By Sydney Iverson
As I skim through my journal to review my notes for this article, I am confronted with mosquitos and bits of sage that are pressed into its pages. The sage is there because some of us took it upon ourselves to weave it into our hair to better bear our aroma; the mosquitos are there as a reminder of the heroic battles that took place so I could avoid another constellation of bites. This journal and I experienced much together. Fortunately for me, I am able to take a shower now. Yet unfortunately for me, my memory is not as good as the written word, so I rely on this little book to remind me of the incredible experiences and some not-so-ideal circumstances that took place during our stay in the wilderness.
It begins, as it always does, with an icebreaker or two and the boarding of our faithful REACH van. Conversation is all inclusive, save for those whose heads have already tilted forward or back in an incredible feat of falling asleep in the crowded space. There is excitement, but also a fair bit of anxiety, not just for the trip but for the future and what the coming year will bring. And yet, as the distance increases between us and the root of those anxieties, everyone begins to fall back into the routine of these trips, which we have been doing for two years.
Camp is set up and bags are packed, now comes the real challenge – falling asleep on hard ground in a strange place so we have energy for the next day’s hike. But inevitably we do, and before we know it we are trekking uphill in the rain as we get accustomed to the weight on our backs. The first day of anything is difficult, but our group pushes on and actually overshoots our original camp spot. We get into camp late, but the routine of these trips is key, so we make our dinner and gather for debrief.
Debrief, or Circle, is one of the most integral parts of REACH. It’s a safe space to share thoughts and feelings. On our first day, many voices agree that they have been challenged, but they are also proud of what they were able to accomplish. And that’s the magic of our debrief – questions asked by students and instructors are poignant: They guide students to think about the good that came out of something difficult. It seems simple enough, but the repetition brings about a mindset where every challenge is met with determination. And there are plenty of challenges.
Third day of hiking and we are on the top of Kearsarge Pass, ready to descend into a picturesque valley of alpine lakes. It’s all downhill from here. Well, for today at least. Everyone is feeling good, and debrief that night centers around how people genuinely want to be able to support each other in the midst of their own troubles. We’ve been a group this entire time, but this specific group is beginning to come together as it only can once it’s been pushed.
The next day we are rewarded with an off trail adventure to Charlotte Lake. We have left everything unnecessary for today’s excursion at our base camp, and the lighter load seems to free people up to talk more. On trail there is laughing and a ridiculous amount of puns, but also meaningful conversations that could only exist out here. We are comfortable with where we are and the people we are with, a combination that results in a wonderful group atmosphere. We have a few hours to lounge at the lake as some of us swim and others fish, and everything seems right with the world.
On the fifth day, though, everything we have just established is completely turned upside down as we embark on our 24 hour solos. We are each put in 20×20 foot squares of wilderness and left to contemplate whatever we need to, left alone with our thoughts. Some are anxious and some cannot wait for their downtime, but this is certainly an opportunity that does not come very often, so it is eventually embraced by all. I can’t even begin to describe even the small bits of people’s experiences I heard about, but it was clear everyone benefitted greatly in some way or another. For a few, the experience of sleeping outside a tent by themselves was exciting and new, some others were able to revisit emotional events of their past, and for others they were able to get to a clear and relaxed state of mind. But again, the range of individual experience that took place is impossible to put into words. For me personally, this was my second 24 hour solo of the summer, and I was still incredulous about how much I was able to learn about myself and my mind when left alone with my thoughts.
We came together the next morning, and it seemed a shared relief to hear each other’s voices. There wasn’t much time to catch up, as the rest of our day consisted of hiking up and over Kearsarge Pass again, so we hit the trail soon after. That hike was certainly not our easiest, but our group was able to push on and help each other in a way they had not before. Circle that night made up for the one we had missed during our solos, everyone was happy to be reunited, but sad at the prospect of leaving.
Our last day in the backcountry, and it certainly was memorable. We woke up to thunder that seemed to shake the ground, and we left our tents up in preparation for a possible storm. But it seemed to clear, so we carried on with breakfast. And then all of a sudden it wasn’t clear; hail was raining down, the thunder returned in a big way, and the sky was lighting up every few minutes. Breakfast was abandoned as we spread out and crouched into the quad-loving lightning position. Once the lightning was more than half a mile away we simply grabbed our gear and hit the trail once more. We had planned to have some lake time that day, but we ended up swimming in the torrential rain.
And then we were back at base camp, back to cars and roads and bathrooms. Our smelly gear was packed away and we donned clothing that was not covered in dirt. That day we finally had an in-depth conversation regarding our solos, and it seemed very fitting to finish our trip by sharing our solo experience with each other. We went on to talk about transitions in our lives, a big subject to a lot of us who are moving away from home at the end of summer. I have never felt so comfortable with a group of people in my life, and I was incredulous at the ease with which my peers and I could share extremely personal thoughts and stories. I mentioned before that we learned to look at the good that can come out of the bad, and sitting in that circle and listening to my friends talk about the lessons they learned from incredibly intense and trying circumstances was inspiring beyond words.
All of a sudden we were in the van again driving home, and it hit me that I wouldn’t be seeing these wonderful individuals again in person for at least another six months. But at least for now I had this distilled experience to sustain me until the next time. My group came to the conclusion one of the reasons REACH helped us so much was that it gave us structure that couldn’t be found anywhere else in our lives, and though we will be apart, we will have that structure for another two years. It’s thrilling and terrifying to look at what lies ahead, but as a certain instructor liked to say incessantly, “there’s a 100% chance of weather today.” Thanks to REACH, we are certainly prepared.
Sydney Iverson is a student in the REACH 2012 Cohort, which is now halfway through the four-year program.