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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Transformed by Raw Determination: A Wilderness Orientation Story

Twenty-three days, and 71 marked miles.

That is the amount of time and travel it took for me to become tamed by the Arizona wilderness. Not tamed, really, but transformed, by the heat, the hardships, and by my heart.

Let me start from the beginning.

I moved to Prescott, AZ in August 2011 after being accepted as a transfer student at Prescott College. After a horrible two weeks of moving in with an unsatisfactory roommate and then having to move out again, I was ready to start my Orientation. At Prescott College, Orientation isn’t a typical college/university orienation. Yes, there’s still all those odd talks and presentations, but, it’s also so much more. Here, at Prescott College, my Orientation would be a three-week backpacking trip through the Arizona wilderness in the Yavapai and Coconino counties. I could have chosen a Yoga Orientation, or done a Community-Based Orientation, but I chose Wilderness Orientation.

I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

The first few days were a series of pre-eliminary talks, presentations, packing and repacking, a practice hike, and then, finally, a ceremony that would send us all in our separate ways. It was tedious, to say the least, but it had to be done.

Finally, we were driven out to our separate trail heads. It was exciting, to be leaving the “front country” behind, with all of its noise and distractions. Those days were on a trail, and the miles were few. Optimism was flying high, and there were pools of water to swim in. It almost seemed like a vacation. It was the first time I slept outside, under the starts, without a tent or tarp covering me…just the sleeping pad under me and the sleeping bag around me. It was also strange trying to get used to my group. We were small, then only six students to two instructors, but it was still hard not to feel…out of the loop.

A few days into our blissful dip into backpacking, we had to haul ourselves OUT of the canyon and onto the rim. This was the day where my doubt and distractions were at their highest. The work was kicking my butt, royally, and it was the first time I seriously doubted my ability to do this, and contemplated quitting. It was such hard work; carrying the pack up this steep, thin little excuse for a trail. Muscles that I didn’t even know could hurt were screaming with agony. Then, we reached our final obstacle that would take us onto the rim…rocks, that we had to climb with packs on. I was so determined in that moment, just to reach the top and be done with the thing. I hesitated, then climbed…refusing hands and boosts up. As soon as I cleared the last rock, I dropped my pack and cried. Never had I been pushed to such physical, mental, and emotional extremes. As I sat out on a rock and gazed over the canyon we just climbed out of, the only thing I thought was: “There’s no way I can do this. If I can’t do this, then what am I even doing at this school?”

After lunch, we headed to a “road” (side note: I hate these “roads” more than anything I experience during Orientation. They’re actually jeep-trails and they SUCK. Easily something I could do without the rest of my life.), where I quickly learned that I was the slowest person in the group, and that I absolutely loathed those roads. I spent almost every day of hiking on the rim at the back of the pack. At first, it angered me immensely; because I just couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group. Then, it made me sad, because it only added to the lonliness that I felt; being away from people I know and love, and who share my heritage, and with a group of people who were strangers in that they couldn’t relate to my heritage/culture. After being sad and angry, I adjusted. To ease the lonliness, I began to have conversations in my head with people from San Diego. My most frequent conversations were with my mom; whose astral voice told me to be strong, to keep going, and NOT to quit. That day at camp, my group made a huge tarp by combining the two tarps…it was fortress. That was also the day I put my hair into a pony tail and had Claire cut my hair with medical scissors.

At one of my big breaking points, I asked one of the leaders (Emily), if I could speak with her. Aside from addressing the concerns of my blisters (indeed, I did get some), we talked about my situation. I remember telling her that I made the decision to make resupply my marker…there, I would decide if I could keep going or if I would opt out and finish at CBO (Community-Based Orientation).

But, this story isn’t all about hardship. Each day, as we arrived at camp, I was renewed, seemingly dipped into the elixir of life. Each morning, I forgot about the trials from the day before and began anew. I laughed, a lot. The group I was with knew how to take jokes and to give them. I was witness to some of the most beautiful things in nature I have ever seen; pools of cool, rushing water, caves, strange and wonderful flora, intriguing animals and insects, and extraordinary geology. I saw some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets, I slept under brilliant stars. I survived through loud, powerful thunderstorms (and one hailstorm). I didn’t know it then, but I was becoming more of an outdoorswoman…hair dirty, body growing stronger, planning my personal needs around the rhythms of nature.

