This article appears in the January issue of 400 Life.
At 7:29 a.m., the group gathers in the parking lot of Little Mulberry Park in Gwinnett County. The air is chilly, the rays of early morning sunlight shine down from a baby blue sky, and as the women talk in small groups about their lives, families and the challenge ahead of them, the clock strikes 7:30 a.m. — time to go.
Each month over the past year this same group of women from Forsyth County has met to hike and build each other up through companionship, friendship and empowerment.
“We’re called Warrior Hikers,” said Aswini Oliver, the group’s founder. “It started off with just my best friends, four of us. We just thought, ‘let’s do 12 hikes this year,’ and that’s it.”
In January 2019, Oliver and a few friends, all novice hikers, set out to do something for themselves, something not related to their careers and families, to prove to themselves that they are strong, brave and self-sufficient. Since then, the Warrior Hikers have done some of the toughest hikes in the state, from Sawnee Mountain in Forsyth County to Blood Mountain, in north Georgia.
“We started out with Sawnee Mountain Indian Seats, then we did sunrise on Stone Mountain, Kennesaw, Sweetwater, we did Blood Mountain, Fort Yargo,” Oliver said as she strolled down the path at Little Mulberry Park. “Blood Mountain was the toughest one; Kennesaw was a tough one too.”
Though Warrior Hikers is open to women of all ages and ethnicities, right now the group is comprised of about 60 Indian women. That wasn’t on purpose, Oliver said, the group just grew organically from friend to friend and co-worker to co-worker.
But as Indian women, they’ve all been able to share and commiserate together about the common pressures that are unique to their culture.
“We wanted to believe that we could do something just for us,” she said. “As women, particularly Indian women, we really don’t plan anything just for us. Everything in India is about your kids and family.”
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Once a month, strolling down a wooded trail, or hiking up a mountain, that time is just for them. Hiking is their happiness medicine, Oliver said.
“This is a time that I look forward to, just to be by myself and enjoy the outdoors, just as a person, not related to my kids or my husband or my family. I emphasize that point, because that’s so much the truth in most of our lives,” she said.
And as hard as it is to get up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. to do some of their sunrise hikes, Oliver said that the process of getting the coffee ready, driving to pick up her carpool of other hikers and setting out towards the wilderness feels like an adventure to her.
As the group walked down the paved path that runs for miles in Little Mulberry Park, another Warrior Hiker, Ashwini Sabins, said that even though the group has a singular purpose, each of the members has a different reason for why they needed the group in their life to begin with.
It might be something as simple as getting more exercise, she said, or it could be more complex reason, like fears about aging, career uncertainty and marital problems.
Sabins said that she is going through a major life transformation currently, both personally and professionally, so the adventurous spirit of the Warrior Hikers group almost perfectly encapsulates the “what’s next” of her own life.
And on top of that, they’ve discovered that hiking is very calming, she said.
“This is good energy,” Sabins said. “Then I go back and I’m more rejuvenated and everything. This is my meditation.”
At about 8:45 a.m., about half way through their hike, the group stopped at a picnic area overlooking Miller Lake in the park, to pause, sip on a slightly sweetened Indian coffee and take photos of the beautiful day.
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During the break, Lavanya Dhanapalan, one of the only group members to do all of the 2019 hikes said that for her, Warrior Hikers is an exercise in determination and self-worth.
Dhanapalan said that as the mother of two young children, trying to get back into her profession, Warrior Hikers came at a time when she felt like she wasn’t good enough, and the pieces of her life weren’t fitting together in the way that she wanted.
“It felt like I wasn’t doing anything well,” she said. “At a point I was thinking, ‘I’m trying to do all these things, I’m not good at anything, am I even doing things right? Am I doing the right thing as a mom, as a wife?’”
And at first, she told herself just doing six out of the 12 hikes in 2019 would be good enough, and getting fresh air and time with other women friends was all that she needed.
But each hike she completed, boosted her to the next and gave her a sense of accomplishment that she could take back to her life.
“It gave me a sense of purpose and achievement. I’m back on my game,” she said.
According to Oliver, many of the Warrior Hikers are just like Dhanapalan, professional women that needed an outlet to feel like they are valued and they can achieve whatever they want to.
“Chop chop ladies,” Oliver said after packing up the coffee cups and thermos, heading back towards the path.
With their December hike, the 12th of the year, Oliver said that they wanted to do a special fundraising hike, which they hadn’t done before.
The hike itself wasn’t that difficult or special, she said, but before the hike, the group raised more than $500 for My Sisters House in Atlanta.
“If things go well, maybe we’ll introduce it more,” she said.
Along with that, in the upcoming year Warrior Hikers will be thinking about what they can do differently, and better, in 2020 to give their hikers more options and activities. They might be introducing smaller hikes, repeat hikes or family hikes to introduce the “little warrior hikers” to the great outdoors, she said.
And they’ll definitely be taking Warrior Hikers on the road next year, for a two-night hike in Boulder, Colorado.
“And I was telling them that on the third year, we’re going international,” Oliver said. “That’s awesome right? What’s wrong with dreaming about it?”
To find out more about the Warrior Hikers and information about joining their ranks, find them on Facebook.