Take a Hike: Make Real Connections
In the summer of 2015, I hiked the White Mountains of the Appalachian Trail alongside 12 perfect strangers; staying within the AT hut system. It was a master's degree course called, “Outdoor Dynamics: Issues in Sustaining Wilderness,” although in truth, we knew this would be an 8-day-8-night lesson in sustaining one another. A diverse group of individuals, all with different paces, styles, some who snored, some with extreme views, all of us in different points in our lives. How would we all connect?
At our initial location we participated in a series of fantastic team building activities: a ropes course 30 feet in the air, a “get the egg safely across” obstacle, and some other physical challenges that encouraged camaraderie and support (I vaguely recall a hula-hoop in there somewhere). What stuck with me (beyond the deeply spiritual experience of the ropes course), was the first activity we participated in, a 1-on-1 mini-hike.
Josh and I hadn’t interacted with one another yet, beyond perhaps a handshake and name exchange (which of course neither of us would retain). But we were paired up to take the 10-minute hike together, during which we were asked to share with one another where we were in our lives 10 years prior. It’s worth noting that I showed up to this adventure with my blonde hair in corn rows, which I thought was clever given the week away from my shower (and humble brag -- it was brilliant). Josh, on the other hand, had a fresh militant buzz cut and appeared to be a pretty guarded person. He likely saw me as an eccentric and I definitely saw him as a stone wall. Researchers out of Princeton University have found that people make judgments about such things as trustworthiness, competence, and likeability within a fraction of a second after seeing someone’s face. This exercise was going to throw both of us into the fire of letting go and opening up - and he started it.
Within 10 minutes Josh and I knew one another better than anyone else on the trip. We had both experienced the loss of someone very close to us, both of breast cancer. It ignited a spark, it ignited connection. The reflection aspect also lit a sense of pride in us both, realizing, "Holy cow we've come a long way. Geez we've gotten through some difficult times." And here we are and here we go - about to take the next steps into a new, epic adventure, breathing in that mountain air. It wasn't just the content of our discussion either. Being out in nature; the sounds, the vastness, the unknown - it sparks authenticity. It reinforces that this world is much much bigger than ourselves - it keeps us humble.
If Josh and I hadn’t been paired up that day, and given the task of digging into our personal pasts, the two of us might never have connected along the trail. And furthermore, the activity was a great way to break the ice with others along the way too. Eight days on the trail carried a whole lot of opportunity for storytelling. Today, I consider that entire class to be like brothers and sisters. We don’t spend holidays together, and for the most part, catching up means finding each other on Facebook. But I care deeply for them, and always will.
I will l never forget that hike, and I know they feel the same.
Next time you're looking to jumpstart a relationship, or perhaps go a little deeper in your understanding and connection with someone, do everyone a favor and take a hike. I promise you will be surprised by what you find.