Three miles into our hike to a remote backcountry hut, I’m surprised that I still haven’t heard a single complaint. But now we’ve hit a particularly treacherous section of trail and I’m wondering how our students will respond. Forty-pound packs and slippery footing, mixed with a group of teens coming of age in an instant gratification society… things could get ugly. We pause, drop our packs, grab a snack and some water, all while I scout the challenge ahead.
Fall rains add to the torrent that has eroded away all stable footing, leaving in its place only jagged rocks, ankle-twisting crevices, and deceptively camouflaged mud slicks. Fortunately, someone has taken the time to tie an old length of climbing rope to a tree at the top of the cliff.
I lean back against the rope, allowing it to carry some of my weight so I can focus my attention on the intricate foot placements needed to maneuver my way up the steep slope. I slowly weight each step, testing the rock, mud, or moss that present the only options of where to place my feet. At the most desperate of times, I sink my body close to hillside, which seems to slowly be sliding its way to the bottom of the pitch, carrying me along with it. Certain steps or handholds send 40-degree water over the top of my boots or down my shirtsleeve. Branches grab hold of my pack as I struggle my way up, grasping anything and everything that will keep me from joining the cascade down the slope.
This is not easy. Not easy for me, a former wilderness guide who spent the better part of a decade living outside and leading trips in the American West and around the world. Even though I’ve since domesticated a bit- with a wife, a daughter, and a house- some skills, honed over years of experience, become muscle memory and allow us to still exert some level of expertise with tasks that once were commonplace and taken for granted. But still, this is not easy for me. How will my inexperienced students respond?
Clearly, I am more concerned than they are. Even though I can see that they are tired- in their movements and in their faces- they jump up at the challenge. A young man named Mike goes first. Big and strong, but sometimes still a bit clumsy, he muscles his way up the slope, grunting and heaving his pack, and his body to the top. Next, Kelsea goes, struggling and determined, under a pack that fits her awkwardly and is heavier than she is accustomed to carrying. She is supported from behind by Dakota- the strong and silent type- who holds branches for her and gently nudges her pack as she stretches and reaches her way upward. A few minutes later, Cody goes. Surprisingly agile, he shows skill beyond his experience. One by one, we all reach the top, collapsing after the exertion, with grins running ear to ear. When Judy, my co-leader who is bringing up the rear, finally joins us above the crux, we exchange high fives before slinging our packs back on and continuing along our way.
From here, it is smooth sailing. Having passed the routes trickiest section, we now enjoy the transition out of mixed deciduous forest into a scene dominated by paper birch. Traveling further and higher, we enter the red spruce krummholz, and I know that we are getting close. A few more switchbacks and we see our destination, an old fire cabin set high on this ridgeline in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
We enter the cabin, excited to see our night’s dwelling. Having travelled to this cabin before, I know what to expect. The students, however, are shocked at the graffiti and neglect. In such a beautiful and remote location, why would people leave such ugly fingerprints? The walls are adorned with profanity, pot leaves, and messages about who they were, what they did, and when they did it. Furthermore, they are outraged at the trash left behind; mountains of beer cans and bottles are piled up under the cabin’s trap door basement. This is part of the reason that we came up here.
As the kids unload their packs and prepare to change their baselayers, they also pull out gallons of white paint, paintbrushes, rollers, and trays. The next morning, we will go on to paint over the interior, load up four contractor-sized trash bags worth of garbage and recycling, and do some minor repairs on the building itself.
At the moment, though, everybody is getting hungry and a bit cranky. We put on some extra layers, gather our cookstoves and dinner supplies, and head to the summit. As the sun sets on the mountain’s western flank, the kids prepare and eat burritos. From our room with a view, they learn that sometimes hunger is the best recipe for a delicious meal.
With the stove fired up and candles lit, we play card games, tell stories, and scare one another, until, one-by-one, we slink into our sleeping bags. As I load up the wood stove for the night and blow out the last candle, I hear someone whisper, “This is awesome.”
The next morning, we awake early and climb five minutes up to the top to catch the sunrise. We shiver and wait, each person hypothesizing exactly where the sun will peek out from behind the White Mountains in the distance. As the light grows and the clouds transform from red, to orange and pink, to yellow, we grow silent. For 10 minutes, we are transfixed by a brilliant sunrise. With work to do, we head down to the cabin to eat breakfast before getting to work.
This trip happened in a public school… on a Tuesday. Having shifted the expectations of our school, of our community, and of our students, we now spend several days each week outside, connecting with our place. As educators, we can lecture our students time and again on the impact of climate change. We can show videos, or read books, or look through articles in which impending doom seems imminent. But all of these efforts seem to be in vain. Our youth seem more disconnected and disenchanted with each exposure to these threats. They don’t know why they should care or how they could impact change. All of these problems seem so big, so distant. You see, for our youth to take personal responsibility for the environment, they must first have a personal relationship with it.
Your connection to wild places had to start somewhere. And from that beginning, your love has grown, impacting your life in ways that you never expected, and helping you to define the core values that you live by each day. But what if nobody had ever exposed you to nature? Would you think about protecting our wild places? Would you know how they are threatened? Would you care at all?
There is magic in nature. It is intrinsic and intangible. It simply exists. And that is why we love it so. Nobody has to explain the feeling you get at the end of a long hike, or when topping out on a challenging climb, or at the bottom of a powder run on a bluebird day. Words fail to capture those moments. They are magic. And we all feel it.
And just one magic moment can change a life. For my students, this trip was life changing. When they reflect back upon high school, they won’t likely remember vocab words, algebra tests, or individual essays. But they will remember sunrise on top of a mountain that they had climbed. And though this trip was not epic by many standards, adventure is relative. Having never even camped, my students carried forty-pound packs up 2,000 feet of elevation in order to eat and sleep on a mountaintop. It gave them a sense of accomplishment and it opened their eyes to a new perspective. For them, this was the definition of epic.