About two weeks ago, my ski buddy Randy called me up. His brother Rick needed a female instructor for a week-long backpacking trip with a group of highschoolers with learning disabilities. Was I free? They were leaving from Rochester, a Monday through Friday affair, so I found myself back in my [new] car heading west, with minimal knowledge of what to expect.
I apologize ahead of time for the long post.
The Pine Creek Gorge- the West Rim trail follows the edge of this gorge for most of its length.
Our first stream crossing of the day, Reed tries to keep dry feet.
The river at campsite #1 in morning light.
Your faithful leader, in her funny pants. One thing about the spandex, though, is that it made the kids feel a helluva lot less self-conscious about themselves. One of the girls was even lamenting that she wished someone had told her about spandex, since her jeans were rubbing.
Faithful leader #2, DJ. DJ was a really interesting guy, and extremely experienced at leading kids into the back country.
A beautiful little trillium.
DJ catches a salamander.
Beautiful Pennsylvania hardwood forests. The leaves were still pretty bare at the beginning of the week, but they were leafing out significantly by Friday.
The campsite Thursday night. A little slice of heaven.
Three intrepid explorers joined me on a trip down to the gorge. The water was surprisingly shallow, and warm.
Looking up the river at our Thursday night campsite.
I meet DJ, my co-leader, in the parking lot at the Howard Norman school. I instantly like him, he has a quick smile and an easy manner, and he’s led many groups of highschoolers into the woods before. We go into the gym to meet the kids, three girls and five boys. They’re quiet and unwilling to share anything about themselves as we gather in a circle to get to know each other. Six seats for passengers in the van means two kids get to ride with me in the truck, and Elliot and Sarah get the short straw. They’re not too pleased about this, and the ride is pretty awkward as I try to draw them out of their shells. We stop at a rest area for lunch, and most of the kids rush to the vending machine to get sodas. Elliot finishes his Pepsi and kicks the empty can on the ground, walks off. I pick it up. “Hey Elliot. You dropped something”. “Oh. Yeah”. No apology, no acknowledgement that he did something wrong. I let it go.
The trail starts with a gradual downhill along a river, and the leaves are just starting to leaf out. Beautiful country, open hardwood forest with all the little wildflowers showing us their beautiful faces. The connector trail meets up with the West Rim trail, and starts to climb. I’m caboosing, and Sarah has fallen back from the group a little. Up ahead, the kids are all bunched up, almost knocking each other over they’re that close. Sarah stops after we’ve gone maybe thirty feet uphill. “I think I’m going to pass out”. “Ok, lets take a little break and catch our breaths”. She doesn’t look comfortable, she is starting to hyperventilate. We take off our packs, sit down on a log, and Sarah starts to sob. “I should never have come! I don’t belong here! What was I thinking? I don’t belong here!” I try to talk her through it. Explain that it gets easier as you go, try and get her to notice the birds singing, the plants flowering, the sunshine on dry rocks. She stops crying eventually, and we fix her pack to be more comfortable. She is so skinny that her waist-belt doesn’t go small enough, so we tie a sweatshirt around her waist first.
Camp is in a steep-ish river valley. We camp on a floodplain, with the girls on one side of the river and the boys on the other. We explain to them all about peeing and pooping in the woods, get lots of groans, and hopefully get the point across. We have one boy scout in our group, and he has a lot to learn about low-impact camping. He seems bright, though, and gets the concept. We set some of the boys on making the fire, and give them one match to light it. The girls are struggling with their tent, we let them fight it for a while before giving them some hints.
Dinner is burritos, I fold while DJ fries them on the skillet, and they’re met with appreciation. Whoever planned the menu did not anticipate how much hungry teenagers need to eat, though, some of the boys are obviously still hungry. After dinner and dishes we sit around the fire, which they did indeed light with just one match, and talk about a rose and a thorn from the day. Pretty much everyone found the walking to be a thorn. Roses varied from eating dinner to making the fire to stopping the walking. Good thing they didn’t sign up for a hiking trip or anything.
