NOLS Grad Nominated for 2015 Adventurer of the Year Award
“Now what do you think each one of those people who voted for you needs to learn?" “And what do you think you need to learn?"
These are two questions Kit DesLauriers was asked by her NOLS instructor when selected by her coursemates to lead a small group through a three-day backpacking journey in Alaska. Over 20 years later DesLauriers says, “Of course both of those questions were largely rhetorical but they remain relevant to this day.”
DesLauriers, a NOLS Semester in Alaska ’91 graduate, who currently resides in Jackson, Wyoming, is one of the most well-known ski mountaineers around the world and a nominee for the 2015 Adventures of the Year Award. This award is presented by National Geographic and selected by readers. It recognizes people who have helped make our year in adventure that much better. Through exploration, adventure sports, conservation, and humanitarianism DesLauriers has shown her dedication to her passion in life.
You can vote for DesLauriers every day until Jan. 31.
Andy Bardon photo
From early childhood, DesLauriers remembers having had a passion for the outdoors, whether it was hiking in the desert or canoeing down a river with her family. By the age of 19, DesLauriers was ready to take her adventure abroad and traveled to France to study at the University of Marseilles. Once October break came about, she took advantage of her location and traveled to Switzerland to backpack through the Alps.
“I realized that with some formal training to supplement my desire to see the world, I, too, could go to these far off places,” she said she realized while reading through some books at a local’s cabin. Little did she know, NOLS was going to give her this opportunity.
After returning to the states, DesLauriers earned her degree from the University of Arizona and was encouraged by a NOLS graduate to take a course.
“I wanted as much experience in as adventurous of a location as I could possibly get,” she stated.
After some research and reading through a NOLS catalog, DesLauriers found the Semester in Alaska which, “fulfilled my dream and opened many doors.”
Since her course, DesLauriers has pursued numerous expeditions, many back in Alaska.
“In between that moment on the Chickaloon during my Semester in Alaska '91 and my first expedition to the Brooks Range in 2010, I made four other trips to Alaska including two heli-skiing trips on Thompson Pass, a climb and ski descent of Denali, and a boat- based ski mountaineering adventure based in Prince William Sound (which was also inspired by my NOLS course experience),” DesLauriers said. “That first trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in April 2010 won my heart, however, and I went back to the Arctic Refuge in 2012 and again in 2014.”
Also, DesLauriers has teamed up with Dr. Matt Nolan to conduct studies on the McCall Glacier. During this time she was able to climb and ski Mount Isto and Mount Chamberlin.
Today, you can find DesLauriers taking her family on vacations from Yosemite to Jackson Lake.
“I believe that if you make the choice to lead a life inspired by the outdoors, your kids are likely to follow by example,” she said.
We think she’s setting a great example, and she has our vote. Vote for DeLauriers here!
RM Interns Organize Community Garden Cleanup
At NOLS Rocky Mountain, each season the interns are required to develop and facilitate a community outreach project.
They selected this project to get involved with the Lander community, give back, and enjoy some beautiful fall weather.
Burrows and Martin also communicated with local businesses and received food donations for the volunteers who came out for their event.
The volunteers earned their lunch, by building garden beds, sifting dirt, pulling weeds, and helping unload manure. NOLS employees and locals worked together to improve the garden and learn about the community plot.
"We had fun getting our hands dirty and working to help benefit Pushroot Community Garden this weekend. It was great to see the community support and enthusiasm for the volunteer day, especially within local businesses that made the event a success through their donations to the cause," said Burrows.
Voice of America Visits NOLS to Profile YALI Fellow
This week Andrea Tadic and Philip Alexiou, journalists from Voice of America visited NOLS Headquarters and NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyoming.
Based in Washington, D.C., Voice of America is an English language news program, which broadcasts internationally.
They came to profile Dziedzorm “JayJay” Segbefia who was part of Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). This program is run through the United States State Department, and this summer 500 fellows from all parts of Africa participated in the six-week fellowship program.
