It Was Only the Beginning

Ana Sara Pinto was born in Brazil, but grew up hiking the Andes mountains of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Ana is married and has two energetic boys who also love the outdoors. Ana came to the US in 2003 to attend College and has loved calling the US home ever since. She has worked with youth and children for many years and has done missionary work in Bolivia, Brazil, and here in the US as well. After spending a few years teaching Spanish, she moved on to homeschooling her children as the pandemic hit. Ana and her husband are so excited as they just opened a non-profit organization called Simply What Matters. This organization aims to inspire communities and churches to active sustainable transformation, significant social impact and deep spiritual growth. Now, when she is not busy with that, hiking (or getting frightened by bears) and singing, is what she does. If you want to follow her adventures you can find her on Instagram @anasarag18.

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Ana Sara is a 2022 Trail Sisters and The North Face Adventure Grant recipient. This is her adventure story!

After months of dreaming and planning, I couldn’t believe it was finally happening: a backpacking trip to remember. A 72.5 mile hike in five days. This was larger than I had ever attempted. I had planned on doing it alone, however, when I mentioned it to my parents, they insisted on coming along. I was thrilled with having company and at the same time concerned by the prospect of looking out for them, now, as well as for me. My goals from the start were to re-connect with nature, to re-connect with myself, to spend quality time with my parents, to complete the trail and to push myself physically again. Not all my goals were met. 

In order for you to understand the importance of this trip for me, I must give you some background information of my desperate need for it. This grant provided by Trail Sisters and The North Face came as a sweet blessing, precisely at the right time. I now have come to realize that the biggest problem I’ve had for many years, is that of balance. Oh, what a word! How can such a small seven letter word make such an impact in one’s life and the lives of those all around us. It very much did for me. Balance is one of the very keys for healthy living. Balance is what most of us lack, and secretly crave. The lack-thereof may cause all sorts of problems. It’s making most of us sick, physically and mentally. Without realizing it, thinking I was doing all the right things: by society standards, by church standards, by professional standards, I lived for years a life without balance. I put everyone, and everything first. In the process I became sicker, weaker, uglier, depressed, overworked, overtired, joyless, and lost. The funny thing is, that when you get to such a low, you no-longer are able to say ‘yes’ perpetually anyway, because now, your body and soul are screaming for help. You either listen or you break down even further, if that’s possible. Thank God, I listened in time!

This year, I finally was brave enough to seek help. It was so hard. I don’t like asking for help. However, either I asked for help, or I would no longer be around to help others, my breaking point had caught up to me. The ‘go, go, go’ mode will eventually catch up to you. The lack of self-care will slowly, but surely, inevitably, be so apparent, you will see it staring at you in the bathroom mirror. In the process of learning balance, I learned to say a word that is even smaller: no! This was probably harder. I am a people pleaser, and genuinely have to confess that saying ‘no’ will continue to be tough. However, it is a matter of math. There are only so many hours in the day. If all my ‘yesses’ are for everyone one else, it automatically means that I will be left with all the ‘no’s’. This backpacking trip, was one of the first big ‘yesses’ I said to myself in a really long time. 

I love nature! I love the smell of the woods, the color of the leaves, the wind on my face, the feeling of awe when I look at God’s creation. It brings me closer to God. I makes me feel the simplicity of life. Nature takes away my worries, somehow. For that moment, when I am hiking the trail, it is as if all the difficulties of life, stayed at the trailhead, and my focus was solely on being there, present with God and nature. I hear my thoughts more clearly, I hear God more clearly. I whistle and sing without noticing myself doing so. This trip reminded me of how much I love the woods. How much it revives my soul from deep inside. How much I need it to be part of my life again. 

We started our adventure at the Amicalola State Park. Right away we realized that we made a big mistake: we packed our fears. We never did weigh our backpacks, but based on the previous backpacking trips I have done, I am certain that our packs weighed well over 50lbs. We were so excited to get started, that going over our packs one more time and taking out unnecessary items, was not part of our agenda. I now think, we thought, it would be difficult, but we would manage it with flying colors. We were so wrong! As soon as we began walking along the road to make our way to the trailhead we already had to make our first stop. I am cracking up as I remember this. It was hilarious! Here is the equation that didn’t add up no matter what new or old adding method we used: 50lbs packs + uphill hike + somewhat unfit bodies ≠ 72.5 mile hike in 5 days. 

We laughed and caught our breaths and again decided to ignore the very bright, orange warning flags waving profusely before our eyes: reduce your weight! Instead, we just kept going. The other problem was that we were so behind when we started. We had planned on starting the hike around noon, and by the time we were starting, it was five. We were very aware we would not make our fifteen mile goal that day, however, we were hoping for at least five. We were hoping to make it to a camp. None of those hopes came true. We hiked for three hours and only made it about three miles in. The weight we were hauling was preventing us from moving as fast as we wanted. It was taking us double the time. Regardless, around 8 p.m. the sun was going down. We had to find camp along the trail and setup for the night. 

