I was pedaling. Hard. Each gust of wind blasted my raw face, and I leaned into it, groaning. The wind groaned back, hitting me with gusts upwards of 35 miles an hour. I wasn’t going to make it.
I looked ahead, where our other 10 cyclists were pedaling just as hard as I was. I was the sheep dog that day, keeping my flock together in front of me. I shook with each exhale as the oxygen flowed through my aching muscles and the hot air left my lungs. I wasn’t going to make it. We weren’t going to make it.
It was Day 4 of the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Cycle the Rockies course, focusing on energy and climate change. It was officially our first day cycling out on the sweltering highway, venturing north from Billings, Montana, a distance of 30 miles, to a ranch owned by 69-year-old Stephen Charter.
At dawn, we were simply a group of college students from across the country, eager yet nervous to venture out across 700 miles of Montana. Our relationships were still fresh and unsure. We had yet to ride and travel together. We had yet to navigate each other’s difficulties out on the road. But by dinner time at the ranch, we were able to share our hardships and solidify a group dynamic, and let the harsh wind take our struggles with it. We were able to set the pace of our new friendships.
Not even the view of our final mile marker could take away how difficult the day had been. We took a left turn onto a rough, rocky road up to the ranch. I took my numb left foot off the pedal, hit the brakes, and stopped. Against my earlier doubts, we made it. I was fully awestruck under layers of exhaustion. I remember saying to myself that this was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
After deep sighs of relief, my classmates and I stumbled into Steve’s living room. We discussed a few things before dinner as a group and Steve had much to share. With a sense of sorrow in his tone, he acknowledged the Crow people and the stolen land that he now owns and works. He described his duties on the ranch, and how rather than being a steward of the land, he wishes to learn from it. His passion for regenerative agriculture blossomed in his discourse.
We ate an excellent lentil and rice meal for a well-earned dinner. While we ate, Steve asked us to introduce ourselves and to share the adversities we struggled with, both relating to our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic and around climate change issues. His curiosity joined our exhaustion. At that point, we knew each other’s names and hometowns, but nothing far beyond that.
We went one by one. Though everyone had something new to share, a lot of similar struggles were uncovered. We told him about the mental challenges of learning in an online environment—the lack of focus, disinterest, reluctance to engage. We shared our sense of hopelessness, fear and helplessness in the face of climate change. Some discussed their grief at the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed. Steve and everyone else in the room nodded their heads. A shared sense of sorrow at the inequities in our country and the plight of our planet brought several people to tears.
Just like that, our hardships became the glue that would continue to hold us together. Our experiences of being shut in from the world were interconnected, as if we all wrote different chapters of the same story. We realized that this trip allowed us all a brand new opportunity of freedom, to let our adversities go in the wind.
Steve thanked us with an accepting smile, “Let’s go take a walk.”
I’d never imagined myself connected to a group of individuals as unique as this. At every crest of every hill, I definitely thought I wasn’t going to make it. On each descent, I was overwhelmed with comfort and completeness. We’re going to make this. Together.
Leila Gabrys is a college junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies atmospheric sciences and environmental studies.