I wake early, after a deep sleep by the babbling brook. It is cold and somewhat damp in our little valley, but it’s dawn light, my favorite time of day. I head out for a run, towards where we started yesterday, and reach the start point in twenty-five minutes. Leaping over rocks and dodging trees by the narrow trail, I am struck by how much easier this is for me than it is for these kids, who spent hours traversing the same gently sloping hills. I feel alive, in tune with my body and with the world around me, and the birds’ singing just adds to my feeling of belonging. I pity the students for only seeing the drudgery of the task, because out here is where I am most at peace with myself, and I wish I could somehow share my love of this whole shebang.
I get back to camp, and DJ is up doing some tai chi, so we share a peaceful moment over hot chocolate while we wait for the sun to reach our valley and the students to wake up. We’ve gotten them all up by 8am, and watch bemusedly as they try to take down their tents. Breakfast is egg sandwiches, of all things, but they’re delicious, and definitely worth the extra time. We only have three miles today, but most of the kids are just as intimidated by three miles over the whole day as three miles in the afternoon. I don’t tell them that I already ran six.
We move out, I’m in front at first, and the trail starts with a long gradual climb. All the grades on this trail are so gradual, it is the perfect trail for beginner hikers. It is maybe 20 minutes to the top, and I move as slowly as I can at a consistent pace. The group spreads out up the hill. At the crest I pause, and instruct them to get some water. I don’t let them take the packs off; too much momentum is lost through constant sit-down breaks. We re-group, and then head out along a beautiful ledge. I am thoroughly enjoying the spectacular views, and we stop for lunch at an overlook.
After dinner that night, we go back down to our overlook where we ate lunch. Nobody is complaining, and we sit in a circle and talk about the day, the long day coming up, a rose and a thorn. DJ tells them that they will have to find ways to make tomorrow’s hike enjoyable, otherwise it will just be six miles of hell. I can see that some of them think that it will be six miles of hell no matter what. I hope that I am not near them at the end of the day tomorrow. Walking back in the dark, DJ and I start talking. He hiked the AT many years back, but this terrain reminds him vividly of going through North Carolina and Tennessee, and I can tell how much he misses living on the trail. I start to realize that if it weren’t for his kids at home, this man would live on the trail. It is on the trail, outside in the elements, that the true color of someone’s personality comes through, and I like DJ’s color. I am glad to not have to deal with these emotionally imbalanced students alone.
Wednesday dawns hot and buggy, and there is tension in the air. They’re nervous about the long day. DJ and I decide to push about a mile further down the trail, due to concerns about water at the first site and concerns about the length of Thursday’s trek. I take the front of the group so that DJ can wash up a bit and stretch his legs to catch up, and we slowly wind our way uphill through an upland hardwood forest. The trees are starting to leaf out, but they provide no shelter from the sun yet, and it is hot. We stop after about a mile, where the trail hits the road, to jog around someone’s property, because the jackass wouldn’t grant the trail access through his property. DJ has caught up, and we let the kids string out a bit up the road. Sarah is doing alright, but she is still very in doubt of whether she can do this trip. She actually has a nice, steady pace when she gets going, but she still stops a lot. The three most mature boys obviously want a faster pace, but the younger boys and the other girls are hurting.
The trail heads back towards the gorge, with another gradual uphill. I am caboosing. Sarah trips on a root, many tears ensue. Alicia drops back and hikes with us, she looks whipped. We’ve gone two miles. We cross a stream, lunch will be at the overlook just over the hill. DJ and I switch positions, I lead the fast boys to the top and we wait for everyone else. Sarah looks exhausted. I get Mark to help me strip some sticks to spread PB&J’s, and the kids wolf them down. The jelly won’t seal, so I let Lee eat the rest of it. Lee is very ADHD, maybe that wasn't a good idea. He is a good kid, though, helpful and cooperative.
The afternoon part of the hike looks like it will be difficult; mostly uphill. Mark and Dan want to know if they can lead. I tell them they can lead, and explain to them that leaders can’t just be the strongest hikers—leaders have to be able to look out for the whole group, hike at a pace that is sustainable for all, and think about everyone, not just themselves. They nod excitedly and rush off down the trail. I exchange looks with DJ. We sigh and set off. Anthony and I hike together for a while. He is the youngest of the group; he looks like he could be in sixth or seventh grade. I can tell that he has not yet matured socially, and definitely not physically, but he talks excitedly about going to football camp this summer, how he walked around the soccer fields to prepare for this trip, and the longest hike that I’ve ever done.
