I arrived to Salt Lake City on Monday, August 14th and immediately found it hard to breathe as I walked up and down the city streets. It felt as though a lead weight were on my chest first and foremost because of the crushing fear I felt when I thought about my mother getting on a plane and going back to my home in Spartanburg, South Carolina where the elevation is at a whopping 807 feet and nobody thinks it’s strange to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir.” The second reason I found it hard to breathe was due to the 3,419 foot difference in altitude between the place I had grown up and the place I now found myself living. On Thursday, August 17th I was picked up at my host family’s house by Yumi Shill, another Salt Lake Fellow, who then drove us to REI where we met another fellow, Abbie Hoekstra. As we began talking I felt that weight become lighter on my chest; I had made two new friends and they were pretty cool. After buying some hiking gear for our orientation backpacking trip, we headed to Ben and Rachel’s house to convene with the other fellows before driving up to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Once we arrived at Ben and Rachel’s, we were immediately greeted with bear hugs from John Wilson Booth and Jonathan Crites, the only male fellows in the program. The friendship between the two of them was already visible and their kind demeanor helped spread that sense of friendship throughout the group. We then met Sarah Hinson whose entire belongings were stuffed into a guest room in the bottom floor of the Loderhose’s house then Abby Waters soon joined the pack and our group of seven was complete. We sat in Ben and Rachel’s living room talking about our lives, exchanging names of mutual friends, and expressing out collective excitement and nervousness in regards to the daunting 10 months ahead of us in Salt Lake City. The longer we sat in the living room and chatted, the lighter my chest became. I almost felt normal for the first time since arriving in the city.
We eventually all packed into the cars and drove up to our first campsite. We stopped on the outskirts of the national forest to secure our park passes and Ben came to the cars to remind us to drink plenty of water so we wouldn’t experience altitude sickness. Up until this point I had heard of altitude sickness but thought it only applied to deep sea divers and people climbing Mount Everest. I didn’t realize that even us mere novices going on an “easy” five mile hike could experience altitude sickness as well. Being the worrier that I am, I immediately chugged the entirety of my Nalgene as well as Abbie Hoekstra’s. When we got to the first campsite I nervously stepped out of the car and found, to my delight, that I felt fine - I had escaped the grips of altitude sickness! My celebration was incredibly premature.
The next day we left our cozy campsite with a built-in fire pit and public restroom and drove up to the trailhead that would lead us up five miles towards a meadow right beneath Ostler Peak in the Uinta Mountains. The first 2 miles of the trek were fairly easy, similar to the hikes I was accustomed to around Sewanee, my college’s, domain. After we stopped to eat a snack and take a little water break, we veered left on the trail and soon reached a steep hill of sloping rock that was daunting to say the least. I probably made it 1/3 of the way up before I found my heart racing at an abnormal pace. I stopped for a minute to try to slow my heart rate and catch my breath, but my body wasn’t reacting to my slower pace in the same way it would have in the Carolinas. I began to panic, I had never felt my body act like this. Even on the hardest of runs where I had pushed myself beyond my limits, I was able to regain a normal heart rate and a steady breath soon after slowing down. This was a whole different ball game.
Ben graciously stopped with me, making sure I was okay and asking if there was anything he could do to help. Being the hard-headed person that I am, I told him I was fine (even though I was beginning to question whether or not I was actually having a heart attack) and continued up the hill. I probably made it ten more steps before I promptly took off my pack and got sick. Not only was I embarrassed that I couldn’t complete the hike that the other Fellows were so easily conquering, I was miserable. I was in a strange place with people I barely knew feeling incredibly scared. While I sat on a rock profusely apologizing to Ben who had to witness this embarrassing moment, I prayed to God to give me the strength to make it to the campsite.
I sat for a few more minutes and drank some water before putting my pack back on and taking five (it honestly could have been three) more steps before immediately sitting down again. I was becoming anxious, not only because I had seemingly no control over my own body, but because I imagined the other fellows were already at the campsite while I was still 4 miles away. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me but the thought of everyone leaving me in the woods to be eaten by bears did cross my mind (one of those in-the-moment fears that are completely ridiculous when you look back at it). Ben then asked me if he could carry my bag. That was probably the last thing I wanted to have happen - this was our first adventure excursion as a group and I was already the needy out-of-shape one. I tried to muster up my strength and make it a few more feet up the hill but my body was not cooperating.
I eventually gave my pack to Ben, waves of shame rolling over me alongside the waves of nausea. He was not only carrying his own extremely heavy pack, but mine as well. He constantly reassured me that this kind of thing happens a lot and this wasn’t the first time he’d carried two packs, but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly guilty and humiliated. A while later Sarah Hinson walked back to meet us on the trail and took my pack from Ben. I didn’t think it was possible to feel more shame than I already did, but apparently it was.
Ben and I trudged silently up towards the campsite. As we continued along the path my internal monologue became more and more hateful towards myself and my inabilities. I was angry at my mind and I was angry at my body because I couldn’t overcome this obstacle that it seemed only I was struggling with.
Towards the end of the hike after the other group had reached the campsite, Abbie H. (A.B. as we now call her), Yumi, and Abby W. (now nicknamed Wawa) came back and hiked with Ben and me for the remainder of the trail. As we walked I learned that everyone had taken turns carrying my pack up to the campsite. I was overwhelmed with both gratitude and humility. These six people who I barely knew were already willing to carry my heavy load up a mountain. I don’t believe a more reassuring metaphor could ever be devised.
Even as strangers, JW, Wawa, Jonathan, Sarah, Yumi, and AB were willing to take a weight from me that I couldn’t handle and help me reach the top of the mountain. When I prayed to God for the strength to reach the campsite I was expecting a sudden burst of energy or mental fortitude. Instead I was humbled, forced to realize the extent of my own weakness. In this moment the Lord showed to me in a very tangible way that I cannot do everything alone. I have always prided myself for my independence, willingness, and even desire to do things alone. God used this hike to strip me of my pride and reveal the beauty of relying on Him and relying on others in times of need. Through this experience, He showed me that it’s ok to need help, and that I have an amazing support group behind me for these ten months to come.
When I got home from the trip, the weight on my chest had vanished and I felt a peace about my circumstances that I had yet to find. I knew that Ben, Rachel, and the other Fellows would have my back (and my pack) no matter what, and that God is at work in Salt Lake City. His hand may not always be extremely visible and we may find it difficult to see how the circumstances in which He has placed us will help us serve His Kingdom, but we may all rest easy in the knowledge that “in this world [we] will have trouble. But take heart! [He has] overcome the world” (John 16:33).
SLF Class of 17-18