I was completely out of breath and red in the face by the time the switch- backs leveled out and we rounded the corner to the first flat section the trail had gifted us. We looked up at the wooden sign nailed to the tree indicating our bifurcated path forward and read “Difficult, More Difficult” as our options. I bent double and closed my eyes, listening to my pounding heart.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’m no novice to hiking. The activity has more or less threaded itself throughout my entire life, but it wasn’t until I made the life-changing decision to quit my job and return to graduate school that my relationship with hiking bloomed. I had been unhappy in my role for a long time but still struggled with the fear of leaving employed consistency for the unknown. When I finally put in my notice, it was like running towards a cliff and leaping.
I had decided to give myself a few months before starting at SIPA without any real direction in mind for how to spend them. It ended up being a close friend of my sister’s who reached out and asked if I wanted to go on a hike. It was in these first steps we took together along a prominent cliff of columnar basalt rising above the Columbia River Gorge that I knew what my next few months held.
I consumed hikes. When I wasn’t hitting the trail, I spent my time researching the best ones, reading reviews, building my inventory of gear, and often traveling several hours to try the next trailhead. The pastime I once casually engaged with now became an anchor for me. The methodical rhythm of my strides, the comforting weight of my pack, the sound of the forest alive around me. It all gave me a sense of purpose when, internally, I felt adrift.
My decision to study at SIPA was, by all means, a pivot. I was leaving a field I had become dis- illusioned with but still had no clarity into what I wanted to do next. The metaphorical path for my life wasn’t clear, so instead I chose to focus on the physical paths I could find.
It turns out that navigating the physical paths takes time and concentration as well. When the trail disappears across a raging glacial stream, you find the nearest fallen log and crawl across the rushing water. When your shaking legs give out on the downward slope, your scraped hands and knees teach you that listening to your body isn’t a suggestion. When you think you’re at the end of a grueling hike only to turn a corner and see a peak rise to the end, you have to reach deep inside yourself, because the only way forward is up.
Hiking became a reflection of my internal struggle. It was difficult progress marked by frequent doubts about my ability to make it to the top. So often along the trail, your gaze is down, watching your feet so that the rocks and roots don’t trip you up, don’t bring you to your knees. But it’s the hard journey that makes the view from the top worth it.
Because it is worth it. I was gifted with sweep- ing views of the Columbia River Valley, of turbulent and cascading waterfalls, and of sunrises and sunsets that gleamed from the horizon. On my favorite hike, the rocky outcrop at its summit affords hikers a 365-degree view of five mountain peaks— the furthest a whopping 196 miles away.
I discovered that I didn’t need to know what the path held for me in order to take the first step. Yes, the path was often treacherous and steep, but I grew strong enough to push the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of. In learning this, I finally came to terms with the uncharted path ahead of me at SIPA.
We here at SIPA have all learned how to forge ahead and discover that where we thought we were going isn’t always where we end up. It’s been an uphill journey filled with unexpected twists and turns. But more often than not, I find we surprise ourselves by what we’re capable of and often extend our hands to those around us as we climb to the top.
My final hike before departing for SIPA was called Dog Mountain, a challenging ascent even by Pacific Northwest standards. My friend and I kicked off the hike at 6 a.m., me wearing my trusty hiking boots, which by this point were held together with duct tape. We were the first ones on the trail. When we reached the infamous “Difficult, More Difficult” sign, I’ll admit we unanimously elected the “Difficult” option. Upon reaching the peak, huffing and puffing, I laid down on the dirt and felt the support of the earth beneath me. My heartbeat slowed, and I breathed in the mountain air. Here’s to the many more paths we’ll begin.
About The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize
The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize is given in memory of Raphael Smith, a member of the Class of 1994 who died in a motorcycle accident while retracing his stepfather’s adventure of motorcycling from Paris to Tokyo. The prize, established by his family and friends, is awarded annually to two second-year SIPA students for travel articles that exemplify the adventurism and spirit of SIPA. The winners of this year’s contest are Kevin Brunelli MPA ’23 and Audrey Hatfield MPA ’23.