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Hiking Through Greece with Total Strangers Taught Me How to Be Comfortable with Myself

Traveling is high on the priority list for pretty much any millennial these days. In fact, an Airbnb study found that millennials are more interested in spending money on experiences than in owning a home. Solo travel is also on the rise. An MMGYGlobal survey of 2,300 U.S. adults revealed that 37 percent of millennials intended to take at least one leisure trip alone during the next six months.

It's no surprise that active women are getting in on the action, too. "More than a quarter of all travelers on our active vacations participated solo," says Cynthia Dunbar, general manager of REI Adventures. "[And out] of all our solo travelers, 66 percent are women."

That's why the brand commissioned a national study to really figure out women's involvement in the hiking world. (And companies finally produced hiking gear specifically for women.) They found that more than 85 percent of all women surveyed believe that the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness, and overall well-being, and 70 percent report that being outdoors is liberating. (Statistics that I wholeheartedly agree with.) They also discovered that 73 percent of women wish they could spend more time—even just an hour—outdoors.

I, for one, am one of those women. Living in New York City, it's tough to sneak away from the concrete jungle—or even the office—to take in a breath of fresh air that's not filled with smog and other lung-destroying pollutants. Which is how I found myself looking at REI's website in the first place. When I heard that they had launched more than 1,000 events designed to get women outside, I figured they would have something up my alley. And I was right: Between the hundreds of Outdoor School classes and three REI Outessa retreats—immersive, three-day women-only adventures—I realized I had plenty of options to choose from.

But really, I wanted something more intense than a three-day getaway. To be honest, a lot of "life" things were getting in the way of my overall happiness, and I needed something that would truly offer a reset. So I went to the REI Adventures page, figuring that one of their 19 new worldwide trips would catch my eye. More than one did, but in the end it wasn't a traditional Adventures trip that lured me in. Instead, it was the first-ever women-only trip in Greece. Not only would I trek through the islands of Tinos, Naxos, and the Insta-perfect Santorini, on an epic 10-day hiking trip along with an REI Adventures guide, but I'd be with other women who also loved soaking up fresh mountain air as much as I did.

At least, that's who I hoped these women were. But what did I know—these people were complete strangers, and signing up solo meant I'd be giving up the crutch of having a friend or significant other to socialize with if things got awkward. I didn't know if anyone else thrived on the feeling that flows through you when your muscles are burning and you're nearly at the end of a tough climb when you know there are epic views waiting at the summit. Would they find me annoying for wanting to push through the pain, or join me in the surge to the top? Plus, I'm naturally an introvert—someone who desperately needs alone time to recharge. Would my sneaking away from the group for a silent moment of meditation be offensive? Or accepted as part of the norm?

All of these questions swirled through my head as I hovered over the registration button, but then I got a swift kick in the pants by, of course, a quote I saw on Instagram. It said, "In any given moment, we have two options: To step forward into growth or to step back into safety." Simple, sure, but it hit home. I realized that, at the end of the day, it was way more likely that I would get along with these women than not, that we'd bond while traversing trails and soaking up the scenery, and that we'd have an experience that actually made us want to be friends long after our adventure was over.

So, in the end, I made like Shonda Rhimes and said "yes." And as I stepped onto a ferry boat in Athens to begin my trip, breathing in the fresh, salty air of the Aegean Sea, any worry I had about this being anything but an extraordinary trip slipped away. By the time I boarded my plane back to New York City, I had learned a hell of a lot—about myself, about hiking through Greece, and about being happy while surrounded by total strangers. These were my biggest takeaways.

