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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: Just Follow the White Blazes

Eliza Dunn ’25 looks back on 54 miles of perseverance and self-discovery.

eliza courtesy photo 50.jpg

Courtesy of Eliza Dunn ’25

The early hours of Oct. 23 found me deep in the woods, thirty-something miles away from campus. I was cold and exhausted and my headlamp was running out of battery and it took everything in me to stomach a few more Sour Patch Kids before I kept hiking, nearly sixteen hours in.

In all of its rugged and unparalleled glory, this was the Dartmouth Fifty, the 54-mile trek from Moosilauke Ravine Lodge to the steps of Robinson Hall. Last year, I remember feeling both awed and terrified by the prospect of hiking 50 long miles. Yet, something in me knew that I would have to try it. But it was freshman fall — I was overwhelmed and exhausted, and the version of myself that I could envision hiking the Fifty was distant and unknowable, a future self that I couldn’t even recognize yet. The Fifty seemed, in a word, impossible.

This fall, when a friend asked me to join her team, I said yes without giving it much thought. We would be relying on the lottery to earn a spot, and I was sure we wouldn’t make it. But of course, despite my certainty, we were accepted as one of eight teams to hike this fall’s Fifty. 

First came disbelief, then the terror set in. I wasn’t ready to hike 50 miles. My exercise this term had been sporadic at best, and while my three teammates spent their summers on intense multi-week treks, I had been nannying at home, running after toddlers and making PB&J sandwiches. Facing the prospect of hiking 54 miles — now undeniably real and immediate — brought me right back to freshman fall and the profound uncertainty I felt about myself and my own capabilities. 

Still, I set to work, collecting extra pairs of socks and portable speakers. I ran Velvet Rocks again and again, even if just to convince myself I was doing some semblance of training. Before I knew it, the day had come, and we were on our way to Moosilauke, my pack at my feet and my stomach in knots. 

Our first day passed relatively quickly. We were all in good spirits, and as we hiked we chatted and laughed, proposing “raise your hand if….” situations and debating the intricacies of whether cereal qualifies as a soup. Despite our high morale, the sun was setting and the thought of hiking through the night hung over our heads. Only a few miles after our second support station, darkness settled and we donned the headlamps that would stay on our heads for the next twelve hours.

Our first nighttime summit was Mt. Cube — we reached the top around 9 p.m., and the stars were already out, waiting for us. We switched off our headlamps and paused our music, taking a rare break to look up at the sky, covered from horizon to horizon with stars. By this point, about twenty miles in, I had hiked continuously longer than I ever had before. My legs were sore, but I felt strong — at that moment, I knew that as long as nothing unexpected happened, I would finish. I took a deep breath, trying to breathe in this moment that was so special and fleeting, unlike anything I had ever experienced or would ever experience again. 

Nighttime proved a lot less scary than I expected, and I started to appreciate the utter absurdity of hiking later than I would normally be awake. We listened to music for much of the night, “Sexotheque” by LaRoux and “Stick Season” by Noah Kahan on high rotation. Except for the occasional “blaze!” we shouted when we spotted the Appalachian Trail’s white markers — a strategy to both keep us on trail and keep us awake — we were unexpectedly quiet. It was during these strange, liminal hours that I found the time to take a break from our delirious conversations and really reflect.

I found myself thinking back to my freshman fall, to the scared, overwhelmed and lonely version of myself who could barely find the courage to ask people to meals, much less embark on a 54-mile trek. Although I knew I would eventually come to love Dartmouth, my first few months here were extremely tumultuous — I felt unmoored, alone and deeply uncertain about the person I was becoming. But as the year progressed, I pushed myself to fully lean into life at Dartmouth. I took risks and reached out to new people and, little by little, began to carve out a place for myself here. It wasn’t easy, but by the end of my freshman year, I felt like an entirely new person, like I was starting to belong. 

So, as I hiked through who-knows-where at two in the morning, I decided that I would finish this hike because I could. I would make it to Robo because I had, in the end, made it through the turbulence of last year and found what was starting to feel like my place. By no means did I have it all figured out. But here, miles into the wilderness, away from all landmarks of familiarity, I was starting to see the value of the winding — sometimes backwards — paths that had brought me to this exact moment.

These philosophical reflections didn’t last long. As we trekked through dawn, fatigue came crashing down on us. Our feet felt like stumps with every step, and all we wanted to do was sleep. Each mile brought us closer to campus, but even a mere five miles away — nothing compared to the 50 we had already trekked — it took all our energy to put one foot in front of the other. The relief we felt when we spotted the Co-op barely registered amidst our exhaustion. 

But as we followed the last few white blazes through town, everything came back into focus. Our friends walked up Main Street with us, cheering us on as we approached Robo. Friends and supporters formed a tunnel over us as we ran up to the DOC sign and, all together, gave it a huge high-five. We made it. The next hour passed in a blur of hugs and congratulations before I went home to sleep for sixteen hours. 

Since then, I’ve struggled to find a good answer to everyone’s question: “How was the Fifty?” It was amazing and terrible and exciting and so incredibly painful and unbelievably cool. It would take a lot of money to get me to hike the Fifty again. But I am deeply grateful that I did, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.  

Because I know that along the way — amidst the laughter and white blazes and pain and utter exhaustion — I learned things about myself that freshman year Eliza didn’t know. Even now, long after my soreness has faded, those 54 miles feel like proof that somehow, after everything, I made it through.