Few of us ever go on a journey as epic and transformative as Cheryl Strayed’s thousand-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (or score a multimillion-dollar book and movie deal!).
Then again, her story, Wild, took flight because so many women identify with some small part of it.
It turns out, if you ask around, there are many who've laced up their boots and set out into parts unknown, and have come away, if not transformed, at least more in touch with their true selves and what matters to them.
"These two activities, hiking and travel, open your eyes to the beauty and diversity of the world, as well as recharge, rejuvenate and humble you," explains Tara Starr-Keddle, an accomplished adventurer who also works for hiking outfitter Mountain Travel Sobek.
We talked to her and seven other inspiring women about what happened to their inner lives when they went outside of their comfort zones and onto trails—from three attempts at a grueling day-long summit to a few days hiking around Sicily. What you'll see is that the women who finished these journeys weren’t the same women who began them. —Ann Abel
(Photo: Reese Witherspoon is up for a Golden Globe for her role as Strayed in Wild.)
Yosemite, and more
My first hiking experience was at age 16, when I took a month-long Outward Bound backpacking trip in Yosemite. I had never camped, hiked, carried a backpack, been in the wilderness, or lived within a small group of unrelated people. I was pushed out of every comfort zone—no bed (just a tarp), no toilet, no shower, no normal food (freeze-dried only), not enough food—and sinking under the weight of a 40-pound pack, hiking 10-plus miles a day at altitude, getting caught in thunderstorms, being woken at night by a bear stealing my food, and the hardest of all, living with a group of strangers and constantly arguing over food, pace, and direction to take. I thought I would never camp, hike or backpack again.
But I soon learned that my self-confidence had soared and life’s challenges seemed very achievable. If I could survive 30 days in the backcountry, I could handle a job interview, a confrontational situation (client, employer, or friend), and pursue my own life path. I embraced the challenge of attending a very large university, and held jobs in various countries, traveled independently, and of course, pursued my passion for hiking, including climbing Kilimanjaro and trekking to Everest Base Camp. Now I relish my quiet solo backpacking trips. I love the self-reliance of backpacking. I find that the peace and beauty of being out in the woods, away from daily chores, traffic, crowds, phones, computers, and noise offers me a complete break and restores my energy as well as my soul.
(Photo: Tara Starr-Keddle)
I was out of shape, tired of struggling with a midlife crisis and all too aware that my desk job (as a pathologist) was no good for my body. February of last year was a rough patch in my life. I remember talking with a colleague about being “out of control.” I was asking myself, "What is this all for?" When you’re embedded in your day-to-day life, all the little things seem so important, so overwhelming, so upsetting. I craved something different.
I’d been thinking about the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but wanted to vet my outfitter first. My sister and I decided on a dry run somewhere close by our home in Vancouver, a four-day trip to Death Valley.
Death Valley is massive and dangerous. When I saw the vastness, the differing terrain, the harshness of the landscape, my problems seemed to shrink away. The quiet voice said to me, "These mountains and valleys, shaped by the forces of nature, have been here for a long time, and will be here for a long time. Your troubles will fade. You will also, in turn, fade. Life is very fleeting. Pay attention."
(Photo: Benita Lee)
In the months before I turned 40 in 2013, I realized that I had drifted away from some of the things I loved (being outside, accomplishing "big things") and toward things that I loved even more (building a family and a home). My husband and I talked about ways to battle the daily malaise of motherhood—I had given up a law career, among many other things—and so, having never done a guided outdoor trip and having never left my husband and children for longer than three days, I booked an eight-day trip through REI Adventures to summit Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., at 14,505 feet. The trip was rugged and emotional and pushed me to every edge. I cried, and I slept hard, and I learned that when climbing uphill for tons of miles a day, don't ever stop going. It was isolating and scary sometimes. On summit day, I woke up at 2:00 am to prepare, thinking my midlife crisis was happening right NOW.
But I did it. Every step closer to the summit fortified me. I learned that I can do hard things. I can want things for myself. I can let hours slip by without wondering how my family is doing and not feeling guilty about that. It was transformative. I have already gone to Zion and Bryce with a friend to celebrate her 40th, and my son and I have summited Cadillac Mountain in Maine and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. My one crazy risk has had ripples in every direction, and I'm so grateful that I was able to take that leap.
(Photo: Becky Bartos)
I’ve done serious hiking trips before, to Argentina and Oregon and Washington, but my last trip, to Sicily, was most significant. About a year before I that trip, I had a hip replacement. During the surgery, I kept the prospect of a trip like that as a goal—very useful in keeping me focused and optimistic. The trip—ten days of hiking four of five hours a day—stretched me to me to my limits, but by the end, I wanted to go on. I felt rejuvenated.
