Light at the End of the Trail

As far as back as I can remember, I’ve never enjoyed being outdoors. My childhood choices of sports ranged from soaking in the four-color pages of The Uncanny X-Men to studying every single Bruce Lee move in Enter the Dragon. Whether it was reading, watching, or even drawing my favorite fictional heroes, I spent more of those times envying the athletic around me, rather than indulging in aerobics for myself.

Twenty years later, I’m an AmeriCorps member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). Considering how most manual labor happens outside, I’ve spent more of my time tending to the Tuolumne area than I do catching subsequent viewings of Days of Future Past. So what could have possibly transformed a nerdy Texan into someone willing to apply civic responsibilities through physically demanding service?

Taken in 2014, Preston chose to get in shape about three years later. Facebook

From that point, I made the goal of losing fifty pounds by the following year — igniting my desire to eat healthier and exercise regularly. Within a month into AmeriCorps, living on my new regimen, I took this rare opportunity to see what I was really made of. Without Southern culture. Without popular culture. Without anything resembling my comfort zone of old.

In October, I was welcomed into NCCC by a team of thirteen incredibly supportive people and a friendly campus. Since I’m the only person on my team from the land of George Strait and plateaus, several teammates delighted in introducing me to the wonders of beaches, Cuban cuisine, and the Golden Gate Bridge. But one common tradition I still couldn’t ascertain was the outdoorsiest of them all: camping. A few days of our training at Camp Lodestar, where I slept only 90 minutes on our first night, gave me reason enough to keep hating living in a tent.

However, my team’s Round 2 assignment necessitated putting such misgivings aside since we would spend three months deployed in the wilderness near the Tuolumne River. Although we planned to live at the luxurious Rush Creek Lodge, much of our manual labor would put us in direct contact with dehydrating elevations, poison oak, and parasitic ticks. Not exactly ideal compared to my usual activities.

Learning about the Tuolumne River’s importance to its community was enough of a reason to stick around. I found it difficult to pass up the chance to help an entire area by clearing its mountains of precarious debris and inspiring the youth to take action long after we left. We have recently begun planting trees, which my team loved doing for Luther Burbank High School last October.

If I could make the life-changing decision to leave everything I knew for ten months – forcing myself to adapt to new communities – who was I to dismiss the notion of facing some of my strongest grievances to help others in need?

I’ve found that a month into our project has done wonders for my health, my team, and the area we occupy. Although I’ve never been much of a runner, jogging distances over 4,500 feet above sea level has vastly improved my endurance and physicality. Taking into account how the only things in Texas rivaling elevation are the sizes of our bargains, hiking recreationally has allowed me to surprise myself and find gratifying incentives within the service we’re undertaking.

Preston digging for weeds at the San Jose Family Camp in Tuolumne County, California. Laura Schneider.
Preston digging for weeds at the San Jose Family Camp in Tuolumne County, California. Laura Schneider.

While there are certainly times I succumb to homesickness or Whataburger cravings, I wouldn’t trade these new experiences for the world. As I continue to explore the West Coast wilderness, mainly everything around the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, I learn and grow every day. Instead of reading about fictional heroes, I’m surrounded by real heroes who don’t need an Indiana Jones fedora to survive rattlesnake confrontations. When all else fails, I’m reminded that even on the gloomiest days or the darkest hours, there’s still light to be found at the end of the trail.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Preston Mitchell is a media representative and member of Team Blue 4. He plans to pursue a journalism career after his NCCC program ends in July. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.