Immediately after my college graduation, I embarked on a three-week backpacking trip in Montana’s Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS, as it’s more commonly known in outdoorsy circles). I’ve written a little previously about the long-reaching effects this experience had on me. Still, I don’t think I realized the depth of its impact on my life until another recent backpacking experience, but I’ll get to that.
It won’t come as much surprise to anyone who’s spent three weeks living in a tent—or, for that matter, anyone who hasn’t—that I hadn’t even the slightest inkling of what I was getting into. I view my utter cluelessness as a positive and in fact crucial piece of this story: I’m big enough to admit even now that had I known what these three weeks would be like, it would probably have scared me off for good.
My mom dropped me off in Lander, Wyoming in the middle of that July with a backpack full of brand-new gear and a queasy feeling in my gut like perhaps I had made a grave error in judgment. Still, I settled into the Noble Hotel and did my best to make small talk with the complete strangers with whom I’d be spending the next three weeks in the wilderness. I secretly hoped I would trip and break an ankle walking down the stairs and have to bow out.
While I’d like to say I felt at home the minute I stepped off the bus and into the backcountry, that I found my calling right then and there, my first few nights in the wilderness had profoundly the opposite effect. Our trip’s departure was lucky enough to coincide with the seasonal mosquito hatch in that area, and my compadres and I waded through vast clouds of bugs to retrieve our gear, cook dinner, and set up our tents, which we finally managed to complete just as darkness fell.
It was miserable.
In fact, on the third afternoon, when I should have been feeling accomplished for having semi-successfully helped navigate us to our chosen campsite, I announced to one of the instructors that I “couldn’t really breathe” and promptly collapsed. A delicate flower, this one.
The next thirty-six hours or so are kind of a blur. I was whisked to the instructors’ tent, where I was pumped with benadryl and, eventually, the steroid prednizone, both of which would ostensibly quell my swollen joints, tongue, and face. It looked like someone had beaten me senseless: in pictures I later saw and am so glad not to possess anymore, I am hardly recognizable.
Here was my out! The fluke I’d been hoping for! Call the helicopters and get my swollen ass to a hospital!
Weirdly enough, despite my lingering homesickness (which, it turned out, would never really dissipate altogether), I wasn’t ready to be hauled back to civilization. I’m not sure to this day whether it was pride or stubbornness or whether I thought maybe I’d really end up having fun, but in my just-lucid-enough-that-I-had-to-consent-to-treatment state, I declined epinephrine—the drug of guaranteed evacuation, the kiss of death for any backcountry trip—until finally the swelling subsided and my erstwhile tentmates brought me my first solid food in two days. I still remember the rehydrated spaghetti sauce like it was yesterday.
I never did find out what caused my throat and tongue and everything else to swell until I looked like the Staypuff Marshmallow Man. The instructors surmised that perhaps I’d just gotten enough mosquito bites to give me an allergic reaction. I remember the always-horrifying “anaphylaxis” being thrown around in the tent next to me as I drifted in and out of consciousness that night. Someone thought maybe it was the bug spray I’d been using, and someone else suggested that perhaps I should stay away from the powdered milk. (I avoided both for the remaining twenty days of the trip.)
After an impromptu rest day (you’re welcome, everyone!) we pushed onward and upward, all in all spending nearly two weeks of the course above 10,000 feet. Though I often felt desperately homesick as darkness set in, the list of things I was learning eventually outgrew the list of things I was homesick for.
NOLS is often colloquially referred to as the “hard skills school,” as its focus is largely on tangible backcountry skills, through which it is hoped that students will develop leadership skills. It’s certainly not one of those ridiculous survival schools where yuppies pay an exorbitant amount (though the tuition is steep) for an ex-Army bicep who goes strictly by his last name to starve them for a week in the desert. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between that and a school like Outward Bound, which is more focused on leadership and life skills and less interested in whether you can self-arrest on a steep snow slope.
Each of these (except maybe the survival school, though that’s my own very biased opinion) has its place and is just right for a certain demographic, and fortunately most of the outdoor schools out there are good at marketing themselves as such. You could write a whole thesis on this—I hear there’s a university in Anchorage where they’ll give you an M.S. if you do—so I won’t go into great detail since I have my own thesis to write.
