Stories from the journey.
Big Backpacks, Big Experience
I have been leading teen adventure trips every summer since I was 18. Eight years, dozens of teenagers, countless talks, hugs, meltdowns. I’ve lost track of how many nights I have spent under the stars, how many storms weathered, how many band-aids given and how many cups of coffee I have made at sunrise in the fleeting silence to mentally prep for another day.
One summer in particular stands out. It would be the most formative trip I’ve ever led.
My participants were fourteen 9th graders from a massively huge city in Asia. They knew each other, but not necessarily well. Over the course of 28 days, this would change dramatically. The program part residential, part expedition-based.
I’m not sure if they really knew what they were getting into– they were on this huge trip with their classmates, it was for school, it was going to be challenging… that’s what they knew on day one. They wanted to have the right answers, to do a good job, to get approval from my co-leader and I.
During our first meeting, I talked about feelings. Of course I talked about feelings– we were about to spend the next month as a group of 16. The questions I was posing were open-ended, and the kids didn’t have answers. They were terrified of being wrong. What they didn’t know was that there weren’t right answers.
Our first expedition was just an overnight, not too far from camp.
These kids were used to filling their backpacks with books, with pens and calculators and technology, and suddenly here they were with me, fitting a 70L pack onto them– packs that would be just as big as some of them were. Packs we’d rip, belt buckles we’d replace, straps we’d lose. Here these students were, far from the city, dividing up food and gear they didn’t know how to use and tents that they had never set up before.
We started hiking. For many, this was the first hike they had ever been on– with or without a 30 pound backpack. Day one was slow. We moved, but not fast. I walked behind fourteen bouncing backpacks. We arrived at camp in a sunshower. We set up our tents together for the first time.
I have fond memories of that night. Camping was completely foreign to them, but they were open to it. They asked questions and celebrated each other’s mistakes.
That night, we sat in a circle for our first meeting as a group in the backcountry. This is my favorite place to be on any trip I lead– it is hard to find a more honest environment. It’s a place to share, talk, learn, process. We can take off our masks and truly see each other. We all looked up at the sky as a group. They had never seen stars like that before. Their awe in that moment is something I will never forget.
It was a push to get back to camp, but they did it. And a week later, we started packing for our next expedition.
The second expedition was more challenging. Longer distances, longer days, less of a known route. We put more responsibility on the kids, like you do in these types of programs. We had them leading the meetings at the end of every day. They understood that they had to dig deep– they started talking with each other, and with us, about what was happening inside their heads and hearts. They leaned on each other, and they leaned on us. I depended on each of them too.
I can’t speak for the students, but after the second trip, they seemed like a different group. More mature, more willing to fail. They were confident. Many of them stopped looking for the right answers, and instead, sought better questions.
The final expedition of the program was four nights of backpacking in the rainforest. They were prepared. They were a machine. My co-leader and I just followed. We let them get lost for hours. We let them take long breaks. We let them lead their trip, because it was theirs.
They opened up to each other, and to us, not because they had to, but because the trip really touched them. They meant something to one another. And a shared experience like the one we had is irreplaceable, and unexplainable to anyone who wasn’t there.
After all the expeditions were done, after everything was unpacked, the gear cleaned, and showers were taken, we sat on the carpet of the dining room. There we were on the last night– already talking about the most formative moments, the hardest parts, the messiest parts and the parts that made us the happiest. All of us cried. Not just because we would miss each other, but because this was truly a big experience for all of us, and because what we learned seemed so huge that we simply could not put it into words.
We had all been honest. We had all struggled, all cried, all been proud, all been tested, and all found new meaning in the words friendship, leadership and support.
Every August, I think about those kids. I think about them loading up their backpacks for the school year and I hope they remember the summer three years ago, when they carried tents and sleeping bags rather than laptops and books. I hope they are forever proud of what they accomplished, what they learned about themselves and each other. I hope they remember what it was like to carry everything they needed on their backs.
Most of all, I hope they know that the strength, ambition, perseverance, courage and grace they showed me that summer are within them, wherever they go.