Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, September 5, I was beginning with my pod of about 14 juniors to prepare a massive pot of chili for the entire junior class and 15 or so faculty who were just completing the 20+ mile trek into the Kern River Valley. The day had begun with rain and the skies had been darkening ever since, but we remained hopeful that perhaps any precipitation would just pass us by. But that isn’t how it played out.
As my pod and I dutifully sliced onions and peppers and tri-tip the heavens opened. Even in the early onslaught, we tried to continue our work. Several folks grabbed big tarps and stretched them over those who were trying to prepare the meal, but soon the water was running nearly ankle deep at our feet, and we couldn’t keep large puddles from forming atop the tarp. Besides, our greater concern quickly became keeping the fire going. If it went out, we knew we were unlikely to get it burning again.
So, we left the food prep for a while to see to the fire and to do our best to keep the pooling water from drowning the stove. The initially steady rain gave way to alternating periods of intense showers which then gave way to marble sized hail. Most of us had rain gear, of course, much of it tucked safely in our packs. The weather had been warm, after all. Why would we need a raincoat?
It was, frankly, an entertaining sight, to watch as pod after pod arrived at the inholding we call Henry’s Camp. Juarez Newsome arrived with two broken trekking poles which had given way as he fell fording the rain-swollen stream separating him and his pod from our camp. Said Juarez cheerfully as he strolled into view, “You gotta taste the Kern to love it!” Indeed. We all got a taste of the Kern that day. But the flavor wasn’t what you might think.
Yes, we were cold and wet for a while. Many endured flooded tents and wet sleeping bags. There was a lot to worry about if the rain persisted or if we couldn’t get warm. But ultimately, the things we worried about were not what defined the day. The rain lasted several hours, but the chili kept on cooking and the juniors charged with preparing the meal never faltered. By 6 pm we were eating and gabbing around the miraculously still burning fire, marveling at the events of the last several hours and hopeful that sunshine lay in the not-too-distant future. Furtive glances skyward showed diminishing clouds and even a little blue sky in the distance. It looked like we had weathered the storm.
Indeed, when the sun rose on some admittedly soggy sleepers the next morning, there was not a cloud to be seen. And our earlier discomfort and challenge became a prized memory. It is funny how fondly we look back on moments that we did not greet with open arms, moments that given the choice we would likely avoid. And yet in managing those challenging times, in doing our best under the circumstances, we often find ourselves at our best.
None of us particularly like to be tested—in any forum—and yet we always remember when we are and how we emerge.
For the juniors in that moment at Henry’s Camp, they needed to do their best. Circumstances required it. And so, they did. I hope they remember that in the months ahead. We are often capable of more than we know. Sometimes we just need a challenge to rise to.