Many years ago, I read a piece at our Sunset Ceremony that I had prepared about Outings Week. “Almost before we go to School on the Mesa, we go into the woods,” I said. “Not so that we might escape the work ahead, but so that we might prepare for it, understand its relevance, remember what we go to school for. Those who have come before us have done the same, journeyed into the wilderness in search of something more than simply the other end of the trail.”
On Saturday, I finished my 22nd journey into the Kern River Valley, having made the trip this year with 13 remarkable juniors, one amazing senior, and an incredibly skilled and gracious colleague. We, too, were looking for more than simply “the other end of the trail.” And yet no two of us would likely agree on exactly what we found in that backcountry.
Around stoves at night we talked about all manner of things – our sore feet, or hips, or shoulders; who was covered with the most dirt; whether oatmeal tasted this good at home; the value of hot sauce at any meal in the backcountry; who was on clean-up duty; can we really wash a pot with dirt?
Critical questions, all, but they gave way as the trip wore on to larger, more meaningful queries. In the recently burned forest through which we were traipsing, the fresh new growth on the ground added so much color and energy to an otherwise forbidding landscape. How does nature renew itself so quickly? Is this biology at work? Theology? Accident or plan?
We argued over one meal about Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing, our summer reading book a few years ago. Was she in the right for killing her attacker? What is justice, really, and how is it assured? We talked about books we love, movies we adore, people in history we would love to meet.
We ran into a mama bear and her cub at a spot along the Kern River called Leggett. Who was intruding on whom in such a moment? Is this our place? Their place? Both?
We laughed a lot, struggled a good deal, wondered about limits and thresholds, about comfort and its absence, worried about our stamina and the effort required to reach the top of the trail.
Like everything else we do on the Mesa, Outings Week is not for any one thing. It teaches us all something: something about ourselves, something about the wilderness or the world, something about the earthly and something about the divine, something about our fellow travelers.
What Outings Week does, more than anything though, is put us in the best posture to learn. It vexes or compels or confuses or inspires us just enough to make us ask questions. Questions we may or may not be able to answer. It gives us momentum and confidence – intellectual, personal, and collective. And then it returns us home to the work of the school year, where questions are the way we find our truth.
That piece I wrote years ago ends, “Some of us may never return to these wild places that help to form us. Others will go back again and again. All, though, will remember their journeys and will know that something special happened in those mountains – something beyond exertion – that made us ready and better.
And so the journey continues, albeit on a different trail, whose end we hope never to reach.