June 7, 2023

A Letter to My Boots

Brendan Hill

Brendan is the National Marketing & Communications Manager at Summer Search.

“You saw the changes in me before I ever knew it was possible, before I knew what I was capable of. Coming home with you, I felt a piece of the wilderness was with me always.”

The following is a reflection from Katie Howe, writer, outdoors enthusiast, and Summer Search Boston alumna.

Katie received their hiking boots ahead of their first summer experience with North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) in 2014. The following year, the boots joined Katie on their trip to South Africa with the African Leadership Academy. As Katie’s love of travel and the outdoors grew, their boots were there for all of it, up through a special Field Instructor Training from Hurricane Island Outward Bound School (HIOBS) for Summer Search alumni in 2021.

Katie Howe (They/She)

My dearest friend,

I miss you. Since we last saw each other I have begun my next adventure, for the first time without the comfort of having you here. From the moment we met it was love at first sight.

Do you remember that day? I was so young, almost 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. When we all piled onto the train after school together, got off just one stop shy of Jamaica Plain where we usually met at the Summer Search office. I’d been anticipating this day since I got the acceptance slip delivered to my homeroom on February 6th. Everyone was talking about it for weeks, at school, at the office, it was all me and my friends and mentors could talk about–the day we get our hiking boots.

The day was finally here. Wearing my name tag that read, “Katie Howe, North Carolina Outward Bound School” with pride and excitement, I ran two miles that day at Jamaica Pond. You and dozens of others were waiting for me at the end of the finish line, and by fate or chance I was handed the box with you in them.

I still remember our ride home together on the train, everyone sneaking peaks into each others boxes. One by one getting off at our own stops, showing mom and dad as soon as they walked through the door. Trying them on for anyone who would pretend to care. With our first adventure mapped out only a few months away, we began training right away.

Do you remember how silly I looked walking around the block those first few times–my feet ached. For a moment I doubted our love, as blisters began to form. But you were patient with me, saw that I was hesitant and shy, but capable of so much more.

For those 22 days you were my home.

I can never repay the debt I owe you for the support and unconditional love you showed me in North Carolina that summer.

From helping me navigate the airport alone, to meeting so many new people, and keeping me safe in the woods. Remember the night of the thunder storm? I could never forget. Thank you for helping me up that mountain well into the night. When I thought I couldn’t go on any longer you stuck by my side. When I had to cook dinner that night in the rain you were there. When we had to hang the bear hang at nearly 2am and I accidentally fell asleep standing up in the rain, your quick reflexes and loyalty caught me before falling too far left down the steep hill. I mean, even after getting trench foot you still stuck by me for our seven mile personal challenge event.

Leaving the Pisgah National Forest was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but knowing your feet had walked the earth I felt, had fallen in the mud I had walked through, I knew it was going to be okay because you understood.

You saw the changes in me before I ever knew it was possible, before I knew what I was capable of. Coming home with you, I felt a piece of the wilderness was with me always.

Katie (left) on their North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) experience in 2014.

Katie (third from left) with their NCOBS group.

After our time together, coming home was a bit of a challenge. But sharing our stories, talking to our friends and mentors, and going on local hikes, we were able to readjust. It was no time before we began planning for our next adventure together. After a year of short hikes and playing in the snow, we finally got the phone call from Tina–we’re going to Johannesburg! Once again I pulled out my small purple duffle bag and together we packed everything we would need to spend the summer at the African Leadership Academy.

Oh ALA, remember our six hour layover in London that turned out to be even longer! Remember warriors every morning running before the sun came up! Oh do you remember we left campus really early around 4 or 5 am to go on the safari! Remember Mandela Day! Oh how much fun was the four-day camping trip we took where we hiked and got caked in the loose red soil after kicking it up all day. Remember how excited we were to repel down a mountain again, it was just like old times!

Even after graduation, we still had so many special moments together.

Before leaving for college remember we signed up for LEAD Academy and ended up working with Habitat for Humanity and dug that hole. The hole that turned out to be the first of dozens we’d dig together in that soil class we decided to sign up for. I often think of the first time we hiked Mount Graylock together. I hadn’t made many friends yet but I didn’t mind because you were there with me to reunite with the trails and make new friends along the way. Somewhere along the way I did make new friends and we spent so much time in the MCLA forest and hiking parts of Mount Graylock over our four years together–digging soil profiles, bird watching, counting salamanders, setting up mammal traps and trail cameras, identifying trees, even planning and executing lessons before COVID hit.

Remember we applied for the ASB trip freshman year and again sophomore year! We were so excited that we were chosen for the scholarship and began preparing again for our next adventure in Brely, Haiti.

