A Wilderness Untraveled
“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” -Dan Stevens
Currently, I live in a stone house with eight bedrooms; a vegetable garden; a backyard with a fire pit; a garage of fifteen or so mountain bikes at any given time; and no central Air Conditioning unit. It is home to the most life-loving, exuberant group of people of which I have ever been a part: the Outdoors Club of the University of Virginia.
The house (colloquially known as “the Shred Shack”) is one of several that the Outdoors Club has inhabited since its inception in 2001. How profoundly extraordinary an organization it is has only recently occurred to me. It struck me last week, sitting around the bonfire, trying to explain to a newcomer how three of our friends — who have sat around this very fire — are on three different continents, each living nomadically, minimalistically, in the face of constant uncertainty. The absurdity of it all came rushing in, like rain — just how bold, intrepid, and life-embracing this culture was.
At UVa, like other top universities, a culture of competition permeates the school. Talk of sleepless nights in libraries, tragic GPAs in weed-out pre-med classes, prestigious Commerce school internships, majors that reject most applicants, and the like reflects the cut-throat, high-achieving mindset to which many fall prey. Although it boasts high-achieving students, UVa is by no means a “nerdy” school — on the weekends, binge drinking dominates student life. The aura of competition extends to the “work hard, play hard” mentality — it’s not uncommon to hear a classmate brag about blacking out from drinking at Saturday night’s date function, then pulling an all-nighter to crank out a paper due Monday morning.
In and through the Outdoors Club, I’ve learned that “work hard, play hard” can take different forms. It can mean cutting your cost of living or waiting tables to save up for outdoor play: backpacking through the Sierra Nevadas, skiing in the Rockies, or mountain biking through the Amazon rainforest. Rather than a culture of competition, it’s a culture of inspiration, of encouragement: a nudge in the direction away from the 9 to 5 mundanity that you’ve all but accepted as inevitable; a push to embrace the unknown and open yourself to the lessons nature has to offer; toward nourishing that childlike sense of wonder and curiosity that has almost slipped through your fingers. What follows is an account of a leap of faith, told through seven stories, all of which belong to previous or current members of the Outdoors Club at the University of Virginia.
Jeremy Kemp (“Nightingale”)
After graduating in 2017 (with a double major in Environmental Science and Environmental Thought and Practice), Jeremy Kemp set off to explore what the world had to offer. The summer after graduating, he took a 10,000-mile road trip across the country with friends, traveling from Florida to DC, up to South Dakota, to Montana, Portland, and ending in Wyoming. There, he caught the solar eclipse of 2017 on a backpacking trip through a section of the Rocky Mountains (along with Kit, Colin, and Adrian!) Soon after returning, Jeremy flew to Ecuador for a month-long workaway before returning to his home state, Florida, to help with hurricane Irma relief.
In the fall, to save money for adventuring post-grad, Jeremy conducted a lifestyle experiment in minimalism, converting a catering van to a home. He insulated it, built a bed, and attached fabric to the ceiling. Parked on the street in Charlottesville, near a local coffee shop, Jeremy lived out of the van from September to February. During this time, he worked three jobs: waiting tables at a local taphouse, bartending at a rooftop bar, and doing LSAT tutoring for undergrads.
In February, he drove the van to Colorado to sell it to its new owner. After spring break in Utah with the Outdoors Club and a brief trip to the Middle East (exploring Lebanon, Oman and the United Arab Emirates), Jeremy’s real journey began.
On April 3, Jeremy began hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from California to Washington. After a tendon injury (and upon realizing that he wouldn’t be able to finish the trail before the start of law school in the fall), Jeremy decided to hike the trail in sections, and vowed to return later to finish it. He has now hiked nearly 900 miles through the state of California, some of which have been with old friends, some with people he met along the trail, and some solo. His trail name — given to him by fellow hikers — is Nightingale.
In July, he will take some time to convert another van that he will live in during law school. This van will be nicer — a 2012 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter — and he plans to have a full solar/electrical system, better insulation, and a diesel heater. After converting the new van, he will hike a 450-mile stretch of the PCT (the entire state of Oregon).
With a 179 on the LSAT, Jeremy was accepted to UVa law school on a full ride as a Hardy Cross Dillard Scholar. In August, he’ll return to Charlottesville to begin his journey toward practicing environmental law (and, of course, to bless us Outdoors Club kids with his presence!)
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”
Colin Mealey, Tom Jackson and Adrian Blust (“the Stoke Doctors”)
By May 2017, Colin Mealey, Tom Jackson, and Adrian Blust had graduated from UVa — Tom with a B.S. in Biology, and Colin and Adrian with double majors in Music and Cognitive Science.
In September, the three flew to Quito, Ecuador with mountain bikes, necessities, and some vestige of a game plan. Beginning in the Quito cloud forest (high altitude rainforest), the trifecta (self-dubbed “the Stoke Doctors”) have spent the past ten months bike-packing through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, covering almost 2,000 miles. (To bike-pack, as it sounds, is to travel through a region on a bike loaded with gear.)
