Kyle O'Connell overlooking Thousand Island Lake

Kyle O'Connell, '23

October 26, 2022

Kyle O’Connell hiked over 200 miles while carrying a 45 lb. backpack but says the experience was more a mental exercise than a physical test.

As an Eagle Scout, O’Connell grew up with a love of the outdoors, an appreciation for nature, and an avid interest in hiking and backpacking. During the height of COVID, he was seeking a respite from the numbness induced by the pandemic and took an opportunity to pause and reset.

“I wanted to get out in nature,” he shared. On a whim he applied for a permit to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT), a world-famous trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stretching from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, overlapping much of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Due to the high demand for JMT permits, the National Parks Service estimates that 97% of permit requests are denied. “When I received the permit, I felt like I had won the lottery. I had to go,” O’Connell shared. “There are always a million excuses not to take a trip like this.”

O’Connell asked his dad to join him on the excursion. As a lifelong cyclist, his dad had once biked across the U.S., but neither had completed a backpacking trip longer than ten days. The JMT would take three weeks.

He decided to leave his phone behind, disconnecting completely for the entirety of the trip. “It was a total brain reset for me,” he shared. “It completely reset my attention span and enabled me to be in the moment and fully appreciate the experience. That was the best part—not stressing about anything and letting my mind be fully free.” 

O’Connell and his dad made sure to enjoy all the peaks and valleys of the hike, taking in the views and marveling at what they had accomplished. “I grew a lot in confidence,” he said. “In the middle of the wilderness, you can’t really give up. You develop a driven mindset.”

This mindset has been beneficial on previous hikes, and others he has planned for the future. While studying abroad in Edinburgh last spring, O’Connell hiked the West Highland Way, a trail that runs from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He also hiked Table Mountain in Cape Town while in Africa for an internship over the summer.

Next on his list? O’Connell hopes to visit Alaska after graduation to hike in the Denali National Park, a rite of passage in his book.

As a mathematics and economics double major, O’Connell wants to use his experience to give back once he leaves Richmond. He has considered joining the Peace Corps to teach math in Tanzania, with plans to conquer Kilimanjaro if that’s where he lands. Maybe graduate school after that. 

No matter his plans, O’Connell continues to be an advocate for connecting with nature. “Spending time outside gives you perspective, it develops your empathy. Things that seemed important really aren’t that important,” he shared. “I hope students worry less about what they ‘should do’ and consider pursuing something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”