Oh and the time we spent in California, what precious memories! Working long hours at Highland Park then doing fish monitoring with Don Ally in our free time. Volunteering at the Redwood Annual Fair with the San Lorenzo Valley Women’s Club, pulling invasive after invasive day in and day out, volunteering with the Watsonville Wetland Watch, house sitting, dog sitting, heck we even watched peoples cats and chickens with Shanny. Oh my goodness and the trips to Costco, we must have taken 30 trips in our time there for the amount of cardboard we’d taken for our sheet composting project. All the parks, trails, beaches, I am still left breathless about the thought and immensity of the redwood trees.

Katie, her boots, and a furry friend, exploring California.

And who could forget when we set up a meeting to talk to Professor Jaysane-Darr about finishing up our Anthropology credits abroad through that opportunity we got an email about from Eastern North Carolina University. Going to Peru we hiked through Huascaran, sat atop a boat in the most breathtaking glacial lake, visited the remnants of Yungay, visited archeological sights, conducted research surrounding the illness known as Susto. What fond times we had together, I am missing them my friend.

It seems right that our last adventure together was called upon us from both Summer Search and Outward Bound once again…

It felt like we were coming full circle–returning home. It was so hard coming home after working with Seeds of Peace, I felt lost, disconnected from you. We had spent so much time in the garden this past summer, we hiked in Acadia together with our new friends. After such a long year apart because of quarantine and online graduate classes, it finally felt nice to have my best friend back.

Classes started in 10 days, everything seemed to be crumbling. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go–but I also couldn’t stay. You were the first one I called out to for advice during these hard moments. Again, nearly seven years later, I am wondering if it was fate or chance that brought us together again. Memories of our first adventure flooded to the forefront of my mind that night I emailed Ethan George (Summer Search Boston’s Director of Program Operations) on August 31st at 1:40am when my nerves were hidden in the night air.

We had temporarily escaped to Pennsylvania to help Shanny move into her new apartment when we heard the news. Once again Summer Search called with the life altering message, only this time my name tag would have read, “Katie Howe, Alumni, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School“. We did not have much time to prepare this time, as we would head back to Wakefield that weekend, only six days to prepare for the physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding expedition. We still managed to get a few hikes in despite the time crunch, we always make things happen when we work together.

People suggested new boots for this excursion were critical, because, they insisted, there’s no way such old boots can handle the demands of a fifty-day course. In my heart of hearts I knew you could do it. I had placed my undying faith in you just as you had done for me on our first excursion. You believed in me when I had only dreamed of believing in myself, now it was my turn to return the favor.

I am brought to tears as I reminisce about our last days together. If I had only known that this would be the last one maybe it would have been easier to say goodbye.

No matter the route, you never doubted us, each step moving meticulously with grace and thought, not always with ease but with the confidence that under no circumstance was giving up an option. Together we laughed our way through Mahoosic Notch as our new friends joined the club and helped us accomplish the “hardest mile” of the Appalachian Trail. We rappelled down even more mountains just like the old days. We even cried together in the rain that morning when our feet were soaked, shivering, eating fig newtons on top of a mountain, bushwhacking at 9am.

I need you to know I didn’t mean it when I cried and said I wanted to go home, that was the rain and cold talking. I need you to know that I have never felt truly at home without you.

I thought leaving the wilderness of North Carolina was the hardest goodbye, but it could never compare to this one, my dear friend. Thank you. I know this last trip was a hard one, but every step felt like I was walking closer to my true self. The girl you had met all those years ago, the girl you first traipsed through the wilderness with, remnants of her are still there if you look hard enough. You were the first friend of mine to truly see me.

The love we have shared, some do not witness in their lifetime, we had that in a mere seven years. In those years, it was you who never doubted me, every crazy idea I had, you were the first to jump on board with blind faith. Each time I thought I was incapable, you reminded me of that first run, a reminder of what I am capable of.

Now just as I had began that run without you all those years ago, wearing just my old pair of running shoes–its hard to remember me without you– I must now, continue on in that way. It breaks my heart to say goodbye, but you showed me just how capable I am to walk on my own. Thank you for trusting me, showing up for me when I could barely show up for myself, for never judging me, and always welcoming me home no matter how much time had passed. You have etched a space into my heart that will stay with me.

You have been so selfless in your lifetime, yet here I am with one final request. This is not easy for me to ask of you, but could you find it in your heart to understand when I tell you I have met a new friend, gotten a new pair of boots? The secret has been eating away at me, for this is the first time I have considered what it means to adventure into the world without you.

But I promise you this, I will remember what you taught me, I will walk with care and compassion, I will stand up for myself and be a strong leader, I will embrace the unknown, and I will remember I am capable of achieving anything and everything I set my mind to. Thank you for showing me the way.

With all my love, your dear friend,


Check out more of Katie’s writing on her website >>

Katie (left) with fellow Summer Search Boston students at an end-of-summer event in 2014.

Katie (middle row, second from right) with fellow Summer Search Boston students and Dana Brown, principal of Malden High School in 2016.

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