Though I missed the backcountry baking lesson—ironically, because I looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy—I am now an excellent backcountry cook. I may be relatively useless in a real-life kitchen (just ask any of my former roommates and significant others), but I do alright in the wilderness. I can also erect most tents in about two minutes, even in “weather,” the blanket term for “any condition you don’t want to be caught outside in,” which includes clouds of mosquitoes. I can kick steps and plunge steps and self-belay and self-arrest. I can orient and read a map and, in conjunction with a compass, figure out where I am, even if it’s miles from the nearest trail. I can pack a forty-plus-pound backpack full of everything I need to hike to the next campsite. I can even do that quickly, if you want.
It’s taken me years to perfect some of those skills, and some remain far from perfect, but the long and short of it is that NOLS (and, more specifically, the excellent team of instructors I had on that course, each of whom alternately inspired me and kicked my butt into action) set me on a course to become a competent—even, in some rare cases, excellent—backcountry traveler.
Since my NOLS course, I have spent literally hundreds—hundreds!—of days in the backcountry. Some were spent hiking nontechnical Colorado Fourteeners, some paddling around Prince William Sound, some skiing through the Alaskan interior in January, traversing the Harding Icefield, plummeting down powdery slopes in the Chugach, climbing in the Tetons, and some, though they weren’t what I planned, were spent sitting in a tent in the pouring rain. While some were utterly miserable, each day has been, in its own right, an important part of my growth as a backcountry companion and, more importantly, as a person.
God. Doesn’t that sound smug? But seriously. It’s true.
My transformation from student to mentor happened slowly at first, and is still, as these things always are, in flux. My master’s-in-progress is in outdoor education, and I’ve held various seasonal jobs with “instructor” in the title over the last few years, but it wasn’t until this very summer that I realized the magnitude of my role as a mentor.
(If you are here questioning whether I should be allowed to mentor anyone, you’re absolutely right. Know that I, too, am surprised.)
Last summer I worked for a non-profit called Big City Mountaineers, whose goal, simply put, is to instill citizenship and self-efficacy in kids—who are otherwise surrounded by concrete—via time spent in the wilderness. BCM primarily does programming for “under-served” kids—you can insert the most up-to-date politically correct term as needed. Most of the kids who participate in BCM programs qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at their underfunded public schools (whoops, there I go, editorializing again!), live in single-guardian homes whose total annual income puts them below poverty line, are of an ethnic or racial minority, or can be described by some combination of the above factors.
The programming I did last summer was at the overnight camp, which is offered only in Colorado but which, with additional funding, could be offered at any number of BCM office locations and is hugely beneficial to the 8-12-year-olds it serves. Of all the jobs I’ve ever worked, this is the one I am most proud of.
BCM’s core programming is the weeklong expedition, a seven-day backpacking or canoe trip for teenagers with a one-to-one kid-to-adult ratio. Since I need to get outside a lot to stay sane while writing my thesis about getting outside, I hassled the Rocky Mountain program coordinator until she found me a spot on one of the girls’ trips.
And so it was that I, along with three adults, a seventeen-year-old peer leader, and five girls who’d just finished the eighth grade set out from the BCM office in Golden in a twelve-passenger van.
It was three years to the day from the start of my own first backpacking trip.
Five hours of twisting mountain roads deposited us at Horse Ranch Park, the aptly named trailhead for Oh-Be-Joyful Pass. Half an hour from Crested Butte, the dusty campground here was mostly made up of large horse trailers, whose occupants appeared to be semi-permanent residents, departing briefly in the afternoons to check on herds of unruly sheep but otherwise mostly shooting the shit. The first night of our trip, thus, was spent not unlike a night in the city: a fair amount of traffic, punctuated by occasional whiskey-addled shouts. A transitional period, you might call it.
The next morning, we were off for Oh-Be-Joyful, and as I demonstrated packing to the girls, it struck me that this must feel just as unfamiliar and preposterous to them as it had to me three summers earlier. Finally, they hoisted their giant packs overhead and, saddled with their great burdens, began a long trudge toward our next campsite. Their packs, like mine had not so long before, felt impossibly heavy.