Then, we descended back down into the canyon. I fell. Actually, I fell so many times I lost count. But this fall happened right when we started a steep descent back down into the canyon…and I fell, right over the edge. I had sense enough to land on my stomach, and, as I slid…I dug my boots into the earth and used my hands to hold onto anything that would keep me from sliding. It was a paralyzing experience. And then, I lifted myself out. It was easily one of the scariest moments of the whole trip, because of the real potential danger. I cried, profusely. One minute I was stepping and the next I was sliding over the edge. I couldn't get my mind to wrap around that fact. I was shaky and unsteady, but glad. I had lived. My instincts knew what had to be done, even if my mind refused to cooperate. Here, I began to realize that I had the potential to finish the Orientation all the way through. It was a good feeling.

The next few days we camped and hiked along the creek in this new area of the canyon. Where the previous canyon had been all desert and heat and prickly/thorny plants and sharp edges, this canyon was the opposite. I was surprised to find myself bush-whacking through forest…green, beautiful, lush, thick forest. It was damp and cold, but it was almost a welcome relief from the heat above.

During this time, I became closer and closer to the members in my group. It was getting easier now. There was lots of joking…funny inside jokes, sarcastic jokes. Humor. There was even some cultural exchange going on…especially where I was concerned. It made me happy. Questions got to be deeper, and answers a lot richer. All of us were forming tendrils of friendship that reached out to everyone in the group, and would grow stronger each day…and then follow us out of the back country and into the modern world.

We had finally reached the day where we would hike out of the canyon (again), and into resupply.
It was the hardest and most victorious day of the trip.

Nine miles. Doesn't seem like a lot. It is when you have to criss-cross creeks, swim in water with packs on, cobble hop, and then climb four of those miles out of the canyon. We started early that day. And we didn't finish those first four miles until around six in the evening, We were beat…all of us. The day and terrain had took it’s toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits. Then, with renewed vigor, someone brought up the idea of busting out those last five miles to resupply. The idea caught like wildfire.

After a quick bathroom and snack break, and then pulling out our headlamps, we were on our way.
We conquered those last five miles (on jeep roads) in two and a half hours, at around 9:00pm (so, basically, we had a 12-hour day). The whole group was so proud of each other. We arrived into camp, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to set up our tarps, eat, and sleep. Another group offered to cook while we set up camp, what a blessing!! I ate quickly and than slept like a log.

After three rainy days at resupply (where I received a wonderful care package from my mom and letters from loved ones, as well as a delicious dinner and desert prepared for us!) something in me clicked and I decided that if I had made it this far, I could definitely make it the rest of the way. As soon as we hit the trail again, I knew there was no turning back.

It was road hiking again, for about two days. Then, back down into the canyon we went…this time following Beaver Creek.

The pack was heavier this time, because we had more food than the first half. This half wasn't so straight-forward, either. We zig-zagged a lot on our journey. The pace was faster, and I was having a harder time keeping up. One of the days, just before our Solo, we stopped. I was so angry at myself and so tired of trying to play catch up that I just sat on a rock in the middle of the creek, hugged my knees, and cried. That night at camp, Noah asked me to tell the group what was going through my mind, and how I felt, when I was at the back. It was one of the most difficult times I've had opening up to a group of people. I had expressed my concern to Emily before, but never the whole group. But, I did tell them, and I’m glad I did. It released whatever remaining tension and apprehension I had and just let me be…me.

Then came Solo.

Solo is where, for three days, the students in the group are separated into little individual “camps” where we spend our days relaxing, reflecting, and doing whatever else seemed right to us during that time.

In my journal, I wrote: “I hope to come out of Solo with a more defined sense of self, and my academic/career/life goals. I know that’s a lot to expect from three days, but I am optimistic.”
Little did I realize that I would meet, and surpass, my expectations of Solo.

Here is an excerpt of an entry from 9/17/2011, the first day of Solo:

“It’s hard to believe that I've gone nearly a month without any outside contact (and by that I mean contact with my family/friends, and the “normal” world). I know that getting back into contact will be one of the first things I do when I get back–given how important family and friends are in my life.
Aside from a couple of rough days in the beginning, and other moments of “lowness”, I have come to be less and less distracted by outside things. Also, I've been less doubtful–of problems, of life, but especially of myself. I feel more confident, and (despite the long days and heavy packs) more renewed. I feel alive–much more alive. As though my senses have been opened up widely and are allowing me to experience a heightened version of myself. It’s an amazing feeling. It makes me realize how far I've come with myself in this experience, and that I have the potential for much more.”

