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Countering Insanity

by Lynn Wormeli of Herndon, Virginia,

a senior majoring in geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment with a minor in religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Hypothesis: lead girls on a hike for two summers and become bored by familiarity.

Independent variable: the way, the mountains, and the time.

Dependent variable: the hiker.

A strange thing happens when you walk the same path many times. Presumably it becomes familiar; with enough frequency, the leaves earn names. My trail held the Pine Tree Forest, the Hill of Doom, and the Lightning Tree, each a rite of passage on the 10-mile hike through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. But if you repeat the same trail of the same mountain at the same time over different days, you realize that nothing stays the same. In May, there are flowers. In June, there is green. In July, you fear the Lightning Tree will multiply. And in August, you notice that what was hot is now warm and what was green now glows with yellowed fringes.

The first time we forged our own way. The trail had gone unused from September to May and each passing season had left it less distinguishable from the untouched around it. That first time was a thick, forested march, rather than a confident, concrete hike. Machetes hacked, frustrations garnered sweat, and we often found ourselves rerouting. Curiosity propelled us, and the pauses reminded us of our purpose. “What have you noticed today?” one young man with us, Ryan, asked us all to share. The responses resembled the diversity of a swimmer speaking to a marathoner. So personally colored were each of our experiences that if you were not paying attention you may entirely miss the common ground. The ground was, of course, what we had in common.

We were workers of the enthusiastic and exhausted kind: camp counselors, preparing adventures for the joyful bundles awaiting their summer session to begin. A few weeks after that first time came another first for me. I led the hike, surrounded by backpack-slugging girls 12 years of age who appeared to be hiking not towards the campsite but in fact away from their own pinpointed Comfort Zones. I learned from them that even the Lightning Tree, scarred from its underdog victory against a lightning strike some years ago, could be seen without my same fascination. I tried to explain myself, and some joined my captivation. But this captivation was not for those girls whose heads travelled separately from their feet. Some girls were already in the middle of other monstrous mental climbs, and this hilly detour was an additional woe to complete. For those girls, it was the destination campfire that smoked them out of their heads and into community. I learned in the clouds of roasting branches that it is not only our eyes that provide us sight.

That summer I hiked the trail each month and took note of the mountain’s arboretum calendar. Any paper calendar would bow to the timekeeping of its natural source. The next summer I led other counselors on their novel hike. They wowed. That time the trail took me by surprise when the iconic field of flowers greeted me instead as plowed mounds for us to wade. Feeling embarrassed, as if I had forgotten the profession of a longtime friend while making their introduction, I clung to the path I remembered and mourned the petals and stems. My ears perked up after the discovery, and I questioned the year that had passed. Had a year really passed? I could not deny it. Finding myself in the same place at the same summertime beginning could not mask the differences evident in the forest and in me. Common ground builds and erodes. Familiar is not forever. And the newbies would not have known the difference.

Later that summer I took a man on the hike. He had big plans to convert my rites of passage into a paved bike trail. His company specialized in such demolition and creation. A bike path would be accessible to more, enjoyed by more, and appreciated by more. Perhaps the path could even evolve into an attraction, a desperately needed draw for a rural economy that runs on the fumes of summertime ice cream shops. Bike paths are safer for emergency rescues too, like a paved runway pointing to the injured instead of a maze of evergreens delaying aid. The path would pave through the wilderness, changing the category of the land. Camp was excited; now the girls 12 years of age could bike instead of walk! They would enjoy that. I knew I would enjoy that too.

I would like to counter the oft spoken idiom of physicist Albert Einstein who once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this applies well to the scientific method. The outdoors, however, host a battle of entropy and equilibrium. I walked my path over and over again. The map never changed, and many of the same trees remained. But it was in fact my sanity that became defined, and I became a different result.

Lynn’s essay was selected as runner up in the 2015-2016 VOWA/Dominion Resources Collegiate Undergraduate Award for Best Overall Essay.


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