The adult team had divvied up the essential hard skills to be taught in the first few days, followed by team-building initiatives later in the trip. Each of the girls had a different leadership role each day, and on that first morning I was paired with the sweep, who would take up the back of the line and, in my case, listen to what the back-of-the-classroom types had to say.
There was certainly less complaining than I’d expected—at fourteen, you can bet I’d have had a fit if you’d asked my to carry a third of my weight in a giant backpack to a campsite at which headphones would not be allowed—but what I did hear made me pause.
“How many more nights are we out here?” one kid whispered to the girl in front of her.
“For a week,” her friend replied, “I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
I didn’t know if I should interject or pretend not to have heard. A good mentor would have exclaimed that of course they’d make it, but I am a shit mentor, so I said nothing.
That night as we set up camp, I came across the journal I’d kept on my NOLS course. I’ve used this pack dozens of times since that summer, but I must have neglected this inner pocket, because there it was: my scrawling hand had recorded the trials and tribulations of my own I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-make-it trip.
“Today we hiked six miles and I tripped and fell in my own poop,” I wrote on Day 13. “Not on the hike. In camp. Well. Outside camp. There goes my last pair of clean undies.”
Day 18: “Today is my 6th day on my period. I am srsly OUT of tampons. At least no poop.”
Though you’d think my entire trip was focused on unwanted contact with bodily fluids, I was not shy about sharing my homesickness, probably because I didn’t want my new friends to know what a baby I was. I worried about my mom, who I was sure was worrying about me (I was right). I worried that friends would forget why they liked me, that my boyfriend would lose interest, that someone I loved would have a heart attack and die while I was gone. (Really. I devoted significant space in my journal to worrying about all those things.)
In retrospect, I realized as I read my musings from the NOLS trip, I’ve come a long way. I still missed some of the comforts of home, including an adorable puppy who would surely double in size while I was away and a partner whose interest I never have to worry about losing. Perhaps I’m more mature, or maybe I just know that usually not much has changed when I re-enter civilization, but reading what my twenty-one-year-old self thought about backpacking left me better equipped to reassure my own students, who at that moment were feeling very homesick indeed.
Over the coming days, we would freely discuss poop, one of my favorite backcountry topics. The girls would learn to set up tents and light a stove and purify their water, and we would learn what they liked for lunch and didn’t want to put in their oatmeal and what they missed and didn’t miss about home. Each night the girls would share their high- and lowlights, which were startlingly honest. One night a girl’s low was that she missed her parents and her sister, which was cool because I totally would never have shared that at her age. Her friends agreed and told her they were glad she was there. I seriously almost cried.
The highs of our trip were hard-earned, too. It’s one thing to physically challenge yourself, and quite another to finish a day of backpacking and be asked to complete a team-building initiative with people you just have to be getting sick of after five days of togetherness. Still, after a tough assignment, the girls were able—without “helpful” suggestions from the adult team—to relate what they’d just accomplished to what they’d learned on the trip, and, more broadly, to what they’d need to succeed in their first year of high school, beginning in just a few weeks.
Holy shit, right?
Their marked increase in self-efficacy, of course, was not just because I taught them how to properly bury their poop in the woods. This particular group of girls is lucky that their math teacher—also the lead instructor of the expedition—had chosen them to participate, and that she had invested herself so deeply in their lives. They are fortunate that their adult team (including the peer leader, who was way more grown-up than most of us) was made up of people who took the programming seriously, but not too seriously to teach them how much fun backpacking can be.
It wasn’t about backpacking, really, though that was the vessel we used. The girls were faced with a challenge, and despite the anticipated setbacks, both physical and emotional, they overcame it. They learned skills and applied them and, on the last day, packed up camp by themselves and led us back to the van. Then they organized their gear, ate weird spaghetti, and presented the adult team with special awards they’d come up with. It was the coolest.
We arrived in Golden exactly seven days after we’d left, smelling pretty bad and ready for the promised popsicles, or, in the case of the adult team, a round of beers. The usual post-expedition business ensued: checking tents for new holes, bleaching dishes, repairing stoves. In a flash, the girls were back in the van and headed to their respective homes in the big city.
I waved goodbye and looked down at the award the girls had given me the night before at our celebration dinner. With any luck, I’ll make an alright mentor, after all.
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