After receiving my acceptance letter for Middlebury College, and doing an elaborate victory dance, I read the letter more carefully. Shock came over me when I realized that I had been accepted for the spring 1998 semester and not for the fall 1997. I had to come up with something to do between September and February.
In my search I discovered the National Outdoor Leadership School, and before I knew it, I was headed for a thrilling adventure in the Southwest, knowing I wouldn’t return for three months.
I arrived in Tucson, Ariz. a day early and did what any other lonely and somewhat frightened young person would do: I walked around the courtyard of the hotel, pretending I had something important to do, but really, I was just hoping to run into someone who was on my semester course. I did.
That night, I joined 10 other students for dinner, where we discussed out anxieties, fears and expectations. The next morning we were picked up early by our instructors, and taken to the branch office where we were bombarded with information, gear and course expectations. By that night we had packed our backpacks and were off for our first of five sections: 25 days in the Gila National Forest.
This was the hardest section for me. I was in a foreign place with 15 people I hardly knew. And it was also the first time I had ever been out of the nest.
For 25 days we carried our 60-pound packs up and over mountain ridges, reaching as high as 10,781 feet, and then through canyons enclosed by steep cliff walls and filled with raging rivers. We averaged six to 10 miles a day, however, the elevation changes made those miles difficult. We had classes on orienteering, map reading, how-to-pack backpacks (which is a true art), and most important, how to cook. Those classes, along with the first aid training we received, gave us all the necessities not just to survive, but live comfortably outdoors.
We finished the last six days in small groups of four or five without instructors. We found ourselves at almost 11,000 feet in the thick of the most terrifying electrical storm I had ever seen. Lightning was splitting trees, temperatures were dropping, and the three other members of my small group and I had all failed primary hypothermia checks. After barely surviving the night, we had a long discussion about how to deal with the situation. Having a large debate, we eventually resolved to keep moving over Mogollon Baldy Peak (10,778 feet), bringing us safely to our next campsite.
The second section was on climbing and took place on Cochise Stronghold in New Mexico and Mount Lemmon in Arizona.
From dawn till dusk we climbed hard. Included in the glory of the heights and the adrenalin rush were afternoons of sore arms, sunburned legs, and fingers that were blistered and bleeding.
There was nothing that felt better, however, than after an exhausting day to come back to our base camp, crawl into our sleeping bag and collapse into the best night’s sleep I’d ever had.
The canoeing section was 24 days of relaxed paddling, with occasional rapids, on the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park.
Canoeing came at the right time for me. After two sessions of getting up early and returning to camp late, it was a nice break. We woke up at 9 and usually set up camp by 3 or 4 p.m. And the river gave us a chance to wash the grime off ourselves, a luxury none of the other sections offered.
Caving was by far the most exciting section. It had everything from poking leads and exploring places I’d never been to 90-foot free rappels into a tiny black abyss. This was also our most remote and dangerous section.
Even though we were the closest to medical facilities we had ever been, getting an injured person out of a cave (as we found out in a mock rescue situation) can take days. For many, this was the most difficult section.
Many students faced claustrophobia, fears of the dark, and fear of heights.
Often, we didn’t get but a glimpse of daylight. The only light we saw was the soft glow from our carbide head lamps.
A few times we went night caving, just so we could take the next day off and catch some rays.
Coming into our final section, we were focused on the leadership skills we had learned and the “Leave No Trace” environmental ethics policies we had studied.
We were ready to be self-sufficient in the Galiuro Wilderness, just north of Tucson.
We made 10-day treks through the desert in small groups without instructors. We planned our own rations and our own route. We brought whatever we wanted, as long as it fit in our packs.
The section was short and relatively easy, with the one exception being that at times we had to carry 20-pound water bladders because we might not be able to find a water source for a couple of days. This section went by all too quickly, and soon enough the semester was over.
It was time to head home, but not before our discussion about reassimilating ourselves into society.
After 88 days of living in the wilderness, we weren’t exactly ready for the visual overstimulation of supermarkets, highways and movie theaters. We were ready, however, for modern conveniences such as washing machines, showers and, most of all, toilet paper.
I went from hiking out of the desert to eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant to saying goodbye to the people who had been my family for three months. Early the next morning, I was on a plane back to Spokane, and my huge adventure seemed to be nothing but the blink of an eye.
I still find myself, at times, staring at the starlit sky and wishing that all the lights and all the buildings would vanish.
I relish carrying all I needed to survive on my back, living simply and always being in awe of nature. But never do I wish for a world without toilet paper.
MEMO: For information on NOLS programs, call (307) 332-6973.