First the fellows were sent to different colleges where they took classes on public management, civic leadership, and business entrepreneurship. JayJay was sent to Dartmouth College to participate in a business program.
In Ghana, JayJay is the Expedition Leader for Bravehearts Expeditions. His company takes youth into the wilderness and pushes them to new limits.
“I applied for YALI because I saw in it an opportunity for coaching, personal development, and business education all in one category” said JayJay.
After the culturally engaging sessions at Dartmough, Segbefia was placed at an internship at NOLS Rocky Mountain. An employee at the United States State Department was a NOLS alumna and identified NOLS as an ideal fit for JayJay’s internship.
JayJay came to Wyoming and spent time working at NOLS Rocky Mountain in the issue room and food rations store The Gulch.
When the film crew arrived in Lander, fellow JayJay had just returned from a Wind River Wilderness – Prime course. Tadic and Alexiou visited NOLS Rocky Mountain where JayJay gave them a tour and talked about his experiences both on the course and during his internship.
They also headed up to Sinks Canyon to shoot some footage of him rock climbing, a skill he developed and got passionate about during his time with NOLS.
JayJay plans to use his experiences and practices learned at NOLS back at his own company.
While in Lander, the film crew also had the chance to speak with some NOLS employees about the school and their personal experiences in the field.
Stay tuned in the coming months for the pieces profiling both JayJay and NOLS!
Exploration Film Tour Celebrates the Spirit of Adventure
The first annual NOLS Exploration Film Tour features two and a half hours of exciting short films based on themes of wonder, discovery, curiosity, and the timelessness of the wilderness experience.
For one night, come celebrate the wonder of the outdoors through film. NOLS believes these films will inspire viewers to get outside and have their own adventures.
The event will include the following films:
- World Beyond Worlds
- To the East
- Golden Ears
- An American Ascent
- Wild New Brave
- Maiden Light
The doors for each event will open at 6:15 p.m., with films starting at 6:45 p.m. There will be a 15-minute intermission, with each event ending at 9 p.m.
Click on the locations below to register for the free event nearest you, as space is limited.
Sept. 5,2014: Fairbanks, Alaska
Sept. 11, 2014: Anchorage, Alaska
Sept. 14, 2014: Bellingham, Washington
Sept. 20, 2014: Olympia, Washington
Oct. 9, 2014: Birmingham, Alabama
Oct. 12, 2014: Atlanta, Georgia
Oct. 18, 2014: Cookeville, Tennessee
Oct. 19, 2014: Greensboro, North Carolina
Come view these films with fellow and aspiring outdoors people and walk away with door prizes—including a chance to win a free NOLS course!
Don’t see an event in your area? Click here to suggest locations for next year’s NOLS Exploration Film Tour!
Lander Valley High School and NOLS team up for incoming freshmen orientation
On August 12th and 13th NOLS teamed up with Lander Valley High School to provide a taste of outdoor recreation to the freshmen orientation. This is the second year that NOLS has helped out with the freshmen orientation and NOLS hopes to make it an annual event for years to come.
Lander Valley High School is located at the foothills of the Wind River Mountains in the small, tight knit, and active community of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS’ original home and headquarters. Kids spend their time cruising around on bikes, playing video games, joining high school sports teams, and goofing off like kids should. Many families take their kids out into the Winds for family trips and some parents take their kids rock climbing or backcountry skiing. These kids are so lucky to have so many unique opportunities for recreation, and many don’t realize how special of a place they live in.
This past week, NOLS ran a special course for students at the local high school who are going into their senior year. They took students who agreed to be “senior mentors” out to the Winds where they got to spend a week backpacking with instructors Thea Sittler and Jonathan Brooks.
The course almost summited Wind River Peak but got to witness some extreme weather instead, including an impressive hail storm! They got to experience greeting a day with a pre-breakfast sunrise hike and they got to see some alpine wildlife. They learned how to cook in the backcountry and learned how to work as a well-oiled machine. They were allowed to make mistakes and help each other out and, like on any NOLS course, they learned how much fun simply hanging out around a whisper lite stove without life’s usual distractions can be. All the while, these students got the added bonus of being able to say they were hanging out in their home mountain range.
