John Muir Trail Hike Raises Funds for Student Aid

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Explore blog, September 25, 2013

John Muir Trail Hike Raises Funds for Student Aid

As the weary hikers rested under the trees after a long day on the John Muir Trail, Pitzer College philosophy professor Brian Keeley read from Jack Kerouac’s account of climbing Matterhorn Peak: “In no time at all it was two o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was getting that later more golden look and a wind was rising and I began to think ‘By gosh how we ever gonna climb that mountain, tonight?'”

Like Kerouac, the hikers in Pitzer College’s John Muir Trail hiking group faced a daunting challenge: to traverse 230 miles on the John Muir Trail in just 27 days. In July, college President Laura Skandera Trombley was joined by several current students, Professor Keeley, a parent of a Pitzer undergrad, and two alumnae in celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary with a hike to raise funds for student aid. The hikers, who were chosen by lottery, raised nearly $55,000 for first generation scholars awarded the John Skandera Memorial Endowed Scholarship, established by Trombley last year in memory of her father.

“My father had a great love of nature, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll hike to pay homage to him and raise funds for financial aid,'” said Trombley. “It seemed to make a great deal of sense.”

The scholarship honors the life of Trombley’s father John Skandera, an elementary school teacher who passed away in 2010. This year two students were selected to receive the scholarship, funded in part by the sponsored hike. Donors made both one-time contributions and per-mile sponsorshipsTrombley, who’d hiked portions of the trail herself in college, proposed the trip to two students who organized the hike.”They loved it and asked if I’d be willing to join them,” Trombley said. “With little hesitation or thought I said ‘sure.’”

The group suffered their share of setbacks, including the theft in the night of a hiker’s boot by wild animals (some thick socks and another hiker’s tennis shoes made for a quick fix until the next supply checkpoint), and an ankle injury that resulted in a 16-mile pack mule ride to medical care. But despite the occasional hardship, the trip left a lasting impression on the hikers.

“It’s spectacularly beautiful,” said Pitzer alum Lisa Gellar, ’76. “My log, every day, just said ‘unbelievably beautiful.’”

In the evenings after dinner the hikers took turns reading aloud from their “library,” several accounts of similar hikes by literary greats, including Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and some of Muir’s own writing.

“To be reading about [John Muir’s] descriptions of the same mountains we were in while we were there, I was struck by how similar they were, the plants and animals and the views,” Keeley said. “The physical environment hasn’t changed much.”

Undergraduate student Lisa Hirata, ’16, remembers the moment Muir’s words began to ring true to her own experience.

“At first I didn’t relate at all, but your priorities in that first week really change, from ‘I’m so dirty, I need a shower, I wonder what’s going on in the outside world’ to really feeling comfortable in the outdoors,” she said. “[After reading Muir’s work] you think ‘yeah, my feet really hurt,’ but it helps to hear how in love with the land he is, how at home he is in nature.”

The trip was such a success, both for the participants and for the scholarship fund, that Trombley says they’re considering a second hike next year.

Professor Keeley remembers people were eager to support the hikers when they learned of the trip’s good cause.

“[The scholarship] opened a lot of doors for us,” Keeley said. “If we were talking to people and trying to get information or help with something, when they heard that we were doing this for first-gen college students there were people we ran into who said ‘I was a first-gen college student’ or ‘My parents were.’ They really liked that the president of a college was out doing this kind of thing for students and future students.”

Read online at SierraClub.org

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