“You could walk into the woods anywhere, any sort of woods, every sort of woods, and you would be a different animal within ten steps, as soon as the woods accepted you, as soon as you couldn’t hear anything else but the woods. […] You could walk into the woods anywhere and you would be different within a minute or two – rattled, happier, muddier, cautious, more alert, home in some way for which we do not yet have an excellent green word.”
Brian Doyle (1957-2017)
The light hits the water just right- illuminating the froth of the rapids, shallow but mighty, that steadily follow their course to the Rogue, to the Ocean. Moss, dry but still virescent, clings to large boulders that line the creek, cracked from the insistence of tree roots reaching for moisture. Water ouzels make their regular excursions- up and down the creek channel like bullets skimming the water, chattering.
We’ve almost reached the end of Day 3, our halfway point, as we hike further into the wilderness that is this vast riparian oasis bordering the Rogue River. I’ve rafted this channel before, a waterway that cuts its way through Cascade basalt, then urban farmland, then finally the chasm of high mountains fuzzy with conifers.
Our path, our pilgrimage is not fast and easy. We hug cliff faces and stumble over sharp rocks, put one foot in front of another as blisters sear our toes, step gingerly over dry cougar scat on the trail, sweat through 90 degree days, walk through high meadows fearful of ticks, brush our bodies and our packs against forests of poison oak, and cross our fingers against a bear rifling through our food at night. So no, our path is far from easy.
But we’re all here to find something, to feel something. For my 8th grade students, this is their Rite of Passage trip. They have spent 9 years, some of them, building up to this journey. All have hiked long miles, packed packs, learned how to use water filters and stoves, and figured out how to push themselves and their bodies during at least a dozen overnight trips. But for every one of them, I’m sure this trip is special- to be together to play, to unwind, to celebrate such amazing growth, and to continue to discover themselves in the most authentic part of their beings.
And for me, I walk a similar path. I pressed “submit” on a huge project for my Masters degree at 7:00 am on Sunday, shut my computer, and fled to the school bus at 8:00 am that would take us to the woods. I, too, celebrate an almost-milestone of graduation. I, too, turned on my awareness and opened my mind, camera, heart, and pen. For me, this is a journey within a journey. If I can walk 40 miles in the heat with blisters and a 40 pound pack along unknown terrain, I can navigate the wild mysteries of my next career steps.
And so can these 8th graders. If they can pack their own packs to survive in the woods, unsupported for six days and come out happy and healthy, they can navigate high school without a hitch. But, of course, we’re all in this together: 11 teenagers, 4 teachers, 15 heavy packs, and hearts filled with the wonder of discovery at every juncture. We see the creek still flowing, shooting spray when it hits rock. We see the water ouzels shooting up creek canyons shaded by tall alders and Oregon ash. And we hear the jays calling overhead, scolding us for our anxieties. The bears will keep lumbering along the opposite bank, or maybe even on the hillside behind us as we sleep, just waiting until we’re observant enough to spot them.