When the senior mentors got back to Lander, it became their turn to share the importance of being outside in your backyard. Along with a fleet of NOLS instructors, the senior mentors got to take any incoming freshmen who were interested up to Sinks Canyon for a few hours of rock climbing as a part of their freshmen orientation. Instructors taught some basic safety rules and explained the rope systems, while the senior mentors became instant leaders and took the reins to coach the freshman through tying the figure eight, belaying, and climbing technique. Watching students climb at Sinks, it quickly became apparent why climbing is such a great addition to a freshman orientation. The sport has so many assets which teach so many different skills and ideas.
For example, there is a learning curve to the rope systems, which challenges people before they even leave the ground.
“This friction device pulls the rope that way and then you lock the carabineer and spin it that way so that it doesn’t cross load, and then the load bearing strand is pulled downwards; do multiple wraps and make sure the prussik will self tend then double check for redundancy before weighting the system…”
As a climber myself, it took years to get used to translating sentences like these. Rock climbing requires focus and an open mind to learn how all of the systems work. While the systems taught to the freshmen at Sinks Canyon were relatively simple compared to the one above, remembering that most of them had never heard of gri-gris before really gave me an appreciation for how quickly students can wrap their minds around new ideas. They learned their knots quickly and got the belaying motions down almost instantly.
While some students were willing to blindly (sometimes literally, with a blindfold on!!) throw their weight onto the rope, others were more skeptical and hesitant to trust the rope systems and their belayer. They double checked each other’s’ systems while a NOLS instructor watched, used commands to communicate that they are ready to climb, and then left the ground once they know they fully trusted the situation.
Another important lesson learned from climbing is how to be resourceful. Students were equipped with everything necessary to get up the wall, along with a quick demonstration and explanation of climbing technique. Once a student is on the wall, they have to figure out how to use their resources (shoes, limbs, rock etc.) mostly on their own. In high school, students bring their own strengths to the table, which are unique to their past experiences and their interests. With each new activity they try, each homework assignment, each challenging moment, and each decision they make, they have to figure out how to use their resources to problem solve their way through.
Lastly, and potentially the best part of climbing, is that it can be awkward as heck! This is especially true among a group of newer climbers. Instructors watched students slowly work their way up walls, flail, fall, etc. Students learned that it is awkward to jam a foot in a crack, stand on it, and then realize that it must be taken out in the reverse order. They also learned that, despite feeling confident with your feet on a small little foot hold, its possible to have your toe slip off unexpectedly at any time!
From finding jelly beans perched on climbing holds, to blindfolding each other, to dumping bottles of water on each other to beat the heat, the students got a solid introduction to what rock climbing at your home crag is really like and the staff found it super satisfying to introduce students to their local recreation opportunities.
At the end of the day it was inspiring to listen to instructors equate lessons learned from climbing to life skills needed to make it through high school. It was neat to see how easy it is to bridge the gap between academic education and adventure education. From learning technical rope skills to developing trust and a good mindset, NOLS was thrilled to provide a great climbing orientation for these incoming Lander Valley High School freshmen and to incorporate some appropriate outdoor education to the start of their new academic journey.
Good luck to this group of students and may the send-train continue!
Written by Kaybe Loughran, NOLS Rocky Mountain Intern
In-Town Staff Value Out-of-Office Play
It's no secret that NOLS is a great place to work. Listed in Outside Magazine's "100 Best Places to Work" for the last six years, NOLS has been recognized nationally for its commitment to outdoor education and encouraging a good work-life balance. [Read more on this recognition here.]
NOLS employees are allowed to work flexible schedules so they can get outside and play. Many staff members at NOLS take advantage of this perk. With support from supervisors, employees can take time out of the workday to participate in community-wide lunchtime bike rides, climb at the local crag or complete individual training regimens.
