My cousin just signed up for a week of hiking and rock climbing in Utah and listening to his enthusiasm brought me back to my adventure memories from last summer with Outward Bound. From sleeping under a floor-less tarp, to powdering our trench feet, to catching eddies on the white water, my nine days in the wilderness were, well… it’s hard to even come up with a word to capture it all! This January, I received in the mail the letter I had written to myself during my solo (when I opened it, clumps of dirt and a folded leaf the length or my forearm fell out all over my bed), and it really made me think and look back upon my experiences. I wrote this piece about Outward Bound and I wanted to share it, so, here goes!
The fine, stringy antennae of the beetle hang down over my nose, slowly heading toward my freckled cheek as the sharp blade of grass struggles to remain upright. I watch the jade-black beetle daunt as it threatens to fall off the stooping slice of grass onto my dirt-stained face. If only I could flick it, crack its exoskeleton. But my arms are locked beneath my sleeping bag, my legs are squeezed together tight to trap heat, and my wool hat is positioned just right over my ears. In this position I almost can’t feel my pack-bruised shoulders and hips. I almost don’t notice my drenched hair and white-raisined toes. So instead of flicking the beetle, I shut my eyes closed and wait for sleep amid the chanting cicadas.
As darkness lulls me to sleep, dawn is my alarm clock. Wedges of muted sunlight slide through openings in the tarp, illuminating my tent-mates’ faces.
“Morning,” I croak, peeling my dew-filled sleeping bag down my body and exposing my limbs to the freshly frigid Blue Mountain air. I receive no enthusiastic reply as we silently pull on our soggy hiking pants and tops, roll our sleeping bags, and untie the tarp.
Bullets of rain pound down on my heavy yellow rain gear, staining my cheeks and braids with cloud juice. Yellow figures, all like-wise covered in the heavy gear nicknamed “the hazmat suits”, dart around in the tall grass and brush of our campsite to release the bear hang, filter water, and begin cooking breakfast. Peering down at my tattered mud-drenched hiking boots through the two-foot thick layer of underbrush, I feel strangely accustomed to the same environment that had overwhelmed me just the night before.
Raw hands curled around my pack straps, I stumbled through the ups and downs of the barely distinguishable mud path, following the footsteps of our guide Charlie ahead. It had been a dreadfully long day of tripping over slippery, rain-pelted tree roots and shaking the mud out of the cuffs of my banana yellow rain gear. This was our third day in the woods and once again, the group hiked in silence. The foggy view had not changed over the course of these three dreary days, and the weather seemed to be reflected in the morale of the pack. I was alone in my thoughts as I traced Charlie’s trail, concerned for my sleep tonight with our planned campsite flooded from the relentless rain.
“Walk with me up here,” Charlie called, veering off the path and disappearing into the woods. Simultaneously feeling curious and nervous, I tentatively pushed through the brush and trees. “Welcome to your bedroom tonight,” she gestured out at the expanse of sloping land crawling in pricker bushes and what looked like poison ivy. Not a patch of dirt without the cover of bushes laid before me. Laughing, I brushed Charlie’s comment off like a joke I was unwilling to accept. But soon, I was on my knees, flattening bushes to lie under my sleeping bag and piling leaves to weigh down and waterproof the edges of our tarp.
That night, as thunder rumbled in the distance and raindrops drummed along the surface of our tarp, my tentmates and I giggled in our sleeping bags as we held the useless sunscreen we had packed in anticipation of hot North Carolina days. For the first time during this trip, we all seemed to crawl out of our own caves and join the high-spirited pack, shaking our heads over the ridiculousness of our situation. Murky moonlight spilled into the tarp through our mosquito nets, illuminating the dirt streaks and smiles across each girl’s face. Holding my flickering and fading headlamp under my chin, I played narrator in Mafia, our go-to camp game, as rain droplets dripped in through the leaky tarp. Carina joked with her sister, Kayleigh, that she was angry with their father who had forced them to come on this grueling trip. Josie finally felt accepted and comfortable enough to tell us about her struggle with gender identity. She shared stories about the inane dress codes for her chorus concert and the almost comical conversations she’s had with her gym teacher. Flashes of light and laughter projected out into the dark forest from the small rustic shelter we built together. We compared green and purple bruises on our unshaved shins and commiserated about our sore and swollen limbs. Airing out my punctured blisters and wrinkled wet feet, I peered across the scratched legs of my new family, making shadow puppets on the tarp roof and etching pictures into the dirt. As Charlie called, “lights out,” we quietly wished each other a dry night’s sleep and clicked our headlamps off.
