The unexpectedly warm spring break of 2015 brought on one of the most exciting, rewarding, and adventurous trips that I could have been a part of. While conversing with my friend over a cold beer about my spring break plans of doing nothing but relaxing during that lazy week in March, when the weather would be surprisingly ideal, I was told shortly in advance of a trip that the adventure club at UWSP would be taking to Florida. I had yet to go on a spring break trip to anywhere, and finding out that this opportunity would only cost me approximately $40 dollars made it more than possible for me to go! On top of the low price, the club wouldn’t only be going to Florida, but would also be making stops at Red River Gorge in Kentucky for outdoor rock climbing, the Great Smoky Mountains for intense backpacking up a mountain, and then to Florida where they would get to camp on the sandy, crab-filled beaches of Perdido Key. Even then the adventure wouldn’t be finished, the clubs last stop on the way back home would be at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
I was shaking with anticipation waiting for the club meeting where I would find out if I could go or not. This trip was limited of course, but was by far the best deal for any student. Luckily my competition was a slim amount than what it could have been if the trip had been advertised throughout the entire university. I couldn’t believe how anxious I was when the meeting eventually started, even my face was starting to feel hot. I didn’t know a single student in the room, except for my friend who had invited me. While it seemed like everyone else was conversing, I kept quiet, after all I was too shy in front of people I don’t know. I unquestionably felt like an outcast at this meeting, but in the end I only cared about taking this trip of a lifetime. I didn’t need to make friends, I just HAD to go.
The first question asked by the club president was how we thought students should fairly be chosen. He brought up seniority and my face instantly felt like it was on fire because I knew if it was done that way, I wouldn’t be chosen since I was only a third year sophomore. I was so relieved when the rest of the club members, even the seniors, decided against this. The decision was to give everyone a number and then pick those numbers from a hat. The first fourteen fortunate students chosen would get to go. Tension was as high as it could be, we all were exchanging glances as number started getting pulled. The first number was……………………n’t me. Neither was the second, or third. Students being chosen gave out their holler of delight as soon as they heard their number called out. I tried to tell myself that even if I wasn’t chosen, at least I would get to relax at home and still have a great spring break. When my number was finally called out, I shouted that it was mine…. IT WAS MINE! Me! I’d be going, what was I so worried about before?! I was meant to be on this trip. A girl next to me, gave a snide remark about how it was the first time I had spoken during this entire meeting, I don’t think she meant it to sound harsh, but that is how her tone sounded to me . Little did I know that this girl, Lauren, would eventually become a great friend of mine.
Starting the ten-hour drive from Stevens Point to Red River Gorge in Kentucky was my first chance to really get to know everyone. I luckily got the front passenger seat and got to play music. We all started off introducing ourselves to the others we didn’t know, discussed our majors, and interests, and eventually got into more in depth topics that involved politics and the environment… Jenny, Mariah, and the driver, Jarod, were all very talkative. The other two in the van were two freshman boys, Cavan and Ethan. Those two and I didn’t put much input into the discussions due to still being new to this group. Every now and then I joined in the conversation, but for the most part I enjoyed listening to everyone else’s insight and stories. I was happy to discover that everyone on the trip was open to talking to everyone. After multiple stops and many winding roads, we finally reached our destination near midnight. Mariah and I were sharing the same tent and we had to search for a spot that wasn’t too damp, it had been raining during the daytime at the gorge. Once we found a spot, we also managed to put together a tent… with the help from Kyle, the president of the club.
The sound of a thousand or more spring peepers carrying on louder than the fresh sprinkling rain in the valley, is a night I will never forget when we arrived at our first destination in Red River Gorge. It was so peaceful falling asleep to not only the rain, but the constant humming of the frogs in the distance as well. I had awoken that next morning to the shouting of Kyle telling us it was time to wake up and get ready. I had caught a cold that had started before the journey began, but I was not letting that stop me from enjoying the entire trip. If we wanted to enjoy a fair amount of time rock climbing in the gorge we would have to head out soon since we would have to leave early in the evening for the Great Smoky mountains. Everyone ate breakfast at Miguel’s Pizza, this was a hot spot for every rock climber in the area. After venturing through the winding Kentucky roads and making our way down a steep and muddy path, we reached our rock wall destination. I had never climbed an outdoor rock wall before, but I couldn’t wait for the challenge.
The rock wall was slightly clammy from the night of raining but that didn’t keep any of us from wanting to climb. When it was finally my chance to climb, I felt somewhat tired, but as soon as I started climbing up the natural rock wall, I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. As I got near the top, my fear of heights gave me anxiety about going any further, but with the encouragement from Lindsay, who was belaying me and Jenny, who was right behind her, I was able to get up the wall and enjoy the view of the gorge. As we all took turns getting the adrenaline rush that anyone would feel climbing up a rock wall, we were also able to enjoy a beautiful hidden waterfall that was found further along the valleys trail. My now acquaintance, Lauren and I, went to the waterfall together to be captivated by its site. Lauren and I didn’t talk much when we were at the waterfall, we both wanted to enjoy this moment, but one thing that Lauren did mention was how much she enjoys spending these kind of moments in peace so that she can keep a mental picture of the memory forever. I felt the same. As we felt the mist of the waterfall sprinkling our faces, it was the greatest feeling knowing that we still had a whole trip ahead of us and our only worries were getting enough time to capture these moments in our memories forever.
