One must be either the ultimate optimist, invariably lucky, slightly demented, or just plan nuts to take fifteen hormone-enhanced teenagers into the wilderness alone for two weeks at a time. But that is exactly what I did for a better part of my career as a high school teacher. The wilderness experiences I shared with my students over a thirty-year period allow me to believe that there is at least as much to learn outside the traditional classroom as there is inside the hallowed halls of academia.
Somehow, in spite of snow, wind, and rain storms, sun burns, blisters the size of tennis balls, interpersonal conflagrations, bears, rattlesnakes, poison oak, a variety of health issues and physical challenges that occurred on the trail, I brought them all back alive and well enough to espouse the wonders of the back country and Mother Nature.
All those miles, days on the trail, nights under the stars, and one thing has been clearly shown to me: There is inherent goodness in an experience with nature. There can be no virtual or traditional classroom event that mimics a situation where fifteen young adults can speak to each other one at a time, in an orderly manner, around a campfire, without technical support, parental influence, or preconceived notion about what is the right or wrong answer to a question such as, “How do you feel about spending a night or two alone in the wilderness?”
And then, when the discussion ended, I would send them away to spend a few days and nights alone!
Now you might be thinking, this guy is really nuts. But in all the years I did this, every one of those hundreds of teenage wilderness travelers came back to camp after their solo experience. Some, after re-connecting with the group, even wanted to go out alone again.
Without the belief that what I was doing for these students was absolutely the right thing for them to do, and that I had prepared them for the solo event by carefully leading them through a week or more of awareness exercises within the wilderness, I could have never slept at night while they were away.
I believe that today’s world has alienated too many of us from having true contact with nature. We have sheltered ourselves in comfortable homes filled with the gimmicks and zoo-zoos of our technological era. But have we achieved anything beyond extracting ourselves from our nomadic past?
We need wilderness. And we need people to go to the wilderness to seek solitude and serenity in nature. In today’s complex world, I believe this is necessary if we are to survive the on-rush of what ever comes next.
As a right of passage, I believe all teenagers should be required to put on a backpack and take an extended hike into the mountains with a good guide.
My optimism, good fortune, trail time with kids, and a slightly skewed intuition tell me I’m right about this one.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.