Their final destination is Asunción, Paraguay. They’ve biked through a diverse array of landscapes: through the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, coastal deserts, sandy beaches, around lake Titicaca, through the Bolivian altiplano (one of the largest high plateaus in the world), and the world’s largest salt flat (Salar de Uyuni). Along the way, the three have alternated between camping, sleeping in the homes or backyards of hospitable families, sleeping in fire stations and municipality buildings, and the occasional hostel or hotel (normally when a city is dangerous). They even spent two months living and working in an alternative town on the outskirts of the Peruvian Amazon. On any given day, they normally don’t know where they’ll be sleeping until 5 or 6 pm.
A bike tourer out West once told Colin that a bike is just a vehicle to meet people. I think, after the past ten months, all three Stoke Doctors can attest to that. In exchange for free places to crash, they’ve gardened, done construction, worked in hostels, milked cows on a dairy farm, and even taught English to locals. With slimmed-down rent costs and self-cooked food, they each live on about $5–10 a day.
Of the shockingly minimal amount of gear they carry (mostly bike repair tools and necessities), Colin keeps his charango (a small, ten-stringed Bolivian instrument) and Adrian his baritone ukulele. Some of Colin’s trip highlights have been biking through the mountains of Huascarán National Park in northern Peru, exploring southwest Bolivia’s altiplano and salt flat, and embarking on a three-day boat ride into the Amazon jungle.
“Someone once described to me a feeling where you drive out all other thought, and you’re simply a human exploring this beautiful, little rock spinning in space. I like that idea a lot, although it doesn’t happen often. The energy of the jungle is so strong and in your face. There are amazing, diverse, and fascinating living things filling every space of your vision. Life is everywhere.” -Colin Mealey
The three are currently in Argentina, and will part ways in August. After getting surgery on his shoulder (which has been dislocated 11 times in the past 2 years), Colin plans to return to his hometown of Bethesda, Maryland to tutor math, Spanish, and chemistry and give music lessons before going to grad school or finding a long-term job. Of course, once healed, he hopes to someday return to South America with his bike. Adrian will spend time living with his family in Paraguay and hopes to become an EMT. Tom will return home to Greensboro, NC before (with any luck) returning to South America to bike from Buenos Aires to the southernmost tip of Patagonia.
Kit Guncheon (“Shreddy Roosevelt”)
“My story is one of opportunity, and of saying yes to the unknown after living predictably for so long.”
A 2016 graduate in Mechanical Engineering, Kit has spent the past few years grabbing life by the horns. Immediately after graduating, Kit traveled to Alaska with a mountain bike to embark on what would be the first of many bike-packing adventures. He spent the summer biking and volunteering through WWOOF — a program where small, organic farms host travelers, providing food and shelter in exchange for farm help. From Alaska, Kit flew into Salt Lake City, Utah, and biked into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he met up with an Outdoors Club alum for a backpacking trip.
The winter fast approaching, Kit called a friend, who told him he would be spending the season in Crested Butte, Colorado: a ski town nestled in the Rocky Mountains. After securing jobs for the two of them as snowboard instructors, Kit loaded up his truck and trekked to the promised land, where he would also work part-time jobs, like cooking and shoveling snow, to finance his mountain living. Loving life in the Rockies, Kit stayed in Crested Butte for the summer as a downhill mountain bike instructor. When autumn — the town’s off-season — rolled around, Kit moved to Oregon to work on a weed farm, where he harvested the crop and helped build multi-million dollar greenhouses. After a brief return to Crested Butte (and a spring break in Utah with the UVa Outdoors Club!), Kit began planning his next adventure: a summer bike-packing/packrafting expedition through Kyrgyzstan with Mike, a friend from college.
As opposed to the mere bike-packing of Kit’s previous expeditions, this time, he is carrying a packraft — a small, collapsible inflatable raft — on his bike, which will allow them to paddle through glaciers, rivers, and the second-largest high mountain lake in the world. Alpacka raft, a reputable packraft company, lent them two rafts — which usually cost upwards of $1,000 each — free of cost. For bikes, they snagged a deal through Kit’s connections in Crested Butte. Currently, Kit is exploring the country on his own. In mid-August, when Mike arrives, they will bike and packraft for 400 or so miles on a remote route through the Tian Shan mountains. From what Kit has told me, the mountainous Kyrgyzstani landscape is breathtaking — in his own words, they don’t call it the Switzerland of Central Asia for nothing.
Sam (“Clifford”) Clinard
After finishing high school, most graduates have conventional aspirations: obtain a summer job, get ahead on college coursework, enjoy a final summer with longtime friends. When Sam Clinard graduated (one semester early), he had a more ambitious goal in mind: hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail, known as the A.T., is 2,190 miles long, and spans from Georgia to Maine, through the 14 states that comprise the U.S. East Coast.
In Georgia, on March 1, 2015, Sam started the A.T., at 215 pounds. Five months later, he had lost 30 pounds, met lifelong friends, and hadn’t shaved his beard once. Sam describes the A.T. as ultra-social, citing one of the benefits as seldom having to hike alone. One particularly close friend was Peter Pan — so named for the bright green tights he wore at night — with whom Sam hiked around 700 miles. In September, Sam will be a groomsman at Peter Pan’s wedding.
