Power Walkers: North Dakota Sisters Practice Resilience on the John Muir Trail

    From top to bottom, the state of North Dakota spans 211 miles, the same distance as the John Muir Trail across the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. 

    After moving to the city of Salem, Oregon, North Dakota natives Molly and Carrie Nienhuis began to miss the beauty and wildness of home. 

    “I think we gravitated toward backpacking because it mirrored our upbringing. In a rural town, when you see someone in a grocery store, you start talking to them. The trail is like that. People are friendly, and we work together, never leaving someone behind. The trail is an equalizer,” Carrie explains.

    Molly agrees. “We had access to nature all the time when we lived in a rural area, but moving to the city made us miss it.”

    “I wouldn’t call myself an outdoorsy person,” Carrie says, “but at college, when I was indoors all day, just being outside became a special thing. Molly had started hiking, so I decided to try it.”

    The sisters read articles about others’ experiences and began incrementally increasing how far their own hikes took them. They hiked over two thousand miles during the course of four years in the pacific northwest, learning more about their gear, their abilities, and the resilience needed to complete longer hikes. When they heard about the John Muir Trail, they knew they wanted to apply for a permit to hike it.

    Approximately 1500 permitted hikers attempt to complete the entire John Muir Trail each year. The average time to finish the trail is three weeks, and the total elevation gain is approximately 47,000 feet. Almost all of the trail is 8,000 feet above sea level or higher, including Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. at 14,505 feet. The Nienhuises joined the 95% of hikers who chose to complete the hike from north to south.

    “We conditioned to be successful even before we applied for our permit,” Molly says. “You have to apply 180 days before your intended hike, so we had plenty of time to prepare.”

    Carrie and Molly used their hiking time to grow in their Christian faith. Ultralight backpackers only carry the basic necessities. Hikers may choose to bring one luxury item, typically something heavier. Both sisters chose their Bibles. They read a chapter a day together and also prayed as they walked.

    “We prayed for wisdom about our itinerary. We didn’t have to worry. Even when the conditions were not ideal and we were hiking in rain or sleet, we knew we had God’s wisdom and protection,” Molly says.

Besides their luxury item, any extra weight was left behind. Carrie had tried previous hikes without a hair brush, but decided it might be best to bring a small, foldable one on the John Muir Trail. However, to make it lighter, she took the mirror out of it. Molly explained how they chose snacks with caloric density, taking up less space while also giving energy for longer. 

They mailed five gallon buckets filled with food and supplies to the resupply locations along the trail. At these locations, hikers can throw away trash and pick up fresh supplies.

    Even after the extensive preparation, the beginning of the hike had a few hiccups. The sisters decided at the last minute to change their starting point due to the heat. Instead of beginning at Yosemite Valley, the weather forecast influenced them to begin at Tuolumne Meadows. They planned to return later in the fall to complete the skipped twenty miles in a cooler day hike.

    With that decision behind them, Carrie and Molly flew to their destination, but they missed their bus to the trailhead. A ranger in Yosemite National Park advised them to try to hitchhike for the hour car ride to Tuolumne Meadows. Because they carry very little extra materials when backpacking, they had to use their bus tickets to make a sign that told motorists where they wanted to go. Carrie cried a little. Molly prayed. 

    A car stopped! Tourists from Germany invited the girls to ride to the trailhead. Even though the car was too full to put their feet on the floorboards, Molly and Carrie were grateful for the lift. They began their hike on Sept. 5th.

    “I love doing something difficult everyday. When we encounter difficulties, it increases our mental toughness. While we’re hiking, I know there are some things I can control and some things I can’t. It’s practicing resiliency, and I can take that back to my daily life even after the hike is over,” Molly says.

Though Carrie and Molly brought the required bear canister where they stored food, lip balm, or any scented items away from their campsite, they did have a bear visit their camp one night. The heavy footfalls and snuffly breathing woke Carrie, who made noise with her sleeping bag to frighten it away. Molly slept through the encounter, but other hikers camping nearby reported that they had heard the bear during the night as well.   

    The beauty of the scenery and the allure of nature overshadowed any inconviences, however.

    “The Sierras are so expansive. Everytime you go over a mountain pass, it is cool to see the space and then go roam through it. The rock formations, the stars, the openness, and the trees are all breathtaking,” Molly remembers.

    Because she was concerned about being cold while hiking, Carrie brought both a sleeping bag liner and insulated “puffy” pants. As the sisters prayed about being a blessing to others on the trail, they encountered another young woman hiking solo who camped with them. She was cold, and Carrie was able to share her sleeping bag liner. 

    “God is so gracious to let me worry in advance so that I brought two things to keep me warm. Then, I could share. He prepared us for every aspect of our hike. He supplies my every need, and it was good to be able to help meet someone else’s need,” Carrie says.

    Mile by mile, they overcame the challenges together. Molly shared that the greatest difficulty for her was the mental obstacle of looking at the overwhelming task ahead and not getting discouraged.

    “Looking at it all before you and knowing that there is so much left to do can be daunting, but hiking helps me shift my focus to what I need to accomplish today,” she says.

    Carrie, who took on the majority of research and planning for the trip, found that all the details and unknowns caused her to feel anxious. However, she found that, “It was good to use that little bit of anxiousness as a tool to be as prepared as possible.”

    And the rewards? For Carrie, it was finishing the seemingly impossible task of hiking the entire trail. 

    “Some mornings, waking up frozen in the tent, the end of the trail felt so far away, but persevering to the end was so rewarding. I also enjoyed meeting other hikers and seeing the beautiful scenery.”

    “I enjoyed meeting others too,” Molly says, “and practicing resilience everyday is priceless. Also, being in the outdoors for so long makes me appreciate the little things I take for granted like temperature controlled rooms, home cooked meals, and running water.”

    The sisters completed the trail on Sept. 18th. The whole hike had taken 14 days, a week faster than the average hike time. They heard while on the trail that the Mt. Whitney area, where the trail terminates, was expecting a foot of snow. Molly and Carrie changed their itinerary so that they could hike two twenty mile days at the end and beat the snow. When they reached the junction, it was clear, and they could celebrate reaching the end of their journey with the scenic views from the top of Mt. Whitney.

    “Everytime we go backpacking, we meet adversity and we see our way through. We have more prayers answered in real time on the trail than when we are just going about our daily routines at work.”

    Now that they have moved back to the Lake Region, Molly and Carrie plan to help on the family farm in Lawton while also continuing their careers in physical therapy and laboratory science. They have been busy cross country skiing (“It’s like running, but more fun!”) to stay in shape for their next hike.

    They are hoping to circumnavigate a volcano in the Glacier Peak wilderness in Washington and hike in Wyoming and North Dakota in their free time. 

    The Nienhuises will be sharing about their experience hiking the John Muir Trail at the Rotary Club in Devils Lake, ND on January 11th.

    “What we did was something that everyone would like to have the chance to do, and being in God’s creation enjoying all the things that He has made helps us to focus on what really matters,” they said.

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