Through My Eyes: My Experience As A Latina Woman On The John Muir Trail
By Karla Amador, Co-founder of 52 Hike Challenge
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong or you’re not enough?
So have I.
In this personal story, you will hear my experience — in my own words — as a Latina woman on the John Muir Trail and how I went from feeling unwelcome to knowing that I belong.
I set foot on the John Muir Trail (JMT) [Nüümü Poyo - Ed.] on August 1, 2019. I remember it feeling like a dream that would never come true, but there I was at Cottonwood Pass Trailhead.
How did I get here?
It all started with a life dreamed up by my parents while living in El Salvador. My Latina roots brought me to the path I walk today.
My Latina Roots
I am the firstborn to immigrant parents from El Salvador, who wanted a better life as they fled the civil war. They both worked for wealthy people in Beverly Hills, California. Mom was a housekeeper, and Dad was a driver. We lived in a backhouse for some time, until Mom was expecting, so we settled into a small apartment in Los Angeles.
I grew up with five sisters. Our days were spent playing together, putting on plays, running outside at the park with Dad while he played soccer. Mom loved taking us window shopping and for hikes up Griffith Park. (I never could have imagined how impactful those hikes would be.)
At just 18, I went from being a teenager to being a mom - my life changed drastically! It was not easy. I was in an unhealthy relationship, felt ashamed of myself, and had a lot of guilt for my circumstances. As a way to make my pain bearable, I found myself caught up in a world that was materialistic.
In 2012, my marriage fell apart. That shifted everything in my life. I began to question my beliefs and the ideals I had bought into.
Getting To Know Myself Through Hiking
A year later, I met Phillip (my 52 Hike Challenge co-founder) for a meal. A few weeks after, he took me for a hike.
There was something special about getting to the outlook called “Inspiration Point” in Santa Barbara and seeing the ocean below. The fresh air made me feel like I could breathe once again, and the vistas took my sadness away temporarily.
For the first time in a long time, I felt hope again.
I wanted to keep feeling that hope, so in 2014 as a New Year's resolution, I decided to set a goal to hike once a week for a year, as a way to bring some fun and adventure back into my life. My co-founder agreed to help me.
We had no idea that my 52 hikes would spark the global movement known as 52 Hike Challenge today.
While on my 52 hikes, I was able to process my pain. I learned to love and accept myself and to forgive myself for not always meeting the unrealistic standards I held myself to. I overcame many obstacles and limiting beliefs.
For example, one limiting belief was that I wasn’t good enough and worthy. For a big part of my life, I felt “less than” others — including feeling less than “white people.”
My time on the trails during those 52 hikes gave me tremendous growth and healing. It allowed me to find my truth and inner power.
“I was always enough, I had just forgotten.”
Loving And Accepting Others Through Hiking
After I finished my 52nd hike, I felt the need to share that story with others, so we launched the 52 Hike Challenge, which has encouraged people all over the world to get outside. We have over 40,000 participants to date.
I didn’t stop hiking, I didn’t stop learning, and I didn’t stop loving.
I continued my education about the outdoors, I set out on solo adventures, and I went on group hikes where I met other hikers from all backgrounds. Through hiking, I was able to diversify my friendships.
My journey up until this point taught me that we all have a story, we all have pain, and that is what connects us all. With that knowledge, I opened up my heart to love all people.
In 2016, I took the Wilderness Travel Course by the Sierra Club, where I had a divine meeting.
Here I was: a Latin American woman in her early 30’s, sitting next to a petite white woman in her early 50’s. I sized her up, thinking to myself, “what’s this cute little thing doing in this class?” Nonetheless, we developed an unlikely friendship.
Age or race didn’t matter: we both loved the outdoors.
Connie not only became an amazing friend, but also my hiking partner on the John Muir Trail.
Finding A Sense Of Belonging On The Trail
Connie + Karla training for the JMT
It took us six months to prepare for our thru-hike on the JMT.
We started getting ready for our trek in February 2019. I got the permit, planned out our daily mileage and sleeping locations. Connie helped gather food and got it to the resupply locations. It was a team effort for sure.
Stepping foot on the trail, I felt ready! I knew that the trails belonged to me. I was enough. I belonged.
What I have found is that our perspective is what we mostly encounter. So, if you believe and feel like you don’t belong, you’ll have circumstances that validate that belief. If you show up with a sense of belonging, you’ll most likely find the same.
Overall, everyone we encountered on the trail was kind. We may have met one unfriendly person who didn’t say “hi” back to us when we greeted him. But then again, maybe he was preoccupied or lost.
You see, we never know what someone else might be going through. It most likely isn’t about us anyway.
Despite one man’s negative attitude, I still maintained my sense of belonging.
Feeling At Home On The Trail
Was there diversity on the JMT?
I was only one of maybe two Latinas I saw on the JMT, and I only met a few diverse hikers. I did find lots of women on the trail, though.
Regardless, I made many trail friends with whom I laughed, shared stories, and made many memories with.
The trail did not discriminate.
We all complained about how much our feet hurt, we compared blisters, and we all smelled — bad. We were connected by the truth we found outside and by our one shared goal: to complete the John Muir Trail.
Towards the end of the trek, I was exhausted and ready to come home. But I persevered.
The trails were my home, the mountains showed me my strength, and they continue to teach me that I am of the land. It belongs to me, and I belong to it. I have taken that sense of belonging with me on and off the trail. I hope that you can find that you belong too.
If I can, anyone can.
Want to hear more from Karla about how you can complete the JMT?
Stay tuned for Part II and III of Karla's "Through My Eyes" series, 'How to Prepare for Your Thru-Hike on the John Muir Trail" and "Lessons Learned Before and After Thru-Hiking the JMT" coming soon.
About Karla: While going through a dark and emotional time in her life (divorce), fate stepped in, when she met Phillip! After seeing Phillip's weight-loss journey, Karla was inspired to get out and hike... while outdoors she noticed that she was starting to feel better inside.
In January 2014, they were flying back from a SCUBA trip, when Karla shared her New Year's resolutions with Phillip. One, was to hike at least once per week, and that is how the 52 Hike Challenge was born. They completed the challenge in 8.5 months, hiking and climbing some amazing places and mountains - including the tallest volcano in El Salvador and Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.* Hiking changed something in her. It cured her of her pain, it made her more connected to what is truly important and made her feel alive. The Hike Challenge literally changed Karla's life, one step at a time.
After their 52 Hikes were complete they knew they had to share their hiking secret with the world. The idea started with writing a book about the healing found in nature, but then they decided things could only get better if they invited others to do their own 52 Hike Challenge and include those stories as well! She is currently working on the book and accepting finisher stories.
"I have committed to hiking 52 times a year, for as long as I can and welcome you to join this life-changing journey." - Karla Amador
Editor's note: At Sawyer, we recognize the Nüümü Poyo, a series of ancestral trails taken by the Paiute people, which forms the backbone of what's modernly known as the John Muir Trail.
Connect with Karla and 52 Hike Challenge!
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