I chose to do a group trip hiking through Sicily organized by Country Walkers because for someone like me, a Manhattan college professor who sit and reads and writes, the chance to spend ten days with people who are “outdoors people” changed my perspective. The trip expanded my horizons, made me feel at one with the universe, and reminded me that the universe is really close.
(Photo: Laura Schor)
My first hiking trip with Mountain Travel Sobek was in 1999, the year I turned 50. I've always loved the mountains, but insecurity in my abilities caused me to be fearful. I was afraid of getting hurt. But the beauty of the Swiss Alps was so alluring. With good hiking boots and poles, I found myself doing things I never dreamt I could do. And loving the experience! One day I was up to my hips in snow, my husband was way ahead of me, and I wasn't crying! That did it. I was hooked.
Since then, I have been amazed and thrilled at the challenges I've encountered trekking through the French, Swiss, Austrian and Italian Alps. I've discovered inner resources I didn't know I possessed—stamina and bravery. These experiences have greatly expanded every aspect of my life.
(Photo: Linda Cosgrove)
Cinque Terre, Italy
I had undergone some changes in my life, and I needed someplace to sort them out. A big hiking trip would be a chance to be with my sister and do something I’d never done before. Once on the trail, I reached the point where I realized it was liberating and freeing. I was the oldest person—another first—but wasn’t lagging behind. Life hadn’t passed me by yet. I could still kick butt.
My biggest realization was that, yeah, don’t stop, keep moving. Keep pushing because the view on the next ridge is incredible. And since we’re in Italy, there’s gelato at the end. At first it was difficult, but I could feel my body getting stronger.
I think all of us have a “wildness,” even if we don’t think we have it. We should use that last bit of energy to test ourselves. I’m lucky that I was able to go out and do something that pushed my limits in a really wonderful place. I learned that it’s okay to do something nice for yourself: to stop being the caregiver and go out and have a “wild” experience.
(Photo: Nancy Parker)
Years ago, on a climb up Mount Tallac in Tahoe, my sister and I came across a group of hikers who insisted we add Mount Shasta, one of California’s highest peaks, to our hit list. Not knowing what we were getting into, we decided to tackle the 14,179-foot peak in a day. It wasn’t until we hit the snowline and the sun began to rise, casting a rosy glow over the mountain, that we realized how unprepared we were. It also soon became apparent that this was to be a solo ascent, as my sister struggled with my faster pace.
Twelve hours later, I was still on the mountain. But I didn’t make it to the summit, finally turning back when yet another tumbling rock whizzed by my head. I spent weeks suffering (aches, sunburn) from my first attempt, but it wasn’t long before I started thinking of ways I could conquer the peak and redeem myself.
The following year, my sister and I returned. This time, we gave ourselves two days. It didn’t matter, though, as the weather was uncooperative, and it wasn’t our time. Instead, I felt completely beaten down by the mountain and by life.
A year later when my sister suggested we try it again, I reluctantly agreed, although it was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed something to pull me out of the rut in which I found myself. I didn’t feel like that fearless girl who picked up and moved to New York City without knowing a soul. I needed a challenge to kick-start my spirit. We didn’t want to carry camping gear, so we opted for our original plan to summit in a day. And so, in 2009, I once again found myself going it alone as my sister fell behind. Determined to stand on the top, I planted one foot in front of the other and pushed away any thoughts of turning back. Quitting wasn’t an option. When I finally stood on the summit, I felt that I could take on the world.
(Photo: Heather Mikesell)
Linda Lou Williams
Decades of mountains
I didn’t have one specific life-changing adventure they way Cheryl Strayed did. Each mountain I summited [often with REI Adventures] added an element of change. Slowly but surely, I realized what I carried in my backpack related to what I carried in my “ life pack.” What was weighing me down? Past hurts, resentment, grief, envy and disappointments. As I adjusted my backpack, I adjusted my life pack, and I evolved into who I am today.
I’d given up running in my 40s, but I restarted my active life at age 53, when I climbed Kilimanjaro in 1997. After Africa came Aconcagua, in Argentina, on whose summit I was supposed to turn 59. I reached it to 22,500 feet, but none of us made it to the top. That taught me that all the training in the world doesn’t necessarily come together in one given day or adventure.
I don't expect to get anything drastic from my mountains, just the enjoyment of being in a different culture, experiencing new parts of the world, meeting people from all walks of life who share my interests, and doing something I love.
At age 63 I traveled to Nepal for a month—summited Kala Patthar (18, 519 feet) went to Everest Base Camp (17,958), and then summited Island Peak (20,305). It was the longest I've ever gone without a shower! I don't set out for adventure to change me, but it does. At age 74, I am someone who just puts one foot in front of another. Whether you realize it or not, you change little by little, one step at a time.
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