Indiana State University’s Tracy Osborne and Cody Inskeep achieved the biggest outdoor adventure of their lives last fall: a 26-day, 260-mile hike across the forests, deserts and mountains of California.
The email read: “Good afternoon, campus partners and friends! I will be out of the office from September 1st to September 30th. You might be thinking … what in the world?!? The real question is: ‘Where in the world?’”
The destination was more than 2,000 miles away — and 14,000 feet up. In September 2016, Indiana State University’s Tracy Osborne and Cody Inskeep headed for the biggest outdoor adventure of their lives: a 260-mile hike across the forests, deserts and mountains of California. The 26-day trek on the John Muir Trail tested their physical strength, mental endurance and preparation like nothing else.
“It was hands-down the most difficult situation we’d been in in our entire lives,” Inskeep said.
For most people, a 260-mile hike is probably not how they’d choose to spend their time off. But for Osborne and Inskeep, Indiana State staff members who love nature and adventures, the John Muir Trail (JMT) was the perfect choice. Conquering the south-to-north route, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But before they traded their Indiana State offices for the California wilderness, Osborne and Inskeep spent several months preparing for the trek. Each day on the trail was precisely analyzed and planned out — the distance, elevation change, calorie consumption, meals, resupply points, and locations for water and a campsite. They purchased, prepared and tested their gear — hiking packs, sleeping bags, tent, cookware and dishes, water bottles, basic clothing and more. They even shipped buckets packed with food to resupply points along the trail.
And, most importantly, they applied for a permit to hike the JMT and requested time off from work (which was readily granted by their supportive offices).
“It was a whirlwind of three months of really intense planning,” said Osborne, director of new student transition programs and university testing. “And then it was finally time to go, and we were out there.”
“(When we started on the trail), I was definitely anxious and excited,” said Inskeep, associate director of athletic training services. “You do a lot of research and you read a lot of stories. You have a good idea of what to expect, but until you actually get there, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
From their starting point just off the trail at Horseshoe Meadow, Osborne and Inskeep headed 30 miles to the official JMT trailhead for northbound hikers. It was the hardest part of the whole trip — the climb up Mount Whitney, a 14,500-foot mountain with the tallest summit in the contiguous United States.
“It was probably the worst day,” Osborne said. “It was the first mountain that I had climbed. The ledge we walked on was so small, and it was really cold and windy. I thought, ‘I’m going to fall off this mountain.’ It was super hard, and I was super tired. I didn’t know if I could keep going. But looking back, I’m so proud that I pushed on.”
After 15 strenuous miles up and down Mount Whitney, the toughest day was behind the hiking duo — and relatively easier days were ahead. They continued to march northward, walking about eight hours to cover about 10 miles each day. They treaded across all sorts of challenging terrain — from the almost sheer cliffs of Mount Whitney to loose sand inches deep, soft mats of pine needles and giant boulders.
“It’s like you’re on a stair master for eight hours a day with a 40-pound bag on your back,” Inskeep said. “And you’re expending 6,000 to 12,000 calories a day.”
It was exhausting and physically demanding, they said, but not in the way you might think.
“It wasn’t like muscle fatigue. You’d think that my whole body would just be aching, especially your legs,” Osborne said. “But we really didn’t get that.”
“Elevation kept us at a pace where we weren’t doing a lot of damage to our muscles, but mentally, it was difficult,” Inskeep said. “It was the same thing, at the bare bones, over and over every day. Eating, sleeping, walking …. Mentally, you just had short ‘moments’ as we called them. I had two. Tracy had three. Moments when you just lose it, and you wish for a helicopter.”
“But it really only took a beautiful meadow or one really cool animal to turn your mood around and say, ‘Okay, this is why I’m doing what I’m doing,’” Osborne said. “The fatigue was bad, but it was never something that stopped you.”
“The views and food were incentives to keep moving,” Inskeep said.
‘IT LOOKED FAKE’
“You could go with the cliché — amazing, beautiful, unbelievable — because it is. Unless you’ve been to actual high-altitude mountains, you can’t really imagine it until you’ve been there,” Inskeep said. “The sky up there — it looked fake. That’s the best way to describe it. In pictures, everything’s so amplified and digitized that you think it’s a product of human tampering. But once you see it in real life, you realize those amazing places actually exist.”
Because the JMT passes through so many miles of California wilderness, hikers see the most diverse landscapes. Osborne and Inskeep said they saw “everything” — sandy deserts, barren mountaintops, lush forests and more.
“Each day was something new and different,” Osborne said. “The most beautiful lakes that are crystal clear all the way to the bottom. Land that is so rocky it looks like the moon. Waterfalls that made granite as slick as ice. And beautiful animals. The birds were just the most vibrant of colors. And the fish in the stream were the same way. It took so much effort to get there, to see these beautiful places that a lot of people will never see.”
YOU CAN’T HELP BUT THINK
After spending so many days in the wilderness, no hiker can come away entirely unchanged. When on the trail, there’s really only one other thing to do besides eat, sleep and walk across the most beautiful landscapes.
For Inskeep, that meant realizing the value of work-life balance. Now back at his job as the associate director of athletic training services, he aims to help the students he mentors understand the importance of pursuing a fulfilling personal life in addition to a great career.
“I didn’t fully grasp the concept until I was gone for an entire month and realized what made me happy as a person,” Inskeep said. “Work-life balance is very important to me. And that’s one of my big driving forces — to help people in (the athletic training) profession understand that it is possible to be good at both work and life.”
And Osborne, back at work as the director for new student transition programs, is ready to help others find and reach their dreams — no matter how challenging they might seem.
“I think it’s made me a better supervisor and professional. I love working with students, and I hope I can help them find their own adventure and what makes them happy,” Osborne said. “With planning, you can make your big adventure happen, whatever that may look like.”