The organization also takes that support a step further by encouraging staff to participate in races and multi-day events, even when these events take place on weekdays. NOLS employees are participating in outdoor ventures all over the world but are also playing roles in Wyoming’s growing adventure race scene.
For example, NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute employees Kira Gilman, Jill Moeller, and Anna Horn entered and competed in the inaugural REV3 Casper Strong Full Day Adventure Race at their supervisor's urging.
The team members cheered each other through a series of unique and entertaining events in Casper, Wyoming. The Casper Strong race was a team effort and these three ladies bonded while tackling challenges along the course.
Gilman began the race for WMI’s team with a 12-mile trail run and then completed an archery section on top of Casper Mountain. Moeller then competed in the next leg of the race, mountain-biking and carrying a 50-pound salt block uphill. Finally, Horn tubed a whitewater section of the North Platte River to the finish line.
This winning team returned to the office with Casper Strong belt buckles and many stories to share.
"It was fun to have my supervisor encourage me to try something new and challenge myself. The push I receive from co-workers to pursue personal goals and well-being outside of the office is a huge part of what has made working in-town for NOLS sustainable for me," Horn reflected.
NOLS is committed to continuing its support and encouragement of employee wellness—a key ingredient in what makes the school an awesome place to work!
Thanks for the Experience
Thank you for creating an atmosphere where we would find ourselves creating an annual tradition of sending staff to compete in such an exciting, intimidating, and demanding event as the Cowboy Tough Adventure Race.
Thank you for encouraging us to pursue our curiosity and interest in adventure racing, particularly when it passes right through our back yard: the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.
Casey Adams and Marina Fleming, part of a four-person team, prepare to start in South Pass City on July 17. Jeanne O'Brien photo
Thank you for educating us in leadership, tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, navigation, nutrition, and pack packing, all of which made our experience last week that much more “comfortable.”
Thank you for connecting us with preferred retailers like Deuter and Brooks so that our backs, feet, legs, and faces would be well-cared for out there—in addition to supplying us with assorted mandatory gear and epic piles of food. We carried countless bars and trail snacks 400 miles across Wyoming in our Deuter Trans Alpine backpacks, which proved surprisingly comfortable on a bike. We nursed our tired legs with Brooks compression socks as we slept each short night. We kept the sun off our faces and the burs out of our socks with the Brooks hats and Cascadia trail shoes and schlepped our way from South Pass City to Casper in an awe-inspiring, if indirect, route.
Thank you for being the kind of organization where it is perfectly reasonable for managers and interns alike to drive an hour to the starting line to cheer (which is pretty cool for the competitors and the fans alike). Thank you for setting up another cheering squad on Main Street on Day 2 of the race, just a block from where we could have been working instead of pedaling by and giving high fives en route to throwing tomahawks.
Finally thanks for supporting the race and our fellow racers by sending the highly educated and skilled medical team from the Wilderness Medicine Institute to follow all our 40 teams for four days, repair blisters on surely nasty feet, clean road rash, and more.
Obviously, thanks for taking, and subsequently sharing, this photo:
Brad Christensen photo
It’s an honor and a pleasure to work for NOLS. Thanks for the adventures, the community, and the support.
PR Specialist and Writer Casey Adams and Marketing Representative Marina Fleming, of the Wind River Country Team
This World and That (Part Three)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the third and final of three parts in this series.
After a particularly long and arduous cross-mesa slog on the hottest day of the course, a slog during which morale hovered at a course low, we rolled into camp where the kids dropped their packs and slumped in an exhausted heap. Kai, Andy, and I departed to scout the surrounding vista, but when we returned we discovered a lively scene of unexpected and raucous laughter. In his solo journal, Luis describes this moment:
Mr. Bre, Andy, and Kai looked over at us like the desert had driven us crazy! At one point, Janet even had to take out her inhaler because she was laughing so hard. I don’t even remember what we were laughing about, but we recognized the situation we were in. We were all alone in the middle of nowhere, no technology, and the only thing we had was each other.
