The Hardest Day

My experience living in the Blue Ridge Mountains for two weeks.

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Note: This article was published in March, 2019—the date attached to this article is incorrect.

This was the fourth night I had fallen asleep on the soft ground in the forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was finally getting used to waking up in a sleeping bag with bugs flying past my ears. That morning we began with stretch circle, where all 12 15- and 16-year-olds on my trip to the North Carolina mountains each led with their favorite morning stretch—I chose the washing machine—and then proceeded to assign jobs for the day. My job was the water-monitor: this involved filling, maintaining, and distributing water from 10-pound rubber bags. We called these bags “Baby Seals” because they wiggled around like small seals when they were filled with water. For the rest of the morning we followed our standard morning routine: make breakfast, which was Raisin Bran cereal with powdered milk that day; fill our packs with clothes and additional equipment; and clean the campsite of any garbage.

After leaving our campsite, we trekked for about an hour until we reached our lunch spot: a waterfall. We ate tuna and crackers, and learned our first game of the trip, Rocky Handy. To play Rocky Handy, all the players hold a small rock in the palm of their dominant hand and use that same hand to push a similarly-sized rock off of the other players’ hands. Afterwards, with full stomachs and slightly lighter packs, we continued our hike for the day. As we walked, the sky darkened and thunder roared miles away. Because of the deteriorating weather conditions, when we reached a campsite around five p.m. that afternoon, it looked appealing, especially compared to the treacherous journey both ahead and behind of us. But George, one of our instructors, told us that there was another possible campsite not too far away. We formed a pack circle—just like we had been taught—and deliberated over the better option: stay at this campsite, or hike three miles to the next one? Despite slightly worried looks from our instructors as they glanced at the sky, we decided to head on to the next campsite because it would allow us to sleep in the following morning.

Soon after leaving that initial campsite, rain started pouring down on us. Later, we would describe this moment as God crying because he knew we had made a terrible choice. We followed protocol and put on our rain jumpsuits; they consisted of rubber yellow overalls and a yellow button-down trench coat. We trudged along, our quickening pace mirroring the increasingly aggressive pattering raindrops on our jumpsuits. Suddenly, we saw a bolt of lightning and immediately grabbed our watches to count the number of seconds between the lightning and the succeeding roll of thunder. Thankfully, it was more than a 100-second gap, meaning that the lightning was more than 20 miles away and we could continue to our next campsite. But, only a few minutes later lightning struck again. This time there were only 80 seconds between the lightning and the thunder. This meant that we had to do our first lightning drill: we ran into the nearby unwooded area, lay out our sleeping mats, and crouched down on our body-size packs.

We sat in this hunched position for what felt like hours, but in reality, was a little more than 20 minutes. As the raindrops pounded on my back like arrows gone amiss, I thought about the irrational fear that lightning would strike me. I tried to comfort myself by reminding myself of the tiny chance of being struck by lightning, but slowly all my emotions came pouring out, like a crowd that had been stuck in a small space. I panicked that I would not make it home, and even if I did, I would still be stuck under my sister’s shadow. After a particularly loud clap of lightning that was not followed by thunder, I wiped my eyes and got up from the crouched position. Now, almost half an hour after the initial flash of lightning, we continued walking, but this time at a slower and more defeated pace.

We reached our destination at nine p.m. and only then began our evening routine. Cooks for the day prepared dinner and water-monitors found a nearby creek to fill up our “Baby Seals,” while the rest of our crew set up our tarps. These tasks were particularly difficult that night; the kitchen area was far away from our sleeping area, access to the creek required us to bush-push, or to hike without a trail, and there were not enough trees to set up proper tarps. But we had no other option than to work with what we had, and so we did exactly that: we bush-pushed our way to a creek, the cooks prepared dinner by the light of our headlamps, and we used hiking poles in place of trees to support our tarps.

As usual, during our “evening meeting” that night we sat in a circle, lit only by the moon. We each took turns and said “a rose,” a positive occurrence during our day, “a thorn,” a negative experience, and “a bud,” a skill we were working on and hoped to improve. My rose was the waterfall we had stopped at for lunch, my thorn was the unsatisfactory campsite, and my bud was embracing challenges in logical steps.

I admitted to the rest of the group, and to myself, that I had unreasonably panicked during our lightning drill. There was no need for me to worry about the one-in-a-million possibility that I would be harmed by the rainstorm. Instead, I should have used this time to my advantage as a chance to rise to a challenge. My sister’s achievements do not define me, but they can inspire me to be the best version of myself.