Like every thru-hiker, Sam was referred to by his trail name — Clifford — a nickname he earned for his bright red hair. Sam’s favorite state along the trail was New Jersey, whose lakes, waterfalls, and 4 bear sightings made it too beautiful to be considered the armpit of the U.S. One trail highlight was spending a weekend at NJ’s High Point State Park, sleeping under the stars beside a lake in the mountains.
In Vermont, Sam and his trail-mates happened upon a free hostel, which houses a cult called the Yellow Deli. The Yellow Deli aims to recreate the twelve tribes of Israel from the Old Testament. Upon joining the commune, one must give up all possessions and work for the common good. Sam and his friends stayed there for three days, enjoying food, hospitality, and ritual song and dance. Despite their outlandish beliefs, the Yellow Deli were an incredibly happy, gracious, and loving people, according to Sam. He said it felt like a home away from home, and he could see why people would stay.
Close to the finish, Sam encountered Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, often considered the wildest section of the A.T. Henry David Thoreau once described it as “savage, titanic, and inhuman.” However, Sam’s parents had given him a hard deadline of August 10 to finish, so his last few days were some of the longest — including one 35-mile day.
Sam said he would look at images of the trail’s end sign in Katahdin, Maine whenever the trail got tough. On August 10, when he finally reached it, he collapsed on it, kissed it, and cried.
“At the top, I felt a profound sense of loss — I didn’t know what to do. I assume the day I get married will bring similar feelings, but that was the best day of my life. I don’t think I will ever feel a more complex, esoteric emotion than when I finished.”
Nine days later, he started school at the University of Virginia. Still an avid outdoorsman, Sam will have spent half of college living in the Shred Shack. He will graduate with a B.S. in Physics in 2019.
A multi-sport athlete, Scott has spent years “sending it” via foot, mountain bike, slackline, and everything in between. In June, Scott completed his first marathon — Grandma’s marathon in Minnesota — with a time of 3 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds. To put this in perspective, Scott ran 26.2 miles at an average pace of 7:03 per mile. With this time, Scott qualified for the Boston Marathon, one of the most competitive marathons in the world. Scott’s brother, girlfriend, and dad (age 63) completed Grandma’s marathon with him.
An Environmental Science and Global Sustainability double major, environmental conservation is where Scott’s passion lies. Scott spent his third year of college studying Comparative Ecology and Conservation in Ecuador. Now, he is an intern in California as part of the National Park Service’s Geoscientists in the Parks program. Traveling between Sequoia, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon National Parks, Scott does field work in remote areas, camping in the backcountry, and collecting data about wetland ecological integrity.
A 2018 graduate in Biomedical Engineering, Ashe’s premier mode of locomotion is “shredding the gnar” on his trusty, two-wheeled steed — although he also “sends it” on foot from time to time. Last summer, Ashe completed the Shenandoah Mountain (SM) 100: a 100-mile backcountry mountain bike race that runs through George Washington National Forest in Virginia and some of West Virginia. Over the course of the ride, Ashe climbed over 13,200 vertical feet. He finished the race in 10 hours and 59 minutes. In 2017, he got first place in the beginner division of the Urban Assault Mountain Bike Race; raced in the A division for UVa’s Cycling team; and his triathlon team placed second in King of the James, a race that includes trail running, white water kayaking, and mountain biking.
Although biking is where Ashe’s passion lies, he says that training for another 100-mile bike race would be too time-consuming, so his current project is to train as a runner. He is set to run his first marathon in November, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Though he will always continue to bike, Ashe doesn’t intend to go pro — instead, he’ll spend a year as a scribe before heading to medical school.
In 2016, Hannah Kessenich graduated with a B.S. in physics after 3 and a half years. In her final semester, she studied abroad in New Zealand, spending much of her time kayaking on the South Island. The following spring, she moved to Cascade, Idaho to teach at the Alzar School, an alternative high school with an emphasis on outdoor education. There, she instructed high-schoolers in kayaking, backpacking, outdoor leadership, and physics. As part of the school’s immersive education, she spent six weeks in Chile, kayak-instructing her students on the Fuy, Petrohue, and Baker rivers. After a summer of leading the kayaking program at Camp Green Cove in North Carolina, Hannah moved to Oregon, where she now works as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard (HP), and paddles when she can.
What legacy will I leave? Only time will tell. For now, I’m content to collect stories, save money, and daydream about the day I leave Charlottesville and explore this beautiful, little rock spinning in space.
*Note: I know that this essay may seemingly reflect a gender disparity that is all too often found in extreme outdoors sports. I wish to dispel any misconceptions — Outdoors Club is home to some of the most brave, empowered, determined, adventurous women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Current UVa Outdoorswomen are doing incredible things and will have incredible stories to tell (perhaps in an essay I write next year). However, the focus of this essay is on recent club members who I’ve known, who just so happen to mostly be male. This is not indicative of men being more apt to do high-risk, extreme outdoor sports, in UVa’s Outdoors Club or elsewhere. Girls rule the world.