Would you hike 486 miles for Little Bellas?
Emma Schultz, a formerly sports-averse girl who struggled with extreme shyness from a very young age, grew up to be a dedicated mother, wife, mountain biker, hiker, and mentor for Little Bellas Twin Cities (Minnesota). Rather than allowing the defining narrative of her youth to confine her, instead Emma constantly rewrites the synopsis of her life to include deliberate plot twists that – if you had known Emma as a girl – would seem unlikely.
The Colorado Trail
Last August Emma fulfilled her goal to hike the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango. The CT spans 486 miles, which took Emma 33 days to complete. She hiked for 27 days and took six days off, which she spent with her husband and two-year-old daughter, who met her each evening at the trailhead. Instead of making this adventure about serving her own purposes, Emma engaged The Cairn Project to elevate her adventure into a fundraiser for Little Bellas. Her fundraising success didn’t come solely from generous friends and family, but rather from an honest and vulnerable social media dialogue. Emma shared her self-confidence issues, lack of athletic pursuits as a young girl, and a heartbreaking miscarriage through notoriously unemphatic Instagram and Facebook.
We wanted to learn more about Emma and what drove her to undertake this feat – above all with a toddler, who she took with her on the trail for a few days. If you don’t think that you could do something like this, then Emma has a question for you, read on…
Donations to The Cairn Project fund small grants to local partners, like Little Bellas, who are empowering young women through transformative outdoor experiences.
How’d you hear about The Cairn Project?
ES: Sarah Castle, one of the founders, was a Little Bellas mentor in Woodbury (Minnesota), I met her there and learned about The Cairn Project and was inspired by her efforts. I already had plans of my own to go on an adventure and I talked to her about doing more good with my adventure than just serving my own interests.
On your bio on The Cairn Project website you say, “I missed so many opportunities for adventure by undervaluing myself and what my body has always been capable of.” When did you realize this and how did you change?
ES: I was painfully shy when I was younger. It manifested in more ways than talking to people; I felt clunky, and unable to be athletic around other people. A facet of this is likely the scoliosis brace I wore throughout junior high. My shyness lasted well into my college years, and it remains a struggle to this day, though I can manage it much better now, respecting my weaknesses but working to push past them. Having a kid changed everything for me. I don’t sweat the small stuff in the same ways I used to, and I know that my body can do amazing things – like add 37 pounds to grow a human, and then slowly, sloooooowly, return to my pre-baby weight and fitness.
We all have a narrative of who we used to be that guides who we are today. I am working to push myself beyond that narrative, which feels restrictive, to become what I know I am capable of. At the same time, it is important to respect and remember who I used to be and recognize that my interests and perspective have shifted.
How did you choose the Colorado Trail?
ES: I had been planning a big adventure since the birth of my daughter. I stayed at home with my girl for a chunk of time, and I realized that I wasn’t setting aside enough time for myself – wasn’t prioritizing myself in a capacity that would satisfy my desire for adventure. I planned a CT thru hike way ahead of time so that I would have something to look forward to; it was long enough to be a worthy endeavor, but short enough to be an option for my family. It was something completely novel to me, as the longest hike I had previously done was a three-day loop that included Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
Although I was prioritizing hiking the CT as time for myself, my husband and toddler were on the trip with me too, and I met up with them on all but five nights so that we could camp together at trailheads. It was important to me that my girl, who was just over 2 years old at the time, not feel abandoned. I lingered in the mornings to spend more time with her, and I happily took more zero days off the trail than I otherwise would have to spend time with her and to let my husband take some time for himself.
You must have had a lot of time to think out there. How did you pass the time?
ES: I listened to a lot of Metallica when I was powering up hills and needed something extra, and then Natalie Merchant – lots of 10,000 Maniacs – for general plodding. I had people ask, “What do you think about all day? What are you doing out there?”
When you’re doing long climbs, you just think about the end. You stop to stare at the amazing scenery, and maybe take a picture or two, but you’re really just letting your heartrate slow down! That was me at least. I had a little trouble with my knee, so I thought about that a lot at first (eventually it went away – I think I built up strength around my knee and that helped).
I did a lot of reflecting. In 2016, my husband and I biked across Europe during the first trimester of my pregnancy with my daughter, which was a great way for me to stay active and avoid the nausea that would descend the moment I plopped down onto a couch.
Here's where the plan changed
Fast forward to 2019 when a big part of my planned CT hike was that I had a personal goal to be pregnant on the trail. I studied everything I could find for hiking while pregnant at elevation, and I knew that there were risks, but also that scientific studies were very limited. I planned ample time for myself to acclimate to the elevation before starting my hike, and I did become pregnant in the window of time that seemed to be healthiest for a developing fetus to go on a long trek. Things were moving all smoothly until they weren’t. Unfortunately, I had a miscarriage shortly before we left for the Colorado Trail. I spent some time feeling incredibly disappointed, and although my emotions had mostly leveled before we set out for Colorado, the hike was a great way to process my grief and truly make peace with myself.
What would you say to someone who said, “I could never do that!”
ES: Why not?
Did you have a real low point?
ES: I had a lot of emotional moments, usually up on high mountain passes with beautiful vistas, mostly when I was past the point of exhaustion – it was overwhelming and I just felt so lucky to be there and taking that time for myself. I also felt guilty to be there and I missed my family, I missed being there for them, even though I knew I’d be seeing them later that day.
How about a high point?
ES: The last four days of my hike was 74 or so miles between Silverton and Durango – it was a remote stretch, and it was the longest I would be out by myself, away from my kiddo and husband. The first of those four days was my Colorado Trail hiking norm; I left camp quite late in the morning, close to 10am. I slogged through the day with a restocked and heavy pack, feeling drained but knowing my goal was nearly within reach. There were countless bikers on that section of trail, and I kept receiving preemptive congrats for hiking the entire CT.
The biggest day
The second of those four days, an idea twinkled somewhere in the back of my brain. I wondered if I could complete my first 30-mile day because I was eager to go back to just being a mom. Ten miles into my day, I ran across my little family at a trailhead and seeing them fired me up to make that a special day. I continued on up to Indian Trail Ridge when the sun began to set. The fiery sunset gave way to pastel dusk as I traversed miles of rocky outcroppings with 360-degree views of the peaceful, quiet world around me. The dusk seemed to last forever, fading into ever-darker shades of purple. I scampered on, sensing the serenity I had longed to find at least once on the trail. The part of the trail that had caused me to worry ended up being my most rewarding experience.
How did you raise money for The Cairn project?
ES: I didn’t know if I would be successful because I have a relatively limited network of people close to me, and those people already give so much to me in so many ways, therefore it didn’t feel right to ask for more. I had most of my fundraising success through Instagram and Facebook. I credit this to being honest and vulnerable, and talking about everything that mattered to me leading up to my hike, like my miscarriage, my self-confidence issues and lack of athletic pursuits in my youth, my motivation for changing my mindset and focusing on positivity.
The Cairn Project stands for everything that I wish I had when I was younger. I believe that the issues I have grappled with over the years resonated, especially with women who want the same things, whether for themselves or for their kids.