Loving Nearby Nature Blog Series: Blind to my fears
Updated: Jul 15
I grew up in Newport News, VA, and I can't ever remember anyone asking me to go on a hike. In fact, the phrase "take a hike" was the only time I ever heard of the activity, and I hilariously had to use context clues to have an idea of what it meant. This remained my reality until I moved to Washington, D.C., where I met many people from different backgrounds, followed them on social media, and "liked" dozens of pictures each year of them documenting hiking trips for weekend outings and family vacations.
I was never totally oblivious to nature as my step-father would take me fishing and crabbing. We would go to Peterson's Yacht Basin, and the water was always peaceful to connect with. Still, my impatience and its proximity to the nearby basketball court in Anderson Park always made me feel like I was missing the action happening right up the street. I'm sad to say, I didn't truly appreciate our Saturday fishing trips until I reflected on it years later after his passing.
My other connection to water was from my biological father, a longshoreman for as far back as I can remember. We didn't spend much time together in my younger years, but when we did, I sat on a boat named "The Planters" with him whenever it was docked. After his long trips, he had to unload the ship of its fish, lobsters, mussels, scallops, and crabs. As I got older, I would go there with him to work, where I witnessed his work ethic, which certainly rubbed off on me, but I knew that a life in the ocean away from my family was not for me.
Fast-forward to November 2020, I began working for the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT) as the new Communications Coordinator amid a global pandemic. My background in journalism and general love for clarifying messages attracted me to the position, but my urge to reconnect with nature really excited me about the opportunity. The pandemic negatively impacted everyone, and my family and I were no exception. My wife of thirteen years, who herself loves nature, and my three little boys felt caged by our own four walls and wanted to get out in the world and connect with the natural world that we all had taken for granted over the years.
We decided to do something about it in May and scheduled a vacation to Luray, Virginia, at the Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park. A camp resort with cabins well away from huge buildings and traffic-filled highways of Washington, D.C., where we currently reside. We went to Luray Caverns to see the largest caverns in the eastern United States. This natural U.S. landmark is said to be four million centuries in the making! My children's minds wandered to places they may never have before. It was the exact scenario we were hoping for.
Next, we drove over to Shenandoah National Park to visit the hiking trails, where my mind wandered into childhood fears established more than 25 years ago.
When I was maybe 10 years old, I was stuck on an amusement park ride for half an hour. It became the basis for nearly 30 years of acrophobia, fearing high floor hotel balconies, malls, and everything in between.
We arrived at the Stony Man trail. A 1.6-mile track with an "Easiest" ranking on the difficulty scale. My concern wasn't how vigorous the hike for me; it was getting to the top and rubbing my fear of heights on my children. I refused to do that, so I pushed through and had an excellent time. I felt nauseous driving up the mountain, but I focused on my breathing and fed off the energy of my kids, who appeared utterly unbothered. My oldest son ran ahead on the trail, my middle son followed per usual, and my youngest got tired quickly and asked me to carry him. Three guaranteed elements of a Kershaw family outing. I sat down with them and took photos at the highest point, which was a big deal for me. I knew that at the end of June, I'd be attending a 10-mile hike up Old Rag with the rest of our staff at NVCT, which would be much more challenging, and a more significant test of my newfound poise on high ground.
On the morning of June 29th, I met our Conservation Director, Matt Gerhart, and our Fundraising Coordinator, Greg Meyer, at the office. Matt was kind enough to drive and allow Greg and I to enjoy the ride, talk sports, nature, and family life without having to all worry about weaving through morning traffic. We arrived around 9 a.m., and the rest of our team started rolling in.
Our Executive Director, Alan Rowsome, carpooled Land Stewardship Specialist/ Grants Coordinator Daniel Saltzberg and Partnerships Coordinator Mary Spindler, while Rentz Hilyer and Alyssa Hemler, our Land Conservation Specialist and Land Stewardship Specialist rode in the same car, of course being as environmentally friendly as we could.
We lathered on sunscreen, changed into hiking shoes, checked our bags to make sure we'd packed all we needed for the estimated 6-hour hike, and started on the trail at 9:26 a.m.
I had no idea what to expect. Old Rag had a difficulty level of "Strenuous," which was the exact opposite of the "Easiest" ranking of Stony Man I hiked with my wife and children. However, as a guy that prides myself on maintaining a high fitness level, I knew I could do it. For me, it was all about mindset, not muscle. Even though Daniel warned me that the rock scramble would be challenging for everyone.