In the canyons, these students became alive to each other in ways often impeded by the drive of frontcountry competition. The canyons help untangle the morass of grades and academic prizes and college admission and return it to a simpler foundation of human connection.
The night Tom photographed the Milky Way, he’d recruited a cohort to accompany him on a midnight foray where they spread their bags out on a slickrock bench and triple-set their alarms, prying themselves up and into the frigid canyon air at 3am to erect the tripod for an extended-lapse shot. They’d never seen the Milky Way before and in the morning when they woke, they draped their arms around each other, laughing with cantaloupe smiles and carrying spring lamb-bounce in their steps.
Rachel, an 11th grader, wrote a sequence of poems on the trip that gets at this capacity for wonder. Here is an excerpt:
We are either homesick or home
No way out but further in
There are petroglyphs etched
Onto your ribcage and spine
The wild thing put them there
For wild-you to remember
So when you breathe, you know the
Wind is breathing back to you
So when you falter, you know the
Canyon can be your rigid spine.
Veins crackle and sputter like firewood
And awaken a new way of treading ground
And illuminate the thought upon waking:
“This is the day to shape the next upon.”
The Canyons are words on a page
A language the river swept away
Silver scaled and glinting
Jumping like fish
They remain on the backs of our eyelids
A bluish blob stained onto nothingness
That we see, now
Every time we blink.
Tom and his buddies reveling at their first sight of the Milky Way reminded me that the capacity for wonder is alive and well, Rachel’s words that sometimes emblem is all we have.
As students begin to sense their own agency, as they fit this agency within the framework of their emerging community, as they attenuate themselves to their own capacity for wonder, something shifts inside them, a realization that can be transcendent. 11th grader Sage explores this emerging sense of self in his solo journal:
I gather some dead sage and fix my lighter underneath. I pull my fingers across the flint wheel, the only unnatural thing around me, and watch it engulf my namesake. I hold the plant upside-down, allowing the flames to climb. It vanishes in my hand with a blinding fireball and a choking cloud of smoke. It warms my bare chest, reminding me of the imminent chill, and I am reborn, a new person. The sun rests atop a red stone mesa, visibly shrinking its crescent on the horizon. The sun fades into tonight and tomorrow, and I fade into someone new, someone else.
These kids are not the same who left less than two weeks ago. It is clear that have been changed irrevocably.
When I think about Tom’s words I’m so bored by all of this and how I might be able to help my students shift worlds, it occurs to me that I want them to see that it’s not about this world and that at all—that it’s not all over when they leave the canyons as they fear may be the case. I hope they see how they can enact what they learned in the desert right here on campus every day just as they witnessed Harkness in the desert. It’s the synergy between worlds that I most hope my kids will recognize and that there are ways to preserve the magic.
For me, what helps is recognizing that sometimes memory and metaphor suffice. Tom’s starcloud suggests that sometimes we see better in the dark, and our maps tell us that when we’re lost, there are ways to become found if we only take the time to orient ourselves by recognizable features. “Using our smarts” is just good practice, and sometimes laughter heals a day’s ills[j4] . In this way, our backcountry days can echo for us now in this eddy of time even more loudly than in the silence that echoed for us then.
Our final evening. We huddle in a circle around a modest pit fire, feeding the flames with small lengths of juniper. The mood is electric and I think I know why. We’ll be gone tomorrow, our expansive views contracted to the boxy confines of the van, our pellucid soulscapes clouded by the abrasion of our iPhones: email, phone calls, espn.com, Facebook. They’re ready to go back but don’t yet want to relinquish their hold on this place. For comfort, I turn to “Cactus Ed” Abbey, that desert bard who faced his own departure from the desert. I read across the firelight:
I, too, must leave the canyon country, if only for a season, and rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race (Rattus urbanus)...Balance. That’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds. Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time, I am attempting to make the best of two.
