Mountain Magic.

A reflection written for Footprints Running Camp, which I attended In the summer of 2021. 

Cue May of 2021: I was a junior in college, and I had switched majors about 6 times until finally settling on Biology (while also having a crisis and creating a made-up 2nd major, Neurophilosophy & Religion, and throwing in a minor in Spanish). If this wide range of interests doesn’t represent my conflicting ideas about what to do with my life, I don’t know what does. In April, I was set on going to a Biomimicry masters program in the Netherlands. By May, I was positive I needed to become a masseuse and pursue professional triathlon. The waves of uncertainty ebbed and flowed, based on each imaginary life invoked by my possible career paths. On what seems like a nightly occurrence, I made webs of words, trying to connect my passions into a financially stable job.

I tried to plan out all of my possible choices, because I needed to pick something. I thought of it as productivity; but in reality, it was mostly fear that was motivating my search. It made sense; the past two years had filled me with crippling anxiety and loneliness, mostly due to a combination of transferring schools, COVID, and a casual existential crisis. The pressure to find a career path I loved was fueled by the drive to set myself up for success and avoid these painfully exhausting experiences and isolating feelings in the future.

It was in this headspace that I happened to receive a text from one of my good friends, Nehemiah. He sent me the link to an environmentally-focused trail running camp called Footprints that he had applied to. I was not the most put-together human at this moment in time, but I was keen to throw myself at anything that could untangle me from the mental mess I was in. I applied with a random project focused on composting, simply because I couldn’t think of anything else. I felt like a fraud due to the randomness of my project, when it seemed like everyone else had chosen ideas so close to their heart. So with my half-assed project and full-blown crisis in hand, I marched myself to Silverton, CO to spend a week in the wilderness with a group of people I had never met.

The very first thing we did at Footprints was a mountain run in the rain, and by mountain run, I mean a legitimate mountain run. We ran straight up this mountain, chatting and wheezing and introducing ourselves as we (very slowly) neared 10K ft. After the run, we soon found ourselves at our home for the week, the beautiful and eco-friendly OPUS hut in the middle of the San Juans. It was during that first dinner, all of us gathered around the table, exchanging ideas and insights and passions, that I distinctly remember thinking: this camp is not a typical running camp. This is something different.

That night, I stayed up late, writing by headlamp about the sense of inspiration and aliveness I felt within this special group of athletes, scientists, and activists.. I wrote about how part of me still felt like a fraud, and that I was in the presence of such amazing and inspirational people but felt a lack of ability to give much back to them. Yet, at the same time, I felt this fire within me, and a hope that maybe, just maybe, I did have something powerful to add to the world.

One of the first pieces to the puzzle of this life-changing experience were the beginnings of each day. They began in a near-meditation. I found myself waking up automatically at 5 AM, and without phone service, the first thing I saw in the morning was not my screen, it was the sun. Many of the other campers and I would quietly wrap ourselves in blankets and walk outside, often barefoot, to the outer edge of the mountain. We would sit and watch as the sun rose, the clouds shifted, and the world awakened. It invoked such a beautiful sense of connection and gratitude to the earth that is often hard to come by, and it seemed like the perfect foundation for a camp built on that very thing.

We then spent our afternoons traipsing through the beautiful and wild landscapes, free and in love with the earth beneath our feet. It was a beautiful combination, really. Going outdoors and experiencing these wonderful places, and returning to the OPUS hut to brainstorm ways to save them. And this is where the magic began to happen. We exchanged ideas and learned from one another, discussing everything from climate change to mining, food systems to filmmaking. I remember late night conversations about the role of buffalo on Native lands, and runs  discussing the communication of mycorrhizal (fungi) networks. Our mentors poured out their passions and filled us with years of wisdom, and we built on our ideas and gradually changed our projects in return.

For the first couple days working on our projects, I had a nagging thought that I was trying my hardest to ignore: I wasn’t excited about my project. I went along with it because I felt that I had to, but I had a certain sense of jealousy when everyone else talked about their projects. They seemed so passionate and excited. Mine was not something that really meant much to me, but I felt like I couldn’t change the project because it was the entire reason I was even there. I confided in Dakota, the camp leader, about this guilt, and he recommended something revolutionary: change my project. So, I sat and thought. And deep down, I knew. I wanted to be a storyteller, a people-connector, an empathetic link to share the beauty I saw in the world. So with this newfound direction, I settled on something quite opposite of composting: environmental photojournalism focused on telling the stories of the people and the places around me.

I realize I often choose something to pursue, because I would rather attach to something than have nothing. Yet, it was Footprints that taught me that it’s in the nothing that our true passions shine through. Before camp, I was too scared of the lack of control to let myself free to follow what I always knew, deep down. I simply chose one thing after another, blocking my view of what was innately a part of me. It’s not that I discovered a new passion, I simply discovered that my love for talking to people, for photography and storytelling, was my own gift. That this gift is something I can use for good. They encouraged the constant evolution of my project, of an idea, and refused to force the setting of something in stone. This freedom allowed the project to grow into something I cared deeply about, something that was so intertwined with who I am, that I couldn’t not do it.

We jokingly refer to the week as a purpose-finding camp, but it truly was that for me. It was a week that provided me with such meaningful connections, filled with vulnerability, love, and support. I felt alive, and it grounded me in who I was, for the first time in years. It invigorated my soul. And now, I can confidently say that (I think) I know what I am pursuing now, but that isn’t the reason I feel so thankful for Footprints. My gratitude resides in my newfound ability to trust in myself, even if I don’t know what I am doing. To leave room, for nothing. That’s where the magic happens.


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