By Isabella Copeland
St. John’s College is located in the corner of Santa Fe, New Mexico, just at the base of Monte Sol and Atalaya Mountain. Every morning arrives as a wrapped gift and, even before it’s unwrapped, it is always accepted. It was here, on August 16th, that 19 SJC Freshman gathered to venture into the Pecos Wilderness for a week of backpacking. This Wilderness Orientation was the brainchild of Mike Thurber, Director of the Outdoor Program. Over the week of backpacking we discovered Mr. Thurber’s love of unsolvable penguin jokes, edible mushrooms, and backpacks that magically convert into tents (toilet included). Though in all seriousness, he was very enthusiastic about sharing the outdoors with us, and his enthusiasm is what made the trip a reality.
That morning we stuffed our packs with rations and shelter, unaware of what the week would bring us. Looking back, I think we all entered the trip with different expectations. Some the group had never backpacked or done much hiking before, so they didn’t know what to expect. While others had done trips like this before, and they were expecting to go through the proceeders. Nobody was expecting that this trip would be an extremely rich way to begin our college experience.
We left for the Wilderness split into two groups. One group of nine hiked clock-wise around the charted trails, while the other group of ten hiked counter clock-wise. Off we went into the Wilderness like confident fish climbing a tree.
We were all stunned at how green and lush the back country of New Mexico really was, and we soon discovered why. On that first day it began to rain, and when there’s rain in New Mexico there’s always thunder and lightening too. That first day was the roughest. We hiked 5 slow miles, mostly in the rain, and arrived at camp right before dark. The rain continued for the next couple days as well. It brought frustration to mostly all of the group. One of our group’s Student Leaders, Büsra Solak, had a motto she used for such times like these: “You know…life…it happens.” Throughout the tip, she’d lightheartedly say this when things weren’t moving along smoothly. Your sleeping bag gets soaking wet- “It happens.” You look up to see the view and step in a huge cow patty- “You know…life.” She’d simply shrug her shoulders.
It became apparent, after the first day of hiking, that the experience levels in our group varied greatly. Some of us were eager mountain goats, while others were just focussing on putting one foot in front of the other. Immediately, I learned something about myself; I needed to adopt a patient and composed attitude right from the start. Every morning we’d start hiking, I mistakenly saw the progression of the day as merely a means of getting to start the next day. By dropping this flawed, internal agenda, I was able to focus on others and my surroundings more clearly. I accepted that the daily hiking wasn’t about getting myself to camp; it was about getting everyone else to camp.
It was very obvious that we were a group of Johnnies. While hiking, there were always little, interesting conversations going on. I recall listening to two of the Student Leaders discussing the significance of “his vorpal sword” versus “the vorpal blade” in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Every other night we’d read a short passage to keep our minds thinking about the significance of what we were doing. Sometimes it was a comical piece on camp etiquette, and sometimes it was a complex look into our place in the outdoors. These passages kept us living consciously.
By the third day of the trip, the rain was still very present. It felt as though we were stuck in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Long Rain.” One of my tent mate’s clothes were all sodden, except for the ones she wore on her. Our tent was in a spot that was utterly problematic. All of our boots were drenched. To put it mildly, the situation was “not ideal.” It seemed that on that night we all were almost at our limits.
It also happened that that night was when we really began to bond. A bunch of us girls in the group ended up in one tent, and we talked all about our lives back home. Our heated, but funky-smelling, breath warmed the air inside the tent. We discussed how we felt about college and our futures. That night, the idea of college began to seem more real than ever before. Even though we were far from civilization, I began to feel the immediacy of its approach. When this backpacking trip ended, we wouldn’t be going our separate ways. We had the next four years to spend together. In that tent in the rain, we were wet, cold, and tired, but we were classmates.
On the fourth day, the sun came out. It was a welcomed break from the rain. We hiked at a good pace and had the afternoon to defrost in the warmth. We continued to get to know one another under the sun, as we did in the rain. That fateful day brought us The Night of the Penguin Joke. We were all gathered around our stoves, some eating beans and quinoa (Beanoa) and some boiling water for hot chocolate. Our headlamps cast each other’s shadows back onto the trees around our little kitchen. The conversation was intensely funny. At some points, it was completely hilarious. It was here that Mike Thurber presented us with the joke: Two penguins are paddling a canoe through the desert. One penguin says to the other, “Where’s your paddle?” The other penguin says, “Sure does.” Nobody laughed. It wasn’t until a few days after the trip, when I was walking back to my dorm, that I got it. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling for the hour that followed my revelation.
The next few days brought our trip to a close. On our last night together, we reflected on what we’d learned and what aspects of ourselves we’d like to maintain back in the front country. One of our group, someone who’d had a very rough experience over the first couple of days, remarked that she’d discovered, “There is such a thing as a happy camper.” Seeing her optimism at the end of the trip really made the rain worth it. It turned the adversity into a blessing. The beauty and intensity we experienced together had made us feel apart of something bigger than ourselves. Having the patience to let myself be apart of this greater whole is something I’d like to keep cultivating within myself.
On our first night back on campus at St. John’s, I went to wash my dirty laundry, socks desperately in need. My load was nearly ready to come out of the dryer, when one of my tent buddies came into the laundry room and sat beside me. We talked until my clothes were done drying. I put the toasted garments into my laundry bag, treating each warm, clean article as a miracle of civilization.
Just as were about to walk out into the night a bright light flashed out up on the mountains, and rain began to pour onto the campus. I looked out onto the wetness before me, thunder cracked, and I recoiled. It brought back the memory of cold toes and soaked sleeping bags. My first reaction was to think: “You know…life…it happens.” But then I thought of all the warm laughter and valuable experiences that the rain had given me during the last week, and I thought: “If you’re lucky…you know…life… it happens.” If you’re lucky enough in life to experience the cold, exhaustion, and frustration that gives way to beautiful friendships and new growth, then that’s life. If you’re lucky enough, life happens. With giddy laughter, we ran out into the thunderous rain together, warm laundry bundled in our arms.