Our final morning. With the sun at our backs, we look west and see the glint of the truck windshield on a bench two miles away. We break a quick camp and funnel away downcanyon, bending to scoop chunks of petrified wood for the last time before returning them to their sandy beds. We walk in silence for the final mile, unconsciously slowing our pace, extending our time. When we turn a bend in the canyon where it sweeps up close against the road cut, we’re confronted by an aperture in the rock, a concrete eye tunneling the breadth of road. After nine days in the field, the abruptness of its emergence is jarring. The kids hesitate at the threshold, their packs bumping together like jammed logs. We hold the silence for a few seconds longer, looking back over our shoulders into the depths of the canyon where flood-scarred cottonwoods twist in the sun and our tracks stretch backward in the sand. And there it is: bootslap on pavement, the easy roll of industrial traction. When we emerge on the other side 100 feet later and greet our truck, I’m smiling with the knowledge that we’ll be knocking dust from our boots for years to come.
This World and That (Part Two)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the second of three parts in this series.
Click here to read Part One, the beginning of the series.
Browsing pictures before our gathering, I stumble across a short GoPro clip shot by Luis, a 10th grader from Chicago. He shoots from an elevated alcove, looking downward through a narrow shaft of canyon slot framed by a prominent chockstone. Below, Claire, another 10th grader, can be heard approaching from around a bend. Her telltale blue beanie wobbles into view as she assumes a perch high enough on the wall for her to peek through the opening and assess her next passage. She grunts with exertion, using opposing pressure to hold her place while she gropes blindly above for purchase. It’s a tricky move to be sure: to progress from her stance, she’ll have to mantle onto the pinched bite of stone where the walls thin and duck under the chockstone. Doable, but in need of some rumination. She hesitates, unsure, looking back down to where Andy waits out of sight, then back up into Luis’ lens.
Claire’s voice is barely audible, but if you can make out her, “Uh...what do I do?”
And from the recesses, unseen, Andy’s words return hollow as if the canyon itself were speaking: “Use your smarts!”
In the canyons, the kids come to see themselves differently—as doers rather than thinkers only, as people capable of agency. They learn to trust themselves and the skills they’ve developed to do real work. “Where are we?” they ask over and over and over again during the opening days of the course, to which their instructors patiently reply, “take out your maps.” By the end of the trip, they understand how to plot a course and follow it, that meals don’t cook themselves, and that if you haven’t planned far enough ahead to pack your raincoat accessibly, then your teammates might sigh loudly and look at you with deep reproach while you explode your pack to find it.
In the canyons, students’ horizons are confined to the daily living tasks of eating and drinking and travelling. Near the end of the trip, each student elected to participate in an overnight solo, during which they were encouraged to reflect on and write about their experiences thus far. Andrew, an 11th grader, identified this narrowing of purpose as one of the most formative aspects of his trip:
I was immersed in a primitive lifestyle and through it I regained sight of the world and the people around me—the sight that I lost at Exeter while thinking and thinking, toiling away about projects and college and my general future, because those things have always been the ends for which I work. In the canyons, the goal was to find water, to explore, to see things, and to strive only toward immediate goals. In the canyons for those nine days, I have never felt more conscious of what was around me. Without the distractions of civilization, I noticed the little things: the soft hum of air in my ears, the color of red mesa, the rock lines that flow like water, the texture of the sand.
In the canyons, the kids’ focus is distilled to an immediate and tangible purpose, to something more concrete than the amorphous securing of a “successful future” or getting into a “good” college. Here, they need to find reliable water and cook a meal that will fuel their minds and bodies as they hump their packs over rigorous terrain.
Stay tuned for Part Three, the conclusion of the series, coming soon!
This World and That (Part One)
By Jason BreMiller, Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educators Course ‘03
BreMiller lives in New Hampshire where he teaches English, coaches hockey, and leads outdoor trips at Phillips Exeter Academy. He recently reactivated his Field Instructor status and hopes to spend more time outdoors watching his students fall in love with wild places.
A shortened version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Leader, in mailboxes now! This is the first of three parts in this series.