“How far have you ever hiked in one day?”
“I did twenty three miles on something called the presidential traverse last summer”.
“Twenty three miles? That’s really far! Were you tired afterwards?”
“Yeah, all I could think about was ice cream by the end”.
“Are you tired now?”
“No. Not really”.
I don’t want to tell him how much uphill is coming.
Partway up a gradual hill, Anthony and I catch up to Mark, Elliot, and Dan, the three “leaders” of the afternoon. We wait for Lee and the other two girls to catch up, and let them take a breather. Reed looks kind of pissed, Alicia just looks tired. No sign of Sarah, but I know she is with DJ, so I'm not worried. We start out again, and the boys are doing a much better job of regrouping often, although they stop too much. I hike with Lee for a bit. He says he runs XC and track, so we have a common thread there. He is training for the Philmont boy scout trip in the summer, and he tells me all the details of the trip with a boy scout's enthusiasm for getting an opportunity to play with fire.
We get to the top of the plateau finally, and roll into the first proposed campsite. No water, so it's just as well that we decided to keep going. The group has gotten pretty quiet, even Mark, who is the general noise-maker in this bunch. I can tell they are pretty whipped, and just want to be done walking. Sarah is looking like she is trying to keep tears under control, I want to tell her to be brave, little piglet, but I don’t know if anything I can say will help. We keep walking and hit the second campsite we’d agreed on. No water here, either, the gully is dry. There is a trail down to the gorge, though, and water will appear in there eventually.
Now that we are in camp it is time for me to go get the truck from where we started and hike in with the rest of the food. There is a bike stashed in the woods, Rick put it there, so I am going to find the bike, ride back to the truck, and drive back up here. I empty out my pack and start off. I jog up the road, my pack feels funny bouncing on my back empty. At the trail, I go fifty paces in and fifty paces north. Thick mountain laurel here, but there is a sort of deer path that I can follow, and I figure Rick probably took the bike down it. Then I see a wheel sticking up. Ah, good. Car switch complete, I hike in with all the food for the next couple days.
Everyone is crabby, low blood sugar, tired. I search for Wednesday’s dinner, and I find it. Ramen and beef jerky. I start passing around the beef jerky, and get some water boiling for ramen. Once everyone has food in their bellies they’re much happier. It is raining on and off, so we instruct them again to tighten up their rain flies and get everything under tarps that they don’t want wet. Some of the kids do what we say. Some don’t. I go to bed early, leaving DJ to get them into their tents by 10. We have another five miles tomorrow, but it should be mostly downhill.
I wake up to rain pattering down on my bivy sack. At least it is dry inside, but I feel a little claustrophobic in the bag, so I get up. DJ is up, also, and we string up another tarp. We get some water going, and we see some movement in the tents. It is peaceful in the rain, after the near meltdown yesterday. He asks me about NOLS, and we swap stories for a while. The hot chocolate with a coffee bag combination is good, warm, and the rain is starting to slow down as the students slowly crawl out of the tents. I am happy, feeling peaceful and ready to take on the day, but the kids are grumpy. Most of them got wet last night, because they didn’t go and tighten up their rain flies. Packing up takes a while, but finally they’re ready and we can eat some oatmeal. Turns out, most of them don’t like oatmeal, and I have to practically spoon feed the girls to get them to eat anything. The rain stops as we start walking.
The woods have gotten a lot drier, we are up on the plateau now, a little way from the gorge, and the beautiful open hardwood forest has been replaced with a dryer forest of mountain laurels and birch. I pick a wintergreen leaf, crush it up and stick it in my gum, and my thoughts are tinged with a fresh minty flavor. It is pleasant, and we get the kids thinking positive again as they walk. We’re making good time since the trail is mostly downhill or flat, and we get to our lunch spot pretty early. Sarah has been doing very well, the tears per mile today is at zero, and she leads the group for a while. We spend a while eating lunch, as usual there isn’t enough, but I have one twinkie that we have a contest for. DJ explains how to throw a rabbit stick, and we try to knock down the targets. Elliot gets the twinkie, and he is delighted. I haven’t seen him excited about anything other than food since I’ve met him.
