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Personal statement: We were just present

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Aaron Guggenheim, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 20, 2013

I stood on one foot in my boxers in a frigid river, attempting to wash away the thick layer of dirt that had turned me an off-shade of brown. And as I stood there — soaked in that heart-rending beauty that comes from encountering profound silence in the wilderness — I realized something both profound and troubling: We had absolutely no idea what we were doing.

Some context, of course, is necessary. Ethan, Paul and I met while running cross-country in high school and, over the years, became fierce devotees to running workouts and races that left us mumbling incoherently at the end of them. At the end of high school, we decided to hike the John Muir Trail — 210 miles of pristine wilderness that led up to Mount Whitney — with my twin brother Jacob. We left Paul, far more athletically gifted than Ethan, Jacob or I, in charge of the planning.

“The first day is going to be fun,” Paul said with a small smile as we packed 35 pounds of food, water and clothing into our backpacks while huddled around a picnic table in Yosemite Valley. Paul often thought the words “incredibly challenging” and “fun” were interchangeable.

I wasn’t particularly worried about the hike. We had bigger issues to carry along with us on the trail. Paul and I were involved in dysfunctional relationships that — as only an 18-year-old could readily believe — seemed to hover in the same sphere of importance as life or death. But our concerns were meaningless when compared with Ethan. His father had been slowly wasting away as a result of cancer. Ethan carried a satellite phone with him that was ready to tug him back to reality if the circumstances called for it.

On the first day, we hiked more than 17 miles and 7,000 feet of vertical elevation, passing by day hikers who slung fancy cameras around their necks like trophies. That night, all of us except Paul were too sore and tired to bother moving, so we camped in a mosquito-infested campsite. We watched another couple run off into woods away from the mosquitoes, overwhelmed by the ferocity of the swarm.

But we had chocolate and GORP, a trail mix appropriately nicknamed “amazing” for the sheer quantity of caloric goodness that we could hold in each handful. Our giddiness about all the chocolate we had carried out into the woods kept us happy.

“Do you see this? We have Toblerone. We have fucking Toblerone,” I said exuberantly as we were cleaning pots after dinner.

We awoke the next morning to frost and damp sleeping bags. We dried our bags, packed camp and left. By lunch, however, Jacob blew out his knees and exited at Tuolumne Meadows for home.

After Jacob left, we picked up the pace of the hike. We were three 18-year-old boys lost in our definition of masculinity, forcefully competing to get to the top of that next mountain summit a few minutes faster, or hike those next three miles in under hour. We all wanted to get there — even if we didn’t know exactly where we were heading.

Along the trail, in the grandeur of mountains, trees and streams that made everything seem less pressing, our conversations often circled back to Ethan’s dad. Paul and I had told Ethan that anytime he wanted to talk about it, he just had to say the word. We talked about Ethan’s dad sparingly but, to be honest, we didn’t know what to say.

On the third day of hiking, after camping atop a rock that overlooked the river, my knees blew out. We set up camp for the night and in the morning, with the help of Ethan and Paul, I made my way out to a road leading to a ski resort. We reached the ski resort and called my brother, who made the six-hour drive out to come get me.

“Wow. That’s all I’m going to say. Wow,” Jacob had said over the phone before making the drive on down.

By the end, we had hiked more than 70 miles over four days, walking from sun up to sun down with little rest. Jacob and I were both left limping for the next couple of weeks. Ethan’s dad was in worse condition than when we had left.

But we didn’t fight with each other during the trip. When everything was going wrong, we became closer. It came down to the fact that we were just present. Despite the fact that we didn’t know what to say or how to say it, we were there.

The morning after Ethan’s dad passed away, Ethan texted me and asked me if I wanted to go for a run. When I met with him, I gave him a hug and asked him the obligatory stupid question, “You doing alright?” As we began running out toward the trails, Ethan looked at me and we started talking about airplanes.

Aaron Guggenheim is an LSA junior and a Daily News Reporter.