“Does anyone have an extra pair of socks?” asks Frances, a petite, amiable eighth grader. “Because mine just fell down the toilet hole.”
While the six of us howl with laughter, burying our faces in our sleeping bags and gasping for air, Frances blinks her giant brown eyes, patiently waiting for one of us to answer.
The five girls, ranging in age from 13 to 17, fall into a cheerful, giggly chatter as they lean over one another’s shoulders to peer at the digital camera Janey’s scrolling through, licking strawberry jam off their fingers.
It’s hard to believe that just 48 hours earlier, these kids were strangers. When we led them into the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters to plan our overnight hiking excursion, they all politely (though unsuccessfully) tried to hide their utter lack of enthusiasm. The girls were all thrilled to be on the camping trip in the Harpers Ferry area, sponsored by a Virginia-based outdoor nonprofit that sends middle and high school students on week-long travel summer camps, but the prospect of hauling their belongings on their backs over a mountain and sleeping under a tarp didn’t appeal to a single one of them.
The goal of any group backpacking trip is to foster leadership and group bonding—nothing brings people together like shared discomfort, right?—and that process almost invariably begins with some opposition. Like so many other times I’ve been tasked with schlepping a group of reluctant adolescents into the woods overnight, their aversion to hiking had filled me with anxiety and doubt. What if they weren’t just being close-minded teenagers—what if they truly didn’t enjoy hiking? What if they got home and grumbled about that crazy lady who made them sleep outside after walking all day, and their parents never sign them up for camp again? Or, worse, what if they bicker over who gets to lead and who gets to start the fire and by the end of the first day they all can’t stand each other?
What if it doesn’t work?
It’s only recently occurred to me that this phenomenon probably applies to professions across the board, and it’s one that I experience as both a camp director and a writer. That uncertainty around a process that’s tried and true, the fear that I’ve just gotten lucky in the past and this will be the time it blows up in my face. But if I’ve learned it once, I’ve learned it a dozen times: trust the process.
Trust that the skepticism won’t last, and that those kids who eye their stuffed packs with sassy crossed arms and suspicion will change their minds. Trust that even the ones who don’t find themselves enjoying the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end will, at least, feel a groundswell of strength, independence and accomplishment. They can stand firm on their aching feet atop a mountain, admiring the trail they’ve just traversed and say with a surge of confidence, “I did that.”
Some may pull ahead of or fall behind the pack, more drawn to the solo introspective side of hiking, allowing themselves to be engulfed by the magic of the trail. And, like this time around, some will embrace the companionship of group hiking, forming that impenetrable bond that can only be borne from hours of walking side-by-side, so engrossed in conversation that they’ve nearly forgotten all the miles they’ve logged. There’s no camaraderie quite like the one that comes with cheering your friends up an impossible hill, across a stream, through a driving thunderstorm.
About five hours earlier, we weren’t three miles into our hike when we froze in the middle of the trail, listening as the storm ominously rolled straight toward us. At least I’d had the forethought to make sure everyone’s rain gear was easily accessible, but I braced myself when the rain reached us and dumped unrelentingly. But when the girls shrugged and continued up the trail with springs in their steps, linking arms and singing every Taylor Swift song they could think of, any lingering doubt I had about this trip washed away with the rain.
They may have to hike an extra four miles in the rain to find a campground that’s not a swampland; they may have to let go of the mac and cheese they’d been dreaming about all day and resign themselves to cold pb&j tortillas and trail mix for dinner; they may have to pull soggy shoes on the next morning. But these girls would be just fine. And they were.
These girls, who two days prior had groaned at the mention of hiking, got soaked to the bone, rolled their sleeping bags out on top of tree roots, and couldn’t wait to do it all again.