It’s a Tuesday night in Peabody Hall, the dorm at Phillips Exeter Academy where I reside and teach, our second day back at school after a 10-day Utah backcountry trip with my students. I can hear the hum of easy banter as they congregate outside my door for our first post-trip reunion, peeling off their shoes—or, I should say their boots—because, as one of them puts it, “we’ve been wearing our boots every day still!” “Yeah,” another confesses, “it makes me feel like we’re still there!”
In a corner of the living room they pile their packs high, still stained red with smears of Utah dust, the telltale badges of any backcountry trip to the canyons: the grit that works itself into your boots, your clothes, your dishes, your water, and your teeth, but that catches in your soul in the lazy backwash hours of your return. My wife Molly has found a collection of stick-on moustaches for the kids to don for fun, which they adhere with characteristic abandon. “We love moustaches, too!” I’ve set up our tv so we can browse the many pictures that have emerged from the trip, and as I click away, the crescendo of background commentary heightens.
“Ah! It’s Sage eating 64 marshmallows!”
“Liana, how many times did you get to say Mr. Bre’s least favorite word ‘yam?’”
“Andrew, your hair looks like a greasesponge!”
“Has anyone seen Quappleton carrying the poop trowel around campus yet?”
It’s the language of familiarity, the language of love, as if by invoking their lived stories they cement the reality of what they did out there in the desert together. Of how they moved. That it was real. And that despite their present distance from rimrock and sage, they’re still carrying canyonfire in their hearts.
The slideshow proceeds: the slop of a debut meal; a steep slickrock rappel; an awning roof pictograph; a rim to rim post-squall rainbow; the snow-clad Henry Mountains. We pause at a picture of the Milky Way: shades of violet and chalk, starclouds and space. They stare at the picture and grow quiet, their minds going back, their gazes turning wistful and faraway, full of remembrance.
“It’s funny,” Tom, the 10th grader who took the picture, breaks the reverie, “there are so many things to DO here now,” he pauses, his voice teetering, struggling to splice worlds, “but I find that I’m so bored by all this, you know?” His armswing encompasses the entire non-canyon world. The others nod in agreement, and the silence stretches.
So I’ve been thinking about Tom’s words all week, between classes, at night after the kids have checked into the dorm, during the few still moments of the day when the background thrum quiets long enough for me to hear inside. I’m so bored by all of this.
I understand Tom’s sentiment because I feel it, too, even after more than a decade of returning from the field, gazing backward over my shoulder every time. But navigating this world and that is endemic to getting outside, and I can’t help but wonder how I can help my students span the gap.
Our first evening in the field: the inevitable chaos of camp setup, poop school, and bombproofing. Kai, one half of our husband/wife instructor team, has cooked burritos, and once the “where did I put my headlamp; oh no, I forgot it; oh, there-it-is” dust has settled, her husband Andy leads us in a “one thing to take with you from Exeter and one thing to leave behind” reflection exercise.
“I’d like to be able to be myself here,” one student admits, “and not who everyone expects me to be.”
“I hope our schedule can be chill,” another offers, “without something to get done every second.” It is clear they have come seeking a different world than the one they left.
So what world did they leave? Founded in 1781, Exeter is now a school of roughly 1,100 students from, in Exeter-speak, “every quarter” of the world; it’s a place whose mission it is to help students explore the confluence of “goodness and knowledge.” We employ a pedagogical approach founded by the school in 1931 called Harkness: a system of learning in which the students work together around an oval table, teaching themselves through active conversation and collaboration. They study literature by reading texts and discussing them amongst themselves around the table; they unravel math problems by working together at the board. At Exeter, the teacher is a co-learner who helps reflect to students their own learning, but who almost always holds back, letting silences linger, creating space for the students to find their way.
But Exeter is also complicit in the world of uber-competitive private education, where the strains of academic pressures and college admission often weigh heavily on our students despite our best efforts to defuse them. It’s no wonder, then, that they open to the canyons like desert bloom.
And once open, it’s remarkable to see what fills that space.
Stay tuned for Part Two and Three coming soon!