Courtesy of Francesca Verdier

Sylvia Lijewski was 10 miles and four hours from civilization when she noticed she was singing nonsense out loud. She was on her first solo backpacking trip, hiking to Willet Hot Springs in the Sespe Wilderness.

She was surrounded by beautiful rolling hills and there was the sound of a rushing river in the distance. The recent rainfall in the area made the river crossings on this hike intense, but it also made the surrounding area greener. Every now and then Lijewski felt a slight sprinkle of rain, but she knew if she kept her pace, she could make it to the hot spring to set up camp before it started to pour.

Lijewski, an environmental management and protection junior, challenged herself to go on a different hiking trip every weekend of winter quarter. She spent fall quarter feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Determined to make a change in her life, she decided to reconnect with nature.

“Last quarter was a really tough quarter for me academically. I was in 20 units and three of my classes had labs,” Lijewski said. “As the quarter progressed, I was basically spending whatever time I wasn’t in class studying or doing school work. And when I did take a break, it wasn’t for outdoor time or exercise, it was for social reasons.”

She hoped this challenge would help her see new places, learn more about herself and push herself to do things she normally wouldn’t.

“This forced me to not only become better at time management, but also has allowed me to get to know and take advantage of the beautiful place we live in,” Lijewski said.

Lijewski kept her promise to herself all quarter, taking weekend trips to Willet Hot Springs, Henry Coe State Park, Pinnacles National Park and the Big Falls Little Falls Loop Hike in Santa Lucia Wilderness.

Her solo trip to Willet Hot Springs wasn’t meant to be solo; Lijewski had plans to go with a friend, but the friend cancelled on her the night before leaving.

“I decided if I was always dependent on someone else doing things with me, I would never be able to do all of the things I want to do. So I decided to go,” Lijewski said.

She ended up thoroughly enjoying her solo hike and realized that she could backpack alone and still have fun. 

“I ended up meeting four guys at the hot springs who I ended up staying up late with, sitting around the fire talking,” Lijewski said.

She found that solo hiking wasn’t as terrifying as people make it out to be.

“Everything I was scared of before I left — sounds of animals in the dark, being lonely, hurting myself, getting lost— I never actually worried about out on the trail,” Lijewski said.

Lijewski encourages other women who may want to go on solo trips but may be too nervous to just do it. She said she learned a lot about herself, her independence and her ability to make new friends. She said she hopes others will open themselves up to the same experiences.

“Say yes to every experience, and if someone says no to yours, don’t let it stop you from doing it,” Lijewski said.

Some of Lijewski’s friends were also nervous for her first solo trip. There seems to be a stigma attached to women doing these types of activities alone, that it is more dangerous for females.

“When I first heard that Sylvia was going backpacking alone, I was a little worried. But then I realized it was Sylvia and she’s an experienced backpacker and can handle it,” anthropology and geography junior and friend of Lijewski’s Claire Tatlow said. “I think it’s pretty badass that she sometimes goes by herself.”   

Stress relief through hiking     

Another reason Lijewski started this challenge was to relieve stress from the pressures of day-to-day life and give her mind room to breathe. This is an aspect of every college student’s mental health that sometimes gets forgotten or pushed to the side.

Director of Counseling Services Geneva Reynaga-Abiko finds that college can be stressful to people for a variety of reasons.

“Many students are not aware of the difference in quality and quantity of work associated with college, compared to high school, and find that stressful. Others have a hard time with the lack of structure and learning how to structure their own day, as opposed to high school where you are usually in class for the same hours every day,” Reynaga-Abiko said.         

Reynaga-Abiko believes that the key to staying on top of stress levels is to learn how to schedule and plan for anything that could cause stress. Stress can impact everyone in a different way and each student needs to find the way to manage it that works for them, Reynaga-Abiko said.

Tatlow decided to give the hiking a shot after hearing of Lijewski’s plan and joined her on her a hike through Pinnacles National Park. Though she says she is not as “hardcore” as Lijewski about hiking, she quickly realized what a stress reliever it can be.

“The beauty of Sylvia’s plan is that by challenging herself to do a trip every weekend, she forces herself to do something fun, rewarding and good for her health and stress,” Tatlow said.

While backpacking through the mountains alone may not be everyone’s first choice for stress management, finding something to help decompress after a long week can go a long way in managing mental health. Lijewski said hiking and reconnecting with nature is what’s best for her.

“After getting back from the first trip, I felt really accomplished, like if I could execute a backpacking trip by myself, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do,” Lijewski said. “It sounds cheesy, but I view the world in a different way now and I view others in a different way. I feel liberated and free, like the world is my oyster and I am ready to find all that it has to offer.”

Lijewski keeps a blog to share her weekend adventures with friends and family. She also credits it with keeping her accountable for continuing her challenge.

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