A Hard Night’s Sleep
I woke at 6 a.m. after a night spent tossing and turning. Nervous, I guess, about what was to come. Was it guilt about leaving my family for a week? Self-doubt? Just plain excitement? I’m still not sure. But I didn’t sleep well.
I did my morning yoga routine in my hotel room, and dutifully reported to the hotel lobby at 7 a.m. where I met 7 of the people with whom I would be spending the next 10 days in wilderness. People with whom I would share some incredible life experiences; people who I would learn both about and from; people who would share with me stories, perspectives, and their unique wisdom.
“Forming,” we would learn, is the first phase of a group dynamic. It began right there in the hotel lobby at 7 a.m. as we awkwardly stood and sat in a circle, sizing one another up, making small talk. We were laying the ground work for what would become our group norms. Politely asking where everyone was from, what they studied, how old they were. Surface level stuff. TJ was (uncharacteristically, I would learn) quiet. Reserved. Watching. I was nervously trying to engage people in conversation without being overbearing. Sensitive to the fact that I was probably going to be the “old man” of the group.
The van pulled up. We piled our gear into the trailer and drove about 20 minutes to “The Branch” – a beautiful, idyllic, and secluded piece of heaven in the Pacific Northwest.
At The Branch, we unloaded the van, had a delicious and incredibly healthy communal breakfast, and began our gear inventory. I was immediately struck by how gently everyone lived. There was an intense focus on only cooking what we need, recycling everything we could, and everyone doing their share. I quickly fell in love with the community.
Meeting the Faculty
We were introduced to our instructors, John and “Dooley” – two men who would have a sizable impact on my future, not just over the next 10 days, but, I hope, for the rest of my life.
Over lunch, I talked to John about backgrounds and learned that, like me, he had been a philosophy student, and had a son 3 weeks older than mine. We both decided that it would be a fun trip with lots to talk about, especially given our similarities. Over the next 10 days, hiking through the Pasayten Wilderness, we would discuss Ancient Greek and Existentialist philosophies, Chinese and Japanese philosophical principles, and learn leadership concepts through the lens of the Star Wars trilogy.
After lunch was Ration Prep with an energetic young woman from Dayton, Ohio, named Kat. Her energy was infectious. I would later learn that she was an accomplished rock-climber who had climbed the Liberty Bell just the week prior. She was a free spirit, but got things done in a way that made everyone excited about even the most seemingly mundane task, like getting our rations together.
As we were waiting to load the vehicles, I saw someone I thought I recognized. About a year ago, as I was trying to figure out what next to do with my life, I stumbled upon a blog written by NOLS Faculty member Jared Spaulding. In his blog, he devotes significant time to describing the life of a NOLS Instructor, describing it as living in the Never-Never Land of Peter Pan. I reached out to him on social media and we exchanged a few messages. Almost a year later, he happened to be at the PNW Branch! I confirmed with one of the NOLS staff that it was, in fact, him, and introduced myself. He remembered who I was, and I thanked him for the small part he played in getting me here. Jared had taken on almost a mythical stature for me. Meeting him in person was special. He was unpretentious, with a small, wiry physique, a quiet demeanor, and intensely curious eyes.
Finally, it was time to load the van. We piled the packs and group gear into the back of the truck. I rode with Dooley and Yolanda, while everyone else piled into the blue 15 passenger van, affectionately dubbed Skylar by the staff at the PNW Branch.
And we were off. More forming.
Dooley, Yolanda and I talked more about where were from from, what we liked to do, and why we were on this particular trip. I was struck by how unpretentious both he and John were. Clearly, they were the leaders of the group. But they led in a way that made it feel like we were learning from friends while out on a camping trip.
As we drove, I asked Dooley about various land management agencies, what defined an area as Wilderness, how National Forests were different National Parks. I was impressed with his knowledge, and the breadth of his skill set. Not only was he an accomplished backpacker and outdoors-man, but his focus at NOLS was actually on sea kayaking. He worked in Australia and Alaska, among other places, for various sea kayak guiding companies.
I learned that Yolanda was a yoga instructor, and also does a significant amount of work with Outdoor Afro. Having once again begun practicing yoga, I asked if Yolanda would be willing to teach me, or even lead a few sessions in the back-country. She agreed. How exciting to be practicing yoga in the back-country!
As Dooley asked about my background, I told him about my experience teaching sailing, and how those experiences were a cornerstone of my decision to take a NOLS course. Surprisingly, he suggested that I look into teaching sailing at NOLS, as NOLS Sailing Instructors are, apparently, in somewhat short supply.
About halfway to our destination, Dooley received a call from The Branch. Apparently someone forgot to put the spice kits in our ration bags! While this might not be detrimental, it was worth turning around. Kat drove and met us halfway.
While we were waiting, Dooley just happened to pull into the parking lot for Annie’s Pizza. After learning how much Dooley loved pizza, we decided that, while passing the time waiting for Kat, as a last hurrah before heading into the back-country, and because we were both hungry, we should probably get a pizza. Having complied with the NOLS rules that I basically leave all my front-country belongings at The Branch, I had no money and, therefore, couldn’t even offer to split the cost of the pizza. Dooley didn’t seem to mind. And the pizza was delicious!
Kat delivered the spice kits, partook in some of the pizza, and we were once again on our way.
First Campsite – If the World Were Only a Few Feet in Diameter
Finally, we arrived at our destination.
We would move into the back-country slowly. The morning and part of the afternoon were spent preparing our gear. Our first night was at an established campsite, removed from the hustle and bustle we were accustomed to, but not yet in the back-country. We pitched our tents, had a lesson about how to use our MSR Whisperlight stoves, and were introduced to the NOLS 4-7-1 model, which would become the blueprint of our lesson plan over the next 10 days.
Dooley left us with a final word for the evening – If the World Were Only A few Feet In Diameter.
Then, while everyone else returned to the campsite, I found myself drawn to the river. Drinking in the sights and sounds of nature, I was intoxicated by the outdoors. I confirmed for myself that, like Dooley, I’m definitely a water guy.
An auspicious start to what would be a life-changing trip. I was particularly impressed by the deep skill-set of our instructors, and the diversity of the people in our group. Here we were, 11 people from across the country and around the world, who had never met before, venturing into the back-country together.
I was immediately impressed by how much time and effort the faculty put into learning and developing their skills, their own unique educational styles, and how willing they were to share their knowledge with us. And I was taken by the sense of community engendered by everyone who worked for NOLS. Finally, I was excited to be sharing this adventure with 10 strangers. We were a special group, embarking on a new and special adventure.