I went on my first hiking trip when I was ten. We just finished grade four, and our homeroom teacher, an avid outdoorsman, decided we were ready for a few days in the woods. To get to our camping destination, we took public transit and then walked for two hours or so. Most of us had never been camping before so our teacher taught us how to pack our backpacks, what to bring with us on a trip, how to set up a tent, collect wood and cook food over the campfire. We stayed there for three days, making short hiking trips into the forest and gathering medicinal herbs, which we later donated to the pharmacy. By the end of the trip I was hooked. Luckily, he remained our homeroom teacher till we graduated from school six years later, and those camping trips became an annual tradition. He would take us backpacking in the Carpathian mountains every summer and skiing in the winter. The trips would get longer, tougher and further away. And every year I would enjoy them more and more.
The tents we used were old army tents, extremely heavy when dry and weighing about a ton after getting wet. They were hard to set up, especially after we lost or broke all the poles and had to find suitable sticks on every trip. There were no zippers on those tents, just some loops and hooks, so they offered little in terms of protection from cold or mosquitoes. We didn’t have any pads, only sleeping bags, also heavy and big, and we used our backpacks as pillows. The backpacks themselves were nothing like sleek modern contraptions with padded straps and back supports. They were weirdly rounded, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. The straps were narrow, and after a day of lugging the backpack around felt razor-sharp.
Somehow none of those things mattered. When I think of those trips, my most vivid memories are of sitting around the campfire and listening to our teacher’s fascinating stories about his travels. Or one of my classmates playing the guitar and singing the same two songs (I think he only knew two) over and over again. I can still picture breathtaking views from mountain tops, which were even more special because they required so much work. I remember warm summer nights when we would decide to forego sleep altogether and stay up all night waiting for the sunrise. Morning haze over the mountains, the thrilling song of nightingales, and the hot red orb of the sun rolling out from behind the hills. Fresh smell of woods and multicoloured flowery carpets of high mountain meadows. Card games with my classmates on long winter nights. The excitement of flying down a toboggan hill on plastic sheets, and all the pain and aches afterwards because plastic offered little in terms of protection from bumps and gaps.
Most importantly, I remember the growing confidence and satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that hadn’t seemed possible before, the feeling of community and knowing that you can rely on your friends. While we learned a lot of practical camping and survival skills from our teacher, he taught us way more than that. We learned to watch out for each other and provide support when someone was tired or hurt. We learned to share by pulling all our food supplies together to make some weird but always delicious concoction and then distribute it between all of us making sure everyone got enough to eat. We learned that you had to keep walking even when the mountain top seemed too high up or the road way too long. We learned that even the longest routes seemed shorter with your friends around.
My teacher died a few years ago from a heart attack. I never got to tell him how much all those trips meant to me and that they inspired my lifelong passion for the outdoors. I can only hope he knew that while we enjoyed his Ukrainian language and literature classes, the most important lessons he taught us were outside the classroom.