By Justin Tucker
I’ve come to feel pretty sure of myself whenever I head out on trail. At this point in my life and in my hiking tenure, I’m fully aware of what my body is capable of. I’ve covered enough miles and climbed enough mountains to have full trust in my legs to continue pushing forward when it gets tough, and in my shoulders to bear the weight of my pack. It just so happens that I live a rather active lifestyle, so even when I’m off trail, I’m likely still working those muscles that I know I’ll soon need on my next adventure.
I’m thankful that the trail continues to give me strength – both physically and mentally. But I’ve begun to wonder, what have I given back to it? That question inspired me to become a NextGen Trail Leader. Shortly after, I learned that I would be participating in my first Hike the Hill® event, where I would be meeting with congressional leaders to advocate for public lands. I have to say that politics was never my strong suit; neither was public speaking. Unlike the confidence I often display when I’m out on the trail, I was unsure as to how speaking about important issues in a virtual room in front of key decision makers would pan out.
I knew that I wanted to do a good job, and to actually feel like I was making a difference, so I prepared and prepared and prepared some more. Not only did I attend every issue briefing I could, but I also studied every provided resource and document like there was no tomorrow. I don’t even think I worked that hard when I was in school. Nonetheless, I recognized that there was more at stake than a passing or failing grade. I was focused on leaving a lasting impression with whomever I was speaking to, so I was going to know about the issues, and I was determined to introduce them with vigor, even if it meant losing sleep.
When the time came for my congressional meetings, I was ready, and it showed. I shared my story, I presented the issues, and to my own surprise, I did so without apprehension. Whether my efforts will lead to new policy this year or contribute to collective efforts years in the making, I can be proud of myself, and I’m sure I’ve made the trail proud as well.
I have come to realize that, though it will accept and welcome anyone, in all honesty, the trail doesn’t necessarily need more hikers. What it does need, however, are more dedicated stewards and passionate advocates willing to step up and do the work to protect, preserve and fight for it. The trail needs those who are not afraid to speak up.
My Hike the Hill experience highlighted one important muscle that I hadn’t given much thought or energy to prior – one that would make my experiences on trail even more worthwhile.
That muscle is my voice.