I would love to say our first night was lovely and uneventful, but if I did so, I would be lying. It is the night that we will always remember though! I shall name it, the “Hey Bear” night. All was going to plan. We set up my parent’s tent and my hammock system. Our chosen camp spot for the night was on a slope, so cooking, sitting and sleeping on a slope was certainly a juggling act. Yet, no one prepared us for what was to come: my oversensitive hearing and fertile imagination! You can start laughing now, I’ll give you full permission! Isn’t that part of balance? Having lots of room for laughter amidst all the worries and troubles? Even if it is at one’s self… Well, I surely didn’t laugh then, but I am laughing now. You see, I had recently seen 2-3 bear attack-on-tents news AND both of the State Parks I called asking information about campsites and water sources, offered me unasked updates on how active and fearless the bears were being around where we were headed. 

I promise I was not asleep, I was wide awake. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t fall asleep! I kept thinking that asleep I wouldn’t be able to shoo the bear. Twice, it happened twice. I was wide awake, trying not to worry about bears attacking our tents. Then it happened: I heard the breaking of small branches on the ground as if an animal was slowly approaching our camp. I also heard very distinct huffing breathing noises. I waited a bit to be certain of what I was hearing, and sure enough I wasn’t imagining it. So, in my mind, the only obvious choice was to scream: Hey Bear! My poor parents had fallen asleep and were suddenly awaken by my frantic screams. They also got scared and joined me in the “hey bear” chorus. We talked a bit about what I heard and they went back to sleep. I tried, but, no success. A couple of hours later (this was about 2 a.m. now), again I heard: breaking branches and huffing and puffing noises near our camp. Again, I wanted to be certain and waited a bit to see if the sounds would continue and for sure, they did. So once more, I decided it would be better to scream and scare whatever animal was roaming, than to take the chance and regret it later. 

I never did find out if our visitors were bears or not that night. We saw plenty of bear scat on the trail. However, because we camped off the trail where dead leaves and branches were covering the ground, there was no possible way to see any footprints and such. I am almost certain we got small visitors instead of bears, but who knows? Maybe next time, we’ll set up a night camera and catch the uninvited camp guests. Thank goodness, after my second ‘hey bear’ scare, I was able to fall asleep and let my parents sleep. I had never been scared of bears before. As a matter of fact, we camped in several places in the past with an active bear population. One time we camped on an island with crocodiles trying to visit in the middle of the night. I had no problem sleeping or being scared something bad would happen. I believe this time, the compilation of having my parents with me, having just read some really awful bear-attacks-on-tents news, plus the unrequested bear warnings from two State Parks, did it for me. Ha! Super high alert antennas turned on to the max. And with that, I now have a new nickname: Hey Bear! 

The next day, we were tired, but excited that we would finally have a full day of hiking and lots to see and enjoy on the trail. We had a wonderful breakfast, packed up our gear and headed back to the trail. Again our packs got the best of us. It was so frustrating to have a goal and see as clear as day, that there was no possible way to meet that goal, under the current circumstances. We had to stop so often to catch our breath. Our packs were so heavy, our hips and shoulders were already sore and we had just began. I felt the need to re-evaluate our purpose for being there, and calm our hearts by setting some new goals for ourselves that were achievable. We sat down to have a sip of water and talked. I told my parents I believed our main goal was to enjoy nature, have an adventure, be present in the moment, unplug from regular life. Meeting our 15 mile quota and completing the entire trail was not important. The whole point of going out was to destress and have fun. They agreed with me, so we decided we were just going to hike, at the pace we were able with the packs and terrain that we had. A pack shake-down was not possible where we were, and the many uphill sections were inevitable. 

This changed everything, we were no longer stressed and worried about how many miles we were hiking. We were now enjoying the view, nature, and each other. We started taking pictures and laughing at the difficulties we faced. Who would have thought putting on a 50 plus pound pack was so hard. Who would’ve known it would make you look like an flipped turtle? There you go, you may laugh again at my expense. If you can’t laugh at yourself yet, let me tell you. It’s liberating! And let others laugh with you! We don’t have to be perfect all the time, there is no need for so much comparison. What we need in the word is more compassion, laughter, grace towards ourselves and towards others. 

