No showers. Sierra wilderness. Fourteen days. I told each of my friends of my impending deprivation and secretly enjoyed their bewildered response every time. I felt like I was bragging, honestly, because a backpacking trip for two weeks away from computers, cars and people was, to me, a luxury, not a sacrifice. After about Day Five, however, my lack of a bath smelled anything but luxurious.
So why would a sixteen-year-old girl volunteer a chunk of her summer to lug around a 50-pound backpack, dig a hole for a toilet and sleep on the ground? I temporarily adopted this outdoor-extremist lifestyle simply because it seemed so foreign to my city girl self. Sure I love hiking in Muir Woods and running across the Golden Gate Bridge, but little did I know that my scholarship with Outward Bound Bay Area Youth Leadership Corps would be the ultimate test of that love. How much did I love pink Alpine mountain peaks and fresh snowmelt to drink? After a seven-hour drive to the Sierra Nevada mountains, I was about to find out.
For the next fourteen days, six Bay Area high school students and I camped, climbed and hiked on the granite slabs known as California’s Sierra. Each day, we woke up earlier than I did for school, only to face a physical challenge more demanding than any P.E. class. One time I spent an entire hour in the crevice of a cliff, inching my butt up and gritting my teeth in an effort to reach the top. Despite my friends’ cheers of “Keep going, Jenna! You can do this!” my exhaustion and frustration forced me to give up and return back to earth. Disappointed and overwhelmed, I surprised everyone — especially myself — when my feet hit the ground and I started crying. One friend had blisters on her hands from holding the rope for so long. Others had hoarse throats from yelling words of encouragement for an hour straight. My first real rock climbing experience was one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted, and I discovered a determination I had never tested before.
After spending a total of 321 straight hours with the same six teens, we became a close-knit team. Together we covered 12.5 kilometers of rocky terrain in one day, filled the lonely Sierra valleys with songs, cheers and chants and swatted more mosquitoes than the number of freshmen at Lowell.
Our teamwork impressed our adult instructors, too, who were inspired to further challenge us by stranding us on an island on Day Nine. As we rolled up our pants and obediently waded with them to a tiny outpost in the middle of a lake, we thought, “Forreal?” Equipped with only four sleeping bags, a tarp, a compass, a first aid kit, a stove, water bottles, tortilla wrappers, a stick of salami and a block of cheese, whether or not we survived the next 15 hours was entirely up to us. Meant to replicate the “shipwrecked” experience Outward Bound students of the 40s endured while training for WWII survival, we spent the night barefoot, cold and swearing like sailors. With no knife, we sliced cheese with the edge of a compass and cut salami with medical scissors. For entertainment, we played “Ten Fingers” as our contagious laughs and the sun’s setting rays bounced of the lake’s surface. We were all in the same boat, making our ridiculous bonding experience a memory to keep.
Back at home, I admit I daydream about cannon balling into a river when I should be doing precalculus homework. Sometimes I miss sleeping under the stars, even when I’m huddled in my warm bed on a foggy night. Most teens would argue that two weeks spent with strangers in the wilderness sounds terrifying. Yet I found that, despite being a small group in “the middle of nowhere,” having each other was all we needed to face the wild. We ate the same food (Grape-Nuts and powdered milk with hot water for breakfast), shared the same pain (blisters, sunburns and mosquito bites) and tackled the same challenges (“Make a raft out of logs, sleeping mats and string to cross this river!”). Braving the elements taught me to never underestimate myself. After climbing to a 12,000 foot mountain peak, junior year will be a stroll through Golden Gate Park.
"The Stoked Yolks Rap" (Our Group Anthem)
We the Stoked Yolks and we hike the Sierra
We smell like $#!% but we don’t really care-a
Sweat like salt and blood so sweet
We hike more miles than you drive on the street
We carry 50-pound bags and we don’t complain
We rest on rocks to keep us sane
“Lean on Me” and “Yes We Can”
These are the words that make us stand
We poop in holes with accurate aim
We sip freshwater like it’s Dom champagne! WORD.
A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 7, 2011 print edition of The Lowell.