Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories called First Person, written by Star Tribune staff members or readers of their experiences in the outdoors.
The first time I backpacked and slept in a tent, I was convinced I would be eaten by a bear. It was September 2010 and I was deep in Yosemite National Park’s high country at May Lake High Sierra Camp, surrounded by other backpackers, dirty and tired like myself. I had hiked in earlier with friends on the Pacific Crest Trail, convinced that strength in numbers would guarantee personal safety.
That night, snuggled in my new sleeping bag, the temperature dropped below 32, and I could swear I heard panting and ominous footsteps outside. My mind raced, and sleep was evasive. I knew with a single swipe, a mountain lion would surely rip our tent’s nylon walls. It was not a helpful thought. Eventually I slept and, thankfully, survived. Later, we discovered a bear had raced through the camp overnight, the sole casualty a bag of marshmallows. Bear tracks and errant puffs of half-chewed gooey bits were the only evidence of the crime.
With a new dawn came new perspective. Before opening my eyes, I heard the rushing of water and birdsong. Juniper pines left a fragrant scent in my nose and cool breezes tugged at the tarp’s edge. The promise of a new day, shared with friends and filled with endless possibilities, was enough to open my eyes. I could hardly wait.
During that trip, we climbed to the 9,931-foot summit of Clouds Rest, a magnificent granite peak in the heart of Yosemite. The 15-mile hike was both scenic and challenging, meandering along soft dirt trails and up endless rock stairs. The farther we hiked, padding silently past blue lakes, through alpine meadows and under the protective canopy of giant sequoias, the happier I became.
For virtually my entire life, I have struggled with an autoimmune condition that has left me ill, and the previous summer, I had survived a blood clot that had me grappling with my own mortality. Overlooking Yosemite Valley from the summit, I was speechless, taken aback by the granite expanse stretching in all directions. Vertical rock walls, tumbling waterfalls, and distant peaks skimming the sky illuminated my own tiny place in the world. I felt a profound sense of relief, gratitude and, for the first time, believed comparatively my struggles were small.
I was hooked and could not wait to return.
The following year while living in California, I met Christine, future hiking partner and best friend. We discovered we shared similar hiking styles, save for the fact that she felt completely confident on her own. I was amazed she hadn’t yet been eaten by a mountain lion.
“Never seen one,” she laughed.
Inseparable from that day, we hiked every weekend, exploring endless mountain ranges, bagging peaks. With Christine, I pushed beyond my comfort zone, gaining confidence and valuable skills. I learned to read the weather and clouds, keeping us safe above the tree-line where lightning can be deadly. I studied maps and became proficient at navigating, developed technical climbing skills, and refined the items in my pack, selecting lightweight but practical gear.
I began to believe in myself more. I came to understand that fear of the unknown, combined with chronic poor health, had prevented me from pursuing my dreams and goals. I challenged myself to move forward, my life changing, both on and off trail.
I downsized to a single tent and reduced the size and weight of what I carried. I carefully packed appropriate gear for each trip; tent and sleeping bag being paramount, as were my water filter, food rations, maps, warm clothing and emergency kit. I planned solo trips well in advance, distributing meticulously typed details to friends and family, downloading GPS files onto my phone. I bought an inReach, a satellite device allowing me to send messages from remote places assuring others of my safety.
I sought and found solace in large expanses of Painted Desert ringed with Joshua trees in Arizona, boreal forests in Minnesota’s North Woods, smooth domes topped with ancient bristlecone pines. Pack resting on hips, poles firmly in hand, my life was beautifully simple; I carried everything I needed, carefully tucked away for a new adventure. My tent became my home away from home. After a long day, I sank gratefully into its depths, the nylon walls keeping me safe from Mother Nature’s elements.
I dream of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing Aconcagua in Argentina, exploring New Zealand, and seeing the world with a pack on my back. Additionally, I want to share my love of nature with others, though I am not yet certain what form that will take.
Nature reminds me of what is important — with enough hard work, grit and determination, even the most fearsome of obstacles can be overcome, the highest mountains climbed.