After another night filled with hectic driving and setting up camp to sleep overnight, it was time to make the five mile hike up a mountain as soon as we woke up in the morning. This was a challenge I was most looking forward to, but it would be even more challenging with the cold I was recovering from and the huge backpack I would be trekking with. It felt like a never ending journey. Although it was already hard for me to breathe even without the uphill walking, the hike became more rewarding each mile we went. The forest at the bottom of the mountain almost had a tropical look to it, but as we started to get higher up it started to also get rockier with different types of vegetation. As we made our way, we could start to see more and more into the distance of the striking mountains that surrounded the one we were climbing.
Hunger, thirst, and exhaustion would hit us every now and then. This is when stops for water and peanut butter or some other high energy snack was crucial. As we got further and further along, almost to the top, we even started acting slightly crazy. Lauren and I had been separated from the rest of the group who ended up ahead of us. We were exhausted and giddy from the amazing view we could now see. I considered Lauren a friend now and we had to stop multiple times during the last half of the hike not necessarily because we were tired, but because the view was too amazing to miss. It was like we weren’t even looking at a real view, but at a painting of incredible blue-tinted mountains. Lauren and I both scanned across the horizon in another moment of peace so we could take in the full moment. Once we reached our destination, we got to sleep through the night in an old wooden shelter at the top of the mountain. The immense amount of stars that covered the night sky were all completely visible with the lack of any light pollution. We were at a time when the sun still was gone by 8 o’clock and since we couldn’t have a fire at this shelter, we cozied up into our sleeping bags and immediately fell asleep after the grueling mountain hike.
I would have guessed the hike down the mountain wouldn’t be nearly as strenuous, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was still fatigued from the hike up and my cold was still having its affect. My normally weak ankles were even more frail than usual. After hours of hiking down, we all made it down after the final trek. I already missed that incredible view from the mountain top. As soon as our hike had come, it was already time to head on our way to Florida.
Waking up in the early morning to the warm sun hitting my tent on the Florida beach was one of the most refreshing feelings, especially after a Wisconsin winter. We had arrived in Florida very early in the morning when darkness had long ago fallen and the sun was hours away from coming back up. We were all so thrilled to finally reach our destination after traveling across the US from our home of Wisconsin. As we hiked with our hefty backpacks along the sandy, damp beach we chased all the crabs that came into our site. We could hear the ocean waves crashing against the shore. The slight smell of salt and the humidity in the air reminded me of summertime. Although we knew we were along the ocean, it was too dark to see anything further than the shore.
After an hour or so of dancing along the beach, running back and forth into the chilly water, and setting up our tents we finally dozed off for the night. I woke up to the sound of soft voices coming from my club members nearby and the waterfowl scavenging on the shore. My sleeping bag kept me comfortable throughout the night, but once the sun had come up it was starting to feel too hot to handle. As I poked my head up, I was awestruck. I knew we had been next to the ocean, but seeing it in person made the vastness of it even more prominent than any picture you could have seen of it. I had to take a moment to let all the blissfulness I felt sink in. As I looked out of my tent, I saw that my friend, Lindsay, was walking along the shoreline. Eventually she walked up to me with a handful of sand dollars. She told me that if you woke up early enough, you could walk along that beach and find dozens of them. We had climbed the damp, stimulating rock walls in the Red River Gorge, we had backpacked up and down a total of ten miles in the Great Smoky Mountains, and even though I had unfortunately caught a cold that had lasted throughout the entire journey, I felt grateful.
Waking up early while camping always seems to come ten times easier than waking up early in bed. It’s hard not to feel full of life when you wake up immediately immersed in nature. We had spent the rest of the day lounging around with our toes in the sand and running back and forth into the dark ocean water. The ocean was still quite cold but once you took the leap in, there was no turning back, and you were drifting with the waves and tasting the saltiness. The cold water felt amazing on my body, we all hadn’t showered since we left and this was comparable to a relaxing, cool bath.
The nighttime was full of laughter and bonding around a small beach fire and the sound of an acoustic guitar while the salty breeze dried our skin. By this time, I had gotten the chance to get to know everyone on the trip and even considered them friends. While many of the nights on our trip were spent driving, immediately setting up camp, and sleeping, we got to enjoy this particular night by opening up to each other after a couple drinks and discussing life and all the other random thoughts that came to our minds.
It was bittersweet arriving back home. The drive was long, but more comfortable being surrounded by people who had become my friends over the week. All my muscles ached, but it was easy not to notice the pain with the happy memories still running clearly through my mind. I was more than ready to take a long hot shower and sleep in my fluffy blanket filled bed. But, I wasn’t ready to leave the amazing atmosphere we had all been a part of throughout the trip. Everyone had become a good friend and we were all bonded by the amazing adventures we shared together. The first day or so after traveling without a care in the world or of what time it was, it was hard adjusting back to a set schedule. We had been in varying time zones and even our phones hardly had reception or were used most of the time. This simple way of living was an adventure within itself. It seems like just yesterday I was leaving for a road trip with mostly strangers and now those strangers have all become familiar faces attached to good memories. All because of word of mouth, and my number being drawn out of a hat, I was able to have this experience of a lifetime.