How Women’s Wilderness Changed My Life
By Hannah Dykes
Photos by Henna Taylor
Those who know me know I am a homebody. I rarely slept over at other girls’ houses growing up, I never went to summer camp, and I’d always rather stay home and curl up on the couch on Friday night. So two years ago, when I got it into my head that I wanted to go on a backpacking trip in Colorado, those who know me thought I’d gone a little crazy. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I wasn’t born in Colorado, but I grew up there. I hadn’t been there in several years because my dad is in the military, but there was a tugging in my gut to be back in those mountains. Women’s Wilderness was a godsend: It was affordable, they provided gear, and best of all, the trip would be all girls. Soon enough, my dream of backpacking in Colorado was becoming a reality. I was signed up for the Leadership Expedition, which was two weeks of rock climbing and backpacking.
The morning I was meant to live for the trip brought a startling realization: I actually had to do this. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought much about the fact that I wouldn’t have contact with my family for two weeks. I had to fight feelings of wanting to back out. I was terrified of meeting the other girls and of leaving my parents and the safe comforts of home. I was so nervous I was sick to my stomach.
Meeting the other girls and the leaders for the first time was a quiet affair; we exchanged nervous smiles and timid questions. Our first group huddle was led with a quote, one that would come to define our trip as a whole: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The first night away from home was the hardest. The nausea I felt earlier wasn’t going away. I couldn’t even eat dinner. There was only one, desperate thought in my mind: “How am I going to get through two weeks of this?” Michelle, one of my leaders, let me call my mom. I begged her to come get me. I did not want to do this. I could not do this. My mom did the best thing for me: She said no. Upset and trying not to let it show, I made one last trip to the bathrooms with two other girls. I had a sudden, very unpleasant feeling in my stomach, and I ran behind the bathrooms where I vomited. Three times. I was mortified. I couldn’t believe I was that girl, the one who got sick and now everyone was going to think of as weird and gross. I slept in my own tent that night, just in case, and one thought consumed me: I can’t do this.
It got better the next day. And it didn’t. I felt much better physically. I was now fighting a completely mental fight. I can’t do it was a thought that continued to cross my mind for the next couple of days. During rock climbing I made it about 10 feet up the rock, then realized I wouldn’t be able get up the next section. But I heard the girls cheering me on, already pushing me and strengthening me, and though I struggled, I made it to the top. I felt proud and happy, the kind of feeling that only occurs when you struggle and succeed surrounded by the beauty and power of nature.
I can’t do it crossed my mind when I put my backpack on for the first time, so leaden with food and supplies I couldn’t stand straight. The straps dug into my hips and collarbone, bruising me. Every step was a struggle that first day in backcountry, and I can still say I have never been more physically exhausted in my life. I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. It was on an endless, tiresome loop.
But the thing is, I was doing it. With each step I took, I proved just how much I could do it. Sometimes being strong means taking just one more step forward, and then another and another. Eventually, I can’t do it became I can, I am, and I will do it. My mindset changed very suddenly, like switching on a light switch. The group was finally walking downhill, my pack was lighter, and I knew, suddenly and absolutely, that I could do this.
After I won my mental war, everything changed. It was still difficult, I still got homesick, I was still physically exhausted, but I knew it would pass. This trip, these mountains, and the girls who had quickly become close friends, they were what I was focused on now. I have very fond memories of those days in backcountry. We went sledding on tarps in August, had a backcountry formal, and danced around the fire, our laughs echoing through the mountains. Our bead ceremonies brought us closer in a way that I had never experienced, even with friends I had known for years. We laughed and cried, sometimes at the same time; created an endless list of inside jokes; and played plenty of Bananagrams.
On the last night, we sat around the fire together in silence. Some of us cried, others rested their heads on another’s shoulder. It was very hard knowing that we would never again get to experience this in our lives. There is a bond that is created when you put a group of girls together in backcountry. It’s one that is fast to grow and impossible to break. We were the only ones who would ever truly know the depth of what we had experienced over the past two weeks.
I remain changed from my Women’s Wilderness trip. It was incredibly challenging for me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had to pull strength from deep within me, strength I wasn’t sure I possessed. I went from constantly repeating I can’t, to saying “Yes, I can.” Even two years later, when I am faced with challenges in life, I think: “I did that backpacking trip, so I can do this, too.” The knowledge of what I accomplished on that trip continues to give me strength and confidence today. I was given the privilege of friendship with six amazing girls and three wonderful leaders. They showed me a kind of woman I wasn’t familiar with, the kind that doesn’t care about makeup or social media, but who is always willing to get dirty and walk that extra mile. My trip gave me a newfound, hardcore love of the mountains. I experienced them intimately and wonderfully. My heart often aches to go back, to see those fields of wildflowers again and breathe in the cool mountain air. My Women’s Wilderness trip gave me my first opportunity to be in backcountry. There is so much more for me to learn, to explore, and to experience. I am so grateful to Women’s Wilderness for giving me the confidence to be able to do that.