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Monday, October 3, 2011

Cumbersome Beauty

Three weeks are irrelevant. The time I spent on orientation took on a context greater than the month of September. It felt oddly like a lifetime, as if, during the time, I grew from infant to old man, and at the end flew up toward the sun. Suddenly, there was pavement. Traffic mumbled down the road. I was back, and it was difficult suddenly to comprehend what I had just done. Now, a week after returning to greater humanity, I feel prepared to explain my experience of Prescott College Wilderness Orientation.

We began in Prescott. All the orientation students sat in a big circle and were told to close their eyes. An inspiring speech was given as, unbeknownst to us, all of the orientation instructors and course directors changed into, in some cases horrifically undersized, cutoff denim shorts. Using flame shaped pieces of paper with our names and a cryptic code (CB2 in my case), we found our “destinies,” our orientation groups. These people we’d be learning the intimate secrets and gastric patterns of for the next twenty-one days.

The following day, we piled into Prescott College vans, one for each group, and were shuttled up a mountain on a very bumpy road. We built a trail all together in the morning, ate lunch in our groups afterward, and were off to a YMCA summer camp not too far from Prescott. Here, at Chauncey Ranch, we spent two nights. This is where we started to get to know each other. Our first hike was here. We had our first written reflection here and coordinated our own group rules. We sorted the food we’d purchased together back in Prescott and assigned group gear to each other. Our packs, at this point, were frightfully cumbersome.

On a fateful morning we loaded our packs into the bed of a pickup and climbed the stairs of the charter bus that was to take us to our temporary home in the wilderness. Except it was the wrong bus. “Stump’s group? You’re on the other bus.” This event really set the tone for our journey: hilarious and less-than-tragic missteps. Despite the miles of extra hiking and food made inedible with Dr. Bronner’s, the comic relief was like a friendly poltergeist that never left us.

Our first night we slept on a gorgeous red sandstone boulder at the edge of West Clear Creek, in the canyon so named. We jumped off into the deep, clear water and were like celebrating nymphs. Everyone smiled. It was good. On this first night, I had a long talk with the exquisitely big sister-like Iris Cushing, Shane Stump’s counterpart facilitating our journey. I was a bit overwhelmed and didn’t think I could sleep outside; I’d never slept in anything less substantial than a tent in my life. With a gentle voice and reassuring hand on my back, I was absolved of my fears and spent the night staring up into the brilliant star-filled sky the likes of which I rarely, if ever, had seen before.

The skies above our journey were equal in proportion to the rocks, water, and forest we hiked through. The skies were at times full of radiant, intense sunlight, crystal blue skies without a single cloud. They were malevolent grey curtains offering downpours and lightening prisons. They were intense sunrise and sunset, full of colors like autumn leaves and sherbet. They were the open universe, with shooting stars, constellations, and the great Milky Way looming at the furthest reaches of human vision.

Along our journey, we ate sweet sour canyon grapes. We climbed down waterfalls with ropes around waist. We drank water from puddles. We ate the greatest honeydew ever beset mankind. Sometimes we walked down national forest roads while the cows stared at us and followed, intrigued. Other times I wished I had a machete to make my way through such thick vegetation I had never imagined grew in the dry Southwest. We negotiated around cacti. We climbed 1600 feet in one day. Through much difficulty, and much doubt, we made it to our destination. However, when you’re hiking in a large horseshoe shaped path, not really traveling, just backpacking, there really is no destination. I think orientation, by its very circuitousness, exemplifies well the ethos of Prescott College: education is a journey.

-Estin Vogel, 09.29.2011

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