrills and drains me as I struggle to drink it in; despair as I turn a corner to find yet another steep slope with no resting place in sight; the sudden, unexpected weight of snow dumped by a tired tree on my head, and the slow thawing process afterwards; and wonder–absolute wonder at the joy that comes from trusting your guide and briefly, finally understanding the purpose of the hike we’ve endured. And we have endured. We were made to walk this earth, to enjoy the view, to face plant in the snow, and to keep walking, however harrowing the climb. 

Jesus taught me so much about trust this January, and an old promise that once felt limiting is now so sweet to me: “The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exodus 14:14). There’s a lot in this world that I feel called to fight, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of these battles. I feel so small–the kind of small that we feel when submerged in the natural world, such as in the high peaks at Pinnacles or on cliff-lined coasts of Point Reyes, with waves crashing in a continuous thunder at their base.

But there is such freedom in this smallness, too: I can faithfully, joyfully do what I am called to do, and no more. The Lord will fight for me even when I am silent, and he will certainly work through my work, too. I just have to trust that my seemingly fruitless efforts are not in vain–that there’s so much going on around me that I cannot see, but will understand one day, some day.

So now what?

I hope I never forget the lessons and memories I gained this past year. I hope 2017 far exceeds my expectations–though January set the bar pretty high! I’ve got one more semester at Wofford before I’m on my own–with my horse in tow–but otherwise, the real world is coming up quickly. Before I graduate, I’ll have a novella published (through Wofford) and hopefully some creative nonfiction as well. We’ll see. I know this semester’s going to be a hike of its own kind.

With the EPA and National Parks Service (and basically all scientists) under attack, I’m convinced that environmentalism is as important as ever before, though I’m not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. But that’s okay. I’ve got a whole three months to figure out where I’m going next… I just have to keep walking. No matter where I go, I know the view will be great.

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Writer, horse lover, Jesus-loving environmentalist for hire!

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Published by

Sarah Madden

Currently an intern at Tryon International Equestrian Center, Sarah graduated from Wofford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and environmental studies. She served as a Senior Writer for the Old Gold & Black newspaper and also as an intern with the Wofford Office of Marketing and Communications. Sarah competed with the Wofford College Equestrian Team, is a PATH Int'l Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and in her spare time, enjoys playing with and riding her American Saddlebred mare, Dancer.

One thought on “A long walk”

  1. I had the pleasure of reading your blog last PM. Again j was impressed how well you write. I really enjoy your giftedness in expressing yourself and relating your story. You are my granddaughter! You have a grateful heart that is full of rich experiences. Your pictures gave me a glimpse of this amazing venture in California. Aunt Great Jane came yesterday we had dinner with your folks and John. Grilled thighs made Bea very happy. She Currently I am with Bea in the chemo room while she gets her treatment. Bea’s course is not always smooth and and there are good and bad times. We are grateful for the care she has received and in time she will be cancer free. We love and pray for our horse (riding and writing) and Jesus loving girl that He will continue to bless and lead you. Loving you from afar. Rabbit and Bea.

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