The year was 2002, and Erin and I had moved out west to California. This was before we were married — I was playing in a band and life was a real adventure. That being said, we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore much of the Golden State when we first made the move. So, when some new friends offered to take us on a hike up Big Sur, we jumped at the opportunity.


The timing of our trip was perfect. Not only was the weather beautiful, but we also had two friends from the Twin Cities out visiting us at the time. So, together with our two Californian guides, we set out for the Central Coast. Looking back, we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

We wound down the legendary Cabrillo Highway with the surging ocean on one side and mountain peaks on the other. Having grown up with the hills we have here in Minnesota, it was quite the sight for us Twin City natives. But, as we would soon learn, it’s one thing to admire a mountain from a distance and another thing to climb it.

The six of us arrived at Julia Pfeiffer State Park and quickly set off up the trail. Niki, one of our new California friends, was our de facto guide. Not only had she done this hike plenty of times, but she was also in great shape (in hindsight this should have been a warning for what was coming). She set a nice, easy pace and we were off!

The first 15 minutes of the journey were fantastic. We were blown away by the massive redwoods and couldn’t wait to see the legendary views at the end of the trail. We were basically frolicking about when we should have been conserving our energy. After all, we were climbing to a lookout point 3,000 feet up.

Reality set in for us Upper Midwest kids when the uphill journey showed no signs of stopping. Our leg muscles were aching, and worse still, we were desperately under-equipped for the climb. Most of us hadn’t even thought to bring water. Thankfully, Niki kept looking back, giving us words of encouragement. There were times we all thought about turning around, but in the end, we trudged forward because we trusted our guide.

In the end, it was all worth it. The view of the cove below and the ocean stretching out to the horizon was — in the truest sense — breathtaking. We all just stood and stared, silent, at the vista we’d made it to. The serenity of that moment is something I still hold close to this very day. Thank goodness we didn’t turn around halfway up the trail.

The reason I tell this story isn’t to recommend great nature hikes (though Big Sur is well worth the trip). Instead, I tell this story because it has everything to do with what it’s like to be a musician. Our teachers, every student we’ve ever worked with, and even I have gone through some variation of this journey. It starts off exciting, full of wonder and new experiences, only for reality to set in. Improving gets harder, practice feels tedious, and sometimes all you can think about is turning around and going home. And that’s where a good guide can make all the difference.

The best part of our jobs here at MnSOM is getting to lead students to those amazing vistas. Seeing their breakthroughs as they come to have a deeper understanding of their instrument is fantastic to us. We’re helping them follow in the footsteps our guides once lead us through at their stage. That, for us, is a journey worth taking.

–Eric Nehr