How hiking is shaping my Ph.D. experience
I grew up in India. A country bordered by the mighty Himalayas on its northern border. As a child, I went to the mountains, during vacations, with family. I looked at the snow-capped mountains, from distance, with deep admiration, fear, and humility. Climbing mountains sounded scary & dangerous.
In 2015, my graduate studies took me to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the US. It wasn’t an easy move. Uprooting yourself from your home country, family and friends, for an unknown soil, culture, and people. However, I started forging new connections, trying new things. Around then, I met a fellow student in my program who went on to become my biggest partner in crime (read hikes). It was one unique friendship, and it survived despite his slow, southern drawl and my terribly fast-paced, Indian accent, but more about that later.
Soon after my move, it was time for nature’s transition as well. Fall was in the air. My friend invited me out for a hike to the Shenandoah National Park. I grew up to the music of John Denver, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity of seeing the ‘Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah river.’ The scenic skyline drive mesmerized me. I was still scared & uncomfortable with some parts of the trails, but I was glad that I was trying to get out of my comfort zone.
Once I came back, I started taking more interest in parks around me, in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was surprised to learn that North Carolina has 41 State Parks and recreational areas. As I started hitting the parks and hiked along the trails, I was fascinated to learn about the amazing natural diversity, flora and fauna, and the unique conservation efforts in the face of the challenges that impact the environment. This was an eye-opener for me and broadened my horizon, as a member of the society and as a scientist. Having studied hard sciences my whole life, I finally had an opportunity to see science at the intersection of society and the environment. I was learning on the trail. My teachers were my fellow hikers, park rangers, and of course, nature!
Going out in grad school is easier said than done. I work in a lab where my research involves cells and animals. That means I can’t take a whole weekend off most of the time. Further, Ph.D. is not a nine-to-five job. To balance between my work and my hikes, I had to be much better at time management. I was having less time for rest. I was often spending one of the days during the weekend driving for five to six hours and hiking. This was also physically demanding. However, the mental peace I was getting by going out in the wild, compensated for all of the efforts.
As I went on to more hikes, I found similarities in hiking and pursuing a Ph.D. In both cases, you know that you have a long hike ahead, and you have to pace yourself, working steadily, while staying focused on the goal.
Often, in research, you do not get immediate results. You fail again and again, and more than often, there aren’t any short-term wins to push you forward. I remember I once took the Looking Glass Rock trail with my friend, and I was a bit frustrated, as it wasn’t particularly a pretty hike, and I was almost at the verge of questioning my friend’s choice. As I reached the summit, I was greeted with one of the most magnificent views of the Appalachians. I realized something that day. Sometimes the vista you see once you complete the trail makes it worth working for it. The same satisfaction drives our daily grind in academia. Well, nature can teach you a lesson or two!
In the last couple of years, I have seen a lot. As I hiked from the coast, through the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Sandhills, to the mountains of North Carolina, I had hit 40 out of its 41 state parks, and more, outside the park system. I have experienced the gorgeous fall in North Carolina and I followed it from the mountains to the Carolina Bay. I have seen some of the extraordinary swamps in eastern North Carolina. To be honest, I was unimpressed about swamps, and I would deeply regret if I didn’t give them a try. In the end, I was enchanted by the mystic swamps and the rich ecology they have to offer. Hiking humbled me by teaching me the power of keeping an open mind.
What makes me want to go out? My friends ask me why do I keep accommodating hikes on my schedule on a regular basis? Am I trying to escape reality and social interactions by sticking to nature? No, I’m not. I am a social person to the core of my heart, who likes basic social activities as much as my other friends enjoy. But hiking gives me peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment as I set myself a goal and work towards it. I get to meet kind and compassionate people who help me to become a better person. As I hike, I learn more and more about the history and ecology of the place, and it provides me with a sense of belonging. As John Muir said, going out, is really going in.
As I look back at the last two years, I can definitely see how hiking helped me survive in gradschool. The trails motivated and energized me, and gave me something to look forward to, as I went on to do my daily grind. It reminded me that the most amazing outcomes come after the most strenuous hikes. The journey so far has been wonderful, naturally!