My parents told me I wasn’t prepared to backpack across Europe alone, but I didn’t listen. I left their house in Germany for the Rheinsteig hiking trail, hoping I could prove them wrong.
As I stood on the ferry, crossing the Rhine River in Germany, ready to embark on the journey of a lifetime, I felt both free and uneasy. Free in the sense I was finally on my own, but uneasy in that I had never done anything like this before.
Sure, I had been hiking plenty of times. I had numerous day trips under my belt and even 2 backpacking trips with my cousins on the Appalachian Trail too! I also had a nice pack, a good map and brushed up on my Man vs. Wild just in case. So yeah… I was pretty prepared!
I reached the north side of the river, hoisted my backpack and started walking.
It was such a beautiful day. The sky was a brighter blue than I remember ever seeing. The air was warm but the ground was still cool; bringing to mind a sense of freshness, renewal and exuberance. God I was so excited!
For the first time in what seemed like forever, I was on my own. I breathed deeply and let the sheer freedom of the moment penetrate my entire being. I was happy.
The scenery kept my attention all day. I walked through vineyards and gazed pleasantly at people sitting outside on the patio, enjoying wine and laughing without restraint. I couldn’t help but smile and feel connected to them somehow. As though we were all benefiting from the sun’s warm, enveloping glow.
The Rheinsteig hiking trail itself meandered through the woods, on dirt and pavement and through quaint, German villages where I would promptly stop for water and to rest. As the day wore on however, my spiritual-high began to sink as reality set in.
I was getting tired. Blisters were tearing at my feet and the once warm sun had suddenly been blocked out by thick, menacing clouds. The temperature was dropping and the heavens started to softly spout rain.
What just happened?!
NOOO!! The feeling of freedom was gone; replaced by frantic worrying as I trudged through drizzle, lost and looking for a campsite to spend the night. After an hour I finally found the campground and hurled my ragged body to the ground. I was soooooo tired… and super hungry.
Hungry, sore and beaten, I laid out my tarp beneath a tree to collect myself. As I sat there, wondering where to get food, I started to hear commotion. The campsite was full of RVs and happy family’s playing games but something was up. The energy around me had changed to a panicky vibe as tree limbs were being hastily chopped down, picnic tables were cleared and vehicles moved; like something was coming, a storm maybe.
I spoke too soon. 20 minutes later you’d think a tornado had touched down. The sky turned black as the wind tore at the earth with a fierce intensity. Dust and debris flew across the campsite as thunder, lightning and hail bombarded the land.
My original plan was to walk the 320km trail north for a couple of weeks, sleep under the stars, and be one with nature like Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. But that storm drained me of all my enthusiasm. My iron will for independence was shattered. I had spent all my cash, there was no ATM in sight and my feet hurt too bad to walk any further.
So I swallowed my pride and called my parents to come pick me up! In a whole day of walking I only made it 15 miles. They were there in half an hour to take me home.
Bitter defeat. Awkward silence. A shot to my pride. However you want to look at it, this sucked. I so desperately wanted to be out on my own and prove I could be independent. The honest truth however, was I didn’t want to face the reality that to make my way in this world, I needed money and was still relying on my parents for help. Reality check.
(This story is so incredibly embarrassing. But I never forgot that sense of freedom I felt or my dream to do a big hike. And in 2014 my dreams came true! I walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago!)
I knew I needed to be alone. I knew I needed to find my independence but just felt so stuck, like a confused teenager who struggles trying to grow up but who’s not old enough to drive a car.
The explicit “I told ya so” look on my parent’s face notwithstanding, we hugged and planned another family trip. It’s our way of bonding I guess? I don’t know.
I remember in 7th grade, when I lived in Europe the first time, I took a school trip to Florence, Italy and it was awesome! Now, here I was, 8 years later and heading back for a second time. This was going to be great!
Anything had to be better than stubbornly leaving for a three week hiking trip, only to call for a ride home the first day! Ugh…