To start, Mary was storming through it, and I thought, either she knows she will finish strong, or her pace will bite her at the end. I traveled in the middle of the pack where Daniel and I chatted about his recent move into a new apartment and how I live in D.C. I expressed how places like Arlington and Alexandria are very appealing at times, having a slightly slower pace than our nation's capital.
I was pretty oblivious to how unprepared I was for this hike until Alyssa mentioned after seeing the tiny bottle of water in the outside pocket of my bag, "Aaron, I hope that isn't all the water you have with you," she said.
Thanks to Greg, that wasn't the case. He shared with me an extra bottle of water he brought for himself, which was incredibly kind considering the value of water on a 10-mile hike. Hiking on Stony Man misinformed me, as there was a nearby place to purchase water, coffee, and other snacks. I expected the same, which was not the case.
Along the trail, Alan and I talked about sports initially, as we often do after staff meetings. This time we picked up some of the conversations Greg, Matt, and I had on the drive up, which toggled between Kobe-Lebron, Messi-Ronaldo, Popovich-Belichick, the works! Given my age and fitness level, Alan said it might be a good idea that I'm not the one pushing the pace, which is funny because I thought given my hiking inexperience, I'd better pace myself.
Nonetheless, I eventually picked up the pace, finding myself in front, not knowing if I'm the one who's now biting off more than I bargained for. I wagered I wasn't and naively pushed onward. As a group, we slowed the pace and sped up at different points to catch up with one another, genuinely using the time to get to know each other better. Mary and I are the newest to the staff, having joined well into the pandemic, so each in-person interaction, despite how short or long, is a teambuilding exercise.
Everyone made the most of what was a pretty strenuous hike. Sometimes we stopped for water breaks, as it was 93 degrees on the day and felt even warmer. Greg, who admittedly would much rather be found holding a fishing pole, was trying to remember where he found a body of water to fish the last time he was there. Alyssa and Rentz showed me their hydration bladders which made staying hydrated on the move much more convenient for them.
At the highest point of Old Rag, after climbing over and under large rocks using problem-solving skills and teamwork, Alan wasn't going to rest until he stepped onto the highest point of the mountain. Even though I still had reservations due to my lingering fear of heights, I have competitiveness in spades for every fear I've ever had. I climbed up to the highest point and took it all in. It was the most confident I've ever felt. My final fear bites the dust (if I exclude snakes, which is a fear I may never get over).
Reaching the top also meant it was time to stop for lunch, so we all had enough fuel to make the hike back down. I had trail mix packs, a protein bar, a juice box, and the water Greg granted me. Rentz and Alyssa again reminded me how unprepared I was, having burritos for lunch on the top of a mountain. I thought, "I really have to step my game up."
Me, who'd never hiked before joining NVCT, and an African-American, who aren't often associated with hiking, camping, etcetera was on top of a mountain. I couldn't believe it. Matt, being well aware of my hiking inexperience, wanted to do something special that not only welcomed me to the team but acknowledged who I am and why standing atop Old Rag was so significant for me.
Matt spoke about an ongoing partnership with the company Black Folks Camp Too. Their slogan is "treat everyone, everywhere, equally." He then shared a note from the company's founder Earl B. Hunter, Jr., that spoke directly to the principles suggested by the slogan.
"Matt, thank you very much for supporting our company and mission. We promote UNITY in the outdoors," the note said.
He then passed out the "Black Folks Camp Too" stickers, which symbolize their universal equality mission. For me and my experience, it was on the money.
Shortly after Matt's heartfelt presentation, two gentlemen who passed us earlier were having lunch, as well, and thankfully were kind enough to take a photo of the entire staff at the top. It was one of my favorite moments of the hike, getting us all together and documenting that incredible moment.
The hike down was wretched. It felt like going down the grandest flight of stairs, stepping knee over toe repetitively for hours on end. Our conversations on the way down had now shifted to our physical limitations as our bodies started to fatigue. All we could think about on our way down from the strenuous hike was whatever ailments we had. Rentz and I talked a lot about injuries we've endured in the gym while Mary stormed down the mountain like a woman on a mission.
Unfortunately, nearly at the end of the trail, a detour was added, extending our hike for almost one and a half miles. A few of us pouted for a moment until Mary again started to set the pace to the finish. Mary, Alan, and I pushed through what remained of the trail, and at 3:26, exactly six hours after starting the path, I crossed the finish line, five minutes or so behind Mary and Alan. The rest of our team rolled in not long after, and our hike was complete!
I was excited and exhausted at the same time, but most of all, I was proud. Proud that I'd finished the hike. Proud that I kept a good pace and never thought about turning around. Proud that I work with such incredibly awesome people. And finally, I was proud that I reached the top of the mountain despite my acrophobia, totally blind to my fears.