Even though I tend to be Mrs. Perfect. This trip was different. I embraced my flaws and laughed at my mishaps. I allowed others to laugh with and at me, without feeling the weight of perfectionism, because I simply decided to throw it out the window. It was so much fun! I want to do that more: laugh at myself, instead of judging myself. Many of us, are often our greatest critics. We live enslaved by who we want to be and portray. Often those are a bit far from who we actually are able to be or truly are. We are all flawed, but just perfect at the same time. I’ve put on some weight in past few years. My high school/college athletic self, keeps nagging me about my looks today. I want to look good, yes! But I want to be joyful most of all. I am no longer in high school. I no longer play three sports competitively and have the time to train and work at my skills like I used to. Why do we do this to ourselves? New realities call for new expectations. I learned in this trip that my longing for balance also has to affect my perception of myself and expectations I set for the future. This is what came out of that: I want to have more fun; I need to be out in nature more often and hike all sorts of trails, because it brings me joy; joy and fun are very much important for my mental and emotional health; I want to exercise because it’s good for my body inside and out; and I will be more compassionate and graceful with myself. 

Back to the trail: our second night was very, very wet. We knew there was rain in the horizon, but we definitely didn’t imagine THAT much rain. It poured on us all night long. I actually loved it. I slept like a baby. The sound of the rain was so soothing to me, but it did make me wonder if all that rain had happened during the day. It would have been even more challenging to hike with heavy packs, plus wet heavy packs. The third day we were faced with another obstacle. I had started battling an infection that I thought would go away with the meds we took on the trail. However, that didn’t happen. We woke up, ate breakfast and packed up again. It was hard to tell if my body would fend off this infection or not, but just the fact that it had gotten worst worried us. We decided our trip wasn’t worth my health. My parents were also tired from the packs and had a tough night because of the storm. So we made an unanimous decision to leave the trail that day and find a hotel for the night. 

We hiked a few more miles and got in contact with a shuttle to pick us up. We found a hotel nearby and enjoyed a much needed Epsom salt bath, proper meds and a long uneventful night of rest. The fourth day we went back to the trail. This time we decided to go to the end of our original trek and hike there for the day without our packs. This part was most definitely most enlightening. We head to Vogel State Park and only took a few snacks and waters. We left our very heavy packs in the car and were eager to see what would happen. Our suspicions were true! Our packs were directly affecting our speed and bodies terribly. We felt light, and excited. We killed the first trail around the lake and were eager to hike the Duncan Ridge trail. We knew rain was coming so we got some ponchos and jackets. 

We started the trail and were so encouraged to see that without our packs we were making time. It just felt good! However, a couple miles down the trail, what seemed to be a light summer rain, was actually a storm. We were fine with hiking still, so we continued pushing. Soon after though, the rain got so intense the trail was no longer a trail, it had become a ‘river’. Thunder and lightning filled the sky and we were soaking wet. My father was recently diagnosed with stage three cancer and this was our time together, unplugged, in nature before he started his treatment. 

My parents are very adventurous and outdoorsy type of people, but this was just too much. I knew they wouldn’t ask to leave because they were there for me: To see me through to the end. However, just as much as they had gone to take care of me, I wanted to take care of them. So I called it off. I motioned to them to turn around, and we made our way back. We had pushed our bodies, we had enjoyed nature, God and each other. I revived my excitement for selfcare and balance. We made several decisions that testified to putting self-care first. I know my parents had also achieved their goals, so it was time to go home and get excited for our next trip. We will only be able to go back on the trail together when my dad is healthy again. We all knew that, so it was sad to leave, but it also gives him the urge to fight back and get better so we can go on another trip soon.

Life balance is a journey. This was only the beginning of a new era of balance for me. I look forward to each and every decision I get to make in the future that shows I care, not only for those around me, but also for myself. Nature is inspiring, breathtaking and reviving! I hope that through my experience you get encouraged to step out: laugh at yourself, put down your guards, breath the fresh air, scream ‘hey bear’ if you have to, but push yourself, and be gracious to yourself. Redefine your goals if you must, press pause when needed, but continue on the journey. If something isn’t right, it just needs re-adjusting, re-thinking, re-inventing. Get out there, it did wonders for me, and it probably will for you too!

About the Author

Ana Sara Pinto was born in Brazil, but grew up hiking the Andes mountains of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Ana is married and has two energetic boys who also love the outdoors. Ana came to the US in 2003 to attend College and has loved calling the US home ever since. She has worked with youth and children for many years and has done missionary work in Bolivia, Brazil, and here in the US as well. After spending a few years teaching Spanish, she moved on to homeschooling her children as the pandemic hit. Ana and her husband are so excited as they just opened a non-profit organization called Simply What Matters. This organization aims to inspire communities and churches to active sustainable transformation, significant social impact and deep spiritual growth. Now, when she is not busy with that, hiking (or getting frightened by bears) and singing, is what she does. If you want to follow her adventures you can find her on Instagram @anasarag18.

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