Women are badass hikers. In the REI study I read before my trip, women talked a lot about loving the outdoors. But 63 percent of them also admitted that they couldn't think of an outdoor female role model, and 6 in 10 women said that men's interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women's. While those findings aren't all that surprising, I find them to be total bullshit. One of the women on my trip was living proof of how awesome females are in the outdoors—when she first signed up for this trip, she set a goal to lose 110 pounds in six months. That's a huge goal by any standard, but it's what she needed to do to be in good enough health to make it up the mountains we were about to tackle. And guess what? She totally did it. As she pushed up Mount Zeus (or Zas, as the Greeks say), a nearly 4-mile hike up the highest peak in the Cyclades region, she was the one I looked up to the most. The mountains have a way of being very humbling, and even though hiking is a fairly simple activity—one foot in front of the other, I like to say—it can easily kick your ass if you let it. This woman refused to let that happen, and she's just one of many women proving that there are role models in the wilderness. (Want more inspo? These women are changing the face of the hiking industry, and this woman set a world record for adventuring all over the world.)

Traveling alone doesn't mean being alone. Solo travel has a lot of benefits—like doing exactly what you want, when you want, for starters—but heading out for a trip alone and then meeting up with a group of strangers is exactly what I, and many of the women on this trip, needed. We were all there for different reasons, whether work-, relationship-, or family-related, and hiking with strangers allowed each of us to open up and tell our personal stories in a way we wouldn't have been able to do with friends or, well, if we were hiking alone. As we trekked for nearly 7 miles along the Caldera in Santorini, there was almost an emotional cleansing that happened. Many of us were tired from the previous three days of hiking, putting us in a vulnerable state of mind that really dug into the emotional burdens many of us were dealing with in our lives back home. But being with new friends was a reminder that we didn't have to shoulder those struggles alone, and it even allowed us to see our situations from a different perspective, given that, again, we were all total strangers. As the sun set, the six of us reached the entrance of Oia village (pronounced ee-yah, BTW) and we quietly watched as the lights in hotels, homes, and restaurants flickered on. It was a quiet moment of serenity, and as I stood there soaking it all in, I realized that if I hadn't been with these ladies, I may have been too much in my own head to stop and appreciate the beauty that was right in front of me.

Men don't need to be invited. I'm all for a totally inclusive hiking environment because, really, the mountains don't care what gender you are. But this trip helped me realize just how beneficial being with only women can be. On numerous parts of the trip—like when we took a Mediterranean cooking class from a local chef on the island of Tinos, or when we got sidetracked on a 7.5-mile hike through the island's villages—many inside jokes, words of encouragement, and carefree attitudes were tossed among the group. Our guide, Sylvia, even noticed the difference, as she's guided co-ed groups for many years. Many times, men are all about the fitness aspect of a hiking trip, she told me, and they're here to get to the top of the mountain and that's that. Women can be like that, too—I certainly wanted to push my physical limits on this trip—but they're also more open to connecting with the others in the group, socializing with locals, and simply going with the flow when things don't go according to plan. It made for a more relaxing, open, and inviting trip—and the boy gossip and sex jokes that went down didn't hurt, either. (Hey, we're human.)

Loneliness is good for you. When I headed out on this trip, being lonely isn't something that even once crossed my mind. I'm pretty good at meeting new people and helping everyone feel comfortable with one another (and you can bet I'll be the first one to crack a joke at my own expense). So I was pretty surprised when, about halfway through the trip, I found myself really missing home. It didn't have anything to do with where I was—the sights we were seeing, people we were meeting, and things we were doing were all amazing—but rather with what I had left behind. Like I said, a lot of stressors were piling on back home, and I realized that even though I desperately wanted an escape when I booked this trip, I felt bad about leaving those struggles on my husband who had stayed behind.

But then, my group summitted Mount Zas, and a sense of calm washed over me—especially when, out of all the people on the top of the mountain, two butterflies found their way to me, playfully resting on my hat. And on the way down, my group found a secluded area that was a little ways off the trail—a spot that was just big enough for all of us to fit. We sat down and, for just a few minutes, sat in a guided meditation led by one of the trip participants who happened to be a yoga instructor. Doing that helped me be comfortable with uncomfortable feelings—guilt and worry, primarily—and allowed me to focus in on the present again. The sounds, smells, and sensations all helped bring me back to my center, and that's when I realized there was nothing I could do about the things happening back home. There was a reason I needed this trip at this moment. Without that meditation—and without that initial pang of loneliness—I'm not sure I ever would have reached those moments of peace.

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