My gaze refocuses on my boots buried under the greenery. Lifting my head back up, I busy myself with collapsing the tarp. My surprise and nerves about sleeping on and between bushes the night before seem irrelevant now.
Fully packed, I once again fall in line with the others as we trek out to the street to be shuttled to our next location. Singing along to made-up camp chants, the final push seems to slip by. Memories of hiking silently seem to shrivel away as we playfully banter, cross miles, and eventually find ourselves before a waiting van at the road.
Though I have only been surrounded by woods for a few days, it feels like it has been an eternity since I have seen such a vehicle, windows reflecting my almost unfamiliar face back at me. I graze my fingers against the surface of the metal, in awe of the machine that had days ago seemed common.
As we drive through the town, illuminated signs and bright billboards catch my eye. Pedestrians cross paved roads, car exhaust spirals up into the air, and breaks squeak against cement. Mesmerized, I don’t blink as I press my cheek against the window, in disbelief of the complexity of scenes I drive through every day. I hold my breath as Charlie veers the van towards an Ingles parking lot to run a first-aid related errand. As she slides open the van door, my fellow campers go silent. It almost feels as though something is wrong with the sky as fragile rays of sunlight shimmer against the pavement. Cheers and cries of disbelief erupt from the group as we stumble out and fall onto the warm parking lot, spreading our arms and fingers to absorb every drop of sunlight. I peel my cold wet socks down my feet and expose my raisined flesh to the dry air, crying for joy like a kid in a carnival. I reach my hand out to touch Carina’s and her eyes water with relief.
Sunlight fades into a cloudless night sky, making way for the first stars we have seen. Sitting cross-legged on the dirt for the evening circle, I tilt my head back and watch the same constellations I have seen my entire life unfold once again above my eyes. Milky speckles twirl around each other, tugging at the corners of my lips and spinning me back to summer nights spent stargazing off my cedar deck.
“Since you have been an amazing crew,” Charlie whispers in the dark, her voice riding on the chilling wind, “I have a present for you.” In disbelief, I wrack my brain over what this present could possibly be. I find nothing. From behind her back, Charlie rolls out an enormous watermelon, fresh from the farm we are camping by tonight. My heart jumps and my mouth fills with saliva, anticipating the taste of fresh fruit. For days, my only meals have consisted of powdered hummus, beans, pita bread, and the occasional slab of orange cheese. This watermelon sends shock and excitement down my spine, my fingertips tingling in anticipation of grasping the wet rind.
I stare at the slices as they fall from Charlie’s knife, picking up “trail spice” from the dirt. On her cue, I reach for a thick and juicy slice, coating the inside of my mouth with the heavenly red flesh. Spitting out the black seeds onto the dirt, I instead savor the juices as they leak into my tongue, grateful for these sweet moments. Peering up again at the universe that surrounds me, the slice feels so very small in my frail mud-stained hands. But inside my body, I feel it glowing brighter than the Milky Way as its juices travel through my bloodstream, nourishing every cell.
I highly recommend Outward Bound to anyone willing to put themselves through this type of adventure. It really does make you view what you have differently. As someone who has been backpacking before, I’d say that while this might be less hiking-intensive, it definitely tested me comfort-wise with the various sleeping, food, and camp arrangements we endured. See my earlier post about Outward Bound for more details on how we slept with a floor-less tarp and dealt with the relentless rain.