We carry on after lunch, and I give the kids a little room as I caboose. It is a beautiful day, and we stop on an overlook to appreciate the views. DJ and I decide that it is time for a little solo hiking, since we’re only a mile or so from the campsite for the night. I go out first, to catch them as they come in. It feels good to hike at my pace, stretching my legs out and feeling alive and part of the forest. I come around a bend and I see a vista stretching away from me, so beautiful it literally takes away my breath for a second. It doesn’t translate well to the pictures I am trying to take on my camera, so I take a picture with my mind so that I can look at it whenever I want. I carry on and then I turn another corner and come into the little valley where we’ll camp. It feels like a slice of heaven, with little waterfalls and pools and glades and sunshine. I can’t help but smile.
The students trickle in one by one, and I ask them what their favorite part of the solo hiking was. Most liked the overlook, some liked getting into camp, some liked walking alone. Nothing can shake my feeling of peace, here with the giant trilliums and the babbling brook. DJ comes in last, and I can tell he has been walking thinking about his time on the AT, he has that relaxed, happy look on his face. We set up camp and I bring a group down to the gorge. Eventually it is time to go back up, but we have no packs on, so it is a quick walk. After dinner, they’re talking about a tv show. I express my ignorance and my age.
“What is ‘House’?”
“Duh, it’s a tv show. You can’t ask ‘what is House’ around a group of highschoolers, you’ll get killed”
“Sorry, I don’t have a tv”
Eight heads swivel towards me in shock.
“What?!? How do you live? What do you do? How can you not have a tv? Do you at least have internet?”
They’re shocked. The idea that someone can lead a happy life without a tv is impossible for them to conceptualize, and they don’t know what to think. For someone who has grown up attached by an umbilical to the tv, it is a horrifying concept to be without one, even for a week.
The campsite is perfect, I wish I could stay here for a week. The trees are leafing out pretty well, now, I am amazed at how quickly the hillside can get covered with green beeches, instead of being able to see right through them like we could at the beginning of the week. Tomorrow is our last day out, and I am sad to be leaving the woods. DJ and I spend a while by the fire, letting the kids stay up a little later, filling out evaluation forms for each student. Some of the students really grew during this week, and discovered a lot about themselves. Sarah especially got a lot stronger, mentally. I just hope that they can take some of the lessons they’ve learned about themselves here and apply them in the real world, the one with tv’s and internet.
I wake up around 6am, get a hot drink and some oatmeal with DJ, then head out to shuttle the truck to the van. It is peaceful this morning, the birds are still singing, but they are subdued. As I drive the truck back to the van it starts to rain, gently. It is a quiet, farewell rain, and I accept it and feel grateful that these woods are getting some water. I meet the kids as they are cresting the hill; we had hoped to have a final circle but they are just anxious to get out, to have their showers, their fast food, their movies. Hopefully we kept them out at least long enough to truly appreciate those things they appear to be missing. DJ and I exchange a glance. We both would prefer to stay out here. But our other lives are calling.
We stop at Arby’s for lunch. The kids are loving their fast food. I am quiet. I miss the wildflowers, the taste of wintergreen, the sound of the birds. I drive the truck with Lee and Dan, and Dan starts to open up a little as I ask him about his go-cart racing and his rally racing. He says his father is the NYS rally champion, a factory driver for Volvo. Dan is obviously very into this sport, and I am glad to see that he has a passion. Lee is going straight to a track meet, so we talk about the events he runs. The kids are a lot more comfortable now than they were at the beginning of the week, and I am glad to be part of the transformation. We get to school, de-issue gear, and they walk off. Like that, the slide back to highschool students again is complete. I think they’ll be back, though… they just don’t know it yet.
DJ and I go our separate ways. I have three hours to kill until I am meeting Jess. I head down to Mendon Ponds, and I sit in the sun with my book. The birds are out, and the breeze whispers in the trees. I still feel at peace with myself. I am still on woods-time, the hectic nature of my normal life has not yet caught up with me. I close my eyes and appreciate life for all it is. I am thankful I could go on this trip, be one of the people taking these kids out of their shells, and help them with life as they know it and showing them what else there is.