Given this interest in hiking and the opportunities for social engagement and community building that it offers, this past fall, a fellow student sustainability leader at UC Santa Cruz and I organized a hike into the Upper Campus trails that meander through forest and meadow above our university home. The goal was to bring together students, staff, faculty, community members interested in sustainability at UC Santa Cruz for a day hike to explore the natural space where we live, learn, and work.
My fellow sustainability hike leader and I had met at the Harvest Festival at the campus farm at the beginning of the quarter, where he served me countless bike-pedal-generated smoothies that he had made himself as I sat tabling for the Sustainability Office in the sweltering September heat.
A few days later, we spoke during dinner at the Student Environmental Center's General Gathering, and we realized we both had an interest in getting students from sustainability orgs on campus to spend more time together outside of org events. We swapped numbers, met in the library a couple times to draft an email, and then sent it out to everyone involved with sustainability work on campus, using the list-servs and email addresses that I have access to as the Education & Outreach Coordinator for the Sustainability Office (not an abuse of power, given that these hikes serve to further the aims of my job, even if I don't count those hours toward work). We even made a Facebook event for the hike. We were stoked.
The day came to meet up in the North Remote Parking Lot. I showed up first with my hiking shorts and hiking boots and reusable water bottle. No sign of anyone.
A few minutes later, I got a text message from my co-leader, who is the Transportation Coordinator for the organzation who hosted the General Gathering. He was on his way, and walked up from his redwood-surrounded apartment a few minutes later.
We waited. And waited.
"Well, it's time to go. Should we just start hiking?" No one else had shown up, and I'd received at least one text message from a friend who wasn't coming after all.
"Yeah, let's go."
We hiked up into the forest, just the two of us, on what would become not only the first of many sustainability inter-organizational hikes, but our first hike together, our first date, and our first chance to get to know each other through awesome conversation on the trail.
Hiking is a great social activity with both people you don't know well and people you do know well. You're moving around, exercising and getting high on endorphins, immersed in wild places that feed your soul, and there aren't really awkward silences. You're hiking outdoors, and silence is never awkward in the outdoors--there is so much to hear and experience and learn from when you are silent in a natural space.
We ended up hiking through Wilder Ranch State Park and all the way to the Highway 1, crossing the asphalt to reach our destination: the coast of the Pacific Ocean. We settled into some cliffs by a little cove, where the water rushed in at every wave and then receded. The sounds were soothing, the sun was warm, and we ate our lunch, enjoying the day, kind of glad that no one else showed up on the hike because of the opportunity it gave us to spend time together.
"I heard that some study found that chocolate is detected in the brain to cause more pleasure than kisses," he said to me. "But I don't really think so. What do you think?" I thought people only said those kinds of things in romantic movies, but I guess I was wrong. We had to test the theory, of course, so he shared an M&M with me, and then we shared a kiss. Like I said, hikes really are the best way to get to know someone.
Since then, he and I have organized a few other hikes, bringing together our friends, coworkers, and people who heard about the hike from Facebook or campus newsletters. I've had interesting conversations on the trail with people I never would have met otherwise, and I've realized how simple and worthwhile organizing hikes can be. People in the sustainability world of UC Santa Cruz now know about the hikes, and many who haven't come before have expressed interest in coming in the future. I cannot wait for spring quarter and the sunlight and flowers, which will hopefully draw even more people out to our hikes.
A photo of the fantastic group who came on our second inter-organizational sustainability community hike. I got to know some people on this hike who have brightened my life, and they continue to remain in my life either in person or through the perspectives I gained from talking with them.
As for hiking dates with my transportation coordinator friend, who has since become my boyfriend, we definitely continue to hike together, getting to know each other better every time. We just went on a gorgeous hike yesterday at a county park near San Jose, and we had a really good time enjoying the view from the top of a hill.
I believe that in addition to the conditions for conversation that hiking creates, the energies and connections that happen in nature between self and wilderness transform human social interactions into deeper connections when you spend time outdoors with someone one-on-one. Observing natural space, viewing the soil and vegetation and ecosystems, getting to know the environment, talking about where we would choose to live if we had been people living there thousands of years ago, and having moments of connection with nature together--all of this connects us to nature and ourselves.
Ultimately, hiking is a connecting activity, and in this digital age of social and human disconnection through overconnection with technology, hiking is a cure that I cannot get enough of. I encourage you to consider organizing a hike with your friends, significant other, or family. It's easy, fun, really inexpensive, and the opportunities for engagement with yourself, nature, and others are so rewarding!
Thanks for reading!