At the end of Solo (9/20/11), I wrote a final entry:

“As the day is coming to a close, Solo is drawing near to its end as well. I am sad to leave this experience, but excited to finish the rest of my Orientation. I now know that I am equipped with the strength, knowledge, and mindset to spend time by myself, engulfed in Nature. I have grown to appreciate my silence–to allow my voice to be spoken only within the confines of my mind. I have enjoyed seeing Nature, hearing Nature, smelling Nature, tasting Nature (sand and twigs in my mouth after a sandy explosion), and feeling Nature all around me; in the plants, the wind, the sun, the moon, the stars, the critters, the sand beneath me toes.

Some of my most favorite moments have been: admiring the clouds and sky; listening to the chirping of birds and insects; falling asleep under the unparalleled brilliance of the stars; following the shadow of my juniper tree to read and write under its shady branches; lying under the blazing sun; becoming aware of my human presence/habits/impact in Nature. But, my most favorite moments have been listening intently to my heart, and reflecting on my place in relation to all of it, and to have it feel natural to have been here and to have experienced this.”

Thus, ended my Solo. Then, only a day and a half remained until I would leave this experience all behind and be back in the “normal” world.

The second to last day I gave a presentation, and it was good. That same day, we all hiked to a nearby swimming area. It was beautiful.

When we got there, everyone jumped off the cliff into the water…except me. I was suddenly held in a death-grip by my own fear of heights.

Everyone split off in a number of different directions to do their own thing. I sat and wrote, as I had to finish up a few entries before handing over my portfolio to our leaders. I talked with Claire. She was encouraging me to jump, and I told her I wanted to…and then I made a promise to jump. The whole rest of the time I was writing, I kept thinking about the jump.

When I was done, I sat there, on the ledge of the cliff with Luke and Claire, and I was over-analyzing the situation too much.

Before I know it, the whole group is there, and all of them are giving me pep talks, and encouraging me to jump. Everyone of them was saying that I would regret it if I didn't  and that the jump would be the icing on the cake that was this experience. I remember someone saying that I should scoot closer to the edge.

“If I get close to the edge, I won’t do it.” I said. “If I’m going to do it, I’m just going to run and jump.”

“There,” Matt said. “You’ve already told yourself how you’re going to do it.”

His words made absolute sense. I did just tell myself how I was going to do it.

Almost immediately after he said it, and while the others were still talking, I ran past them all and jumped.

The fall was scary, and the water was cold.

When I resurfaced, they all had gathered at the edge, looking down at me.

I was alive, and I did it!!!

I swam back to shore and climbed back up to join the group. I got high-fives and lots of pats. I was still shaking, but on cloud nine that I had done something that I never thought I would do…with that one jump all my remaining fear and doubt vanished. As far as I was concerned, I was invincible!!
That night, we had a closing ceremony. It was beautiful and amazing, and I’m surprised I didn't cry my eyes out (funny, since I cried profusely during other parts throughout the trip). It was a long night, and when we all finally went to sleep, it was knowing that we would be waking up early to hike to the trail head to meet the bus that would drive us back to “civilization”.

On the bus, later the next day, I was sitting next to Noah, and was reflecting about everything that had happened during this trip. Coming back to the front country wasn't exciting, it was more disappointing than anything else.

We got to campus, cleaned and organized what we needed to…and then parted ways.
With my pack on my back, I walked the two miles back to my studio.

People steered clear of me, and I don’t blame them. I looked and reeked like a homeless person. Some gave me looks of pity, others of disdain.

Let them stare, I thought. I was high on life, riding that wave of satisfaction and pleasure. I just did something that most of them have never and might never do in their lives…and I did it for college!!
There, on the road back to my studio, I finally cried…this time, tears of joy.

I did it. I. DID. IT!!!

I had conquered any doubt, any fear that haunted me going into this trip. Whatever obstacles would come, I now knew I would be more than ready to handle them. I was here for the long-haul.
Still, when I slipped of the key to my studio from around me neck, I dropped my pack and its contents outside, and proceeded to take to most glorious shower of my life. was grateful to be back. It was good to have hot water and soap.

Thankfully, no amount of soap and water in the world will erase this experience, and all that I have taken away from it.

The first person I called was my mom. We laughed and cried together over my experiences. She is the greatest woman in the world!
Angelica R. Brady 2.14.2013

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