Discovering a Better Part of Myself
by Madrianne Wong
My parents took my sisters on a camping trip before I was born. That meant that I managed to escape a sleepless night in an overly-crowded campsite for fear of lurking bears, but also that I was never exposed to the outdoors, save the spattering of dirt trails around the suburbs of Castro Valley. Knowing that I would be entering a completely new world with no experiential tools in my belt of knowledge, I embarked on my Big City Mountaineers journey feeling anticipation nibbling at my stomach lining. My thoughts flitted about: How am I going to pluck my eyebrows without tweezers? Will people at home pity me when they flush the toilet, knowing I have none? What if my pack drags me off a ledge? What if I get hopelessly lost?
Before long, we had arrived at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and eased onto the trail. My questions became irrelevant, and I didn’t look back. I threw myself into this new lifestyle, finding an extraordinary freedom in the self-sustenance of my pack. I couldn’t describe the awe I felt towards the natural beauty surrounding me; reading my trail journal, the strongest adjectives I could muster with my 16-year-old vocabulary were “magnificent” and “inspiring.” Three years, many books, and two college-level English classes later, however, I agree with my past self — neither pictures nor words can accurately depict the glory of an experience in the backcountry.
BCM gently nudged me into a world independent from technology, boys, teenage drama, and day-to-day worries about car problems, money, and parental relations. This new world’s foundation, for me, was built upon team friendships, experiential learning, and an increasing appreciation for my own physical and mental capacity. I unearthed many gems: the serenity of pumping water by a lake in silence, cramming all of our team on a small blue tarp underneath the vast expanse of the night sky, discovering tiny fish camouflaged with the sandy silt in an unexpected creek on our day hike, wading into an icy waterfall and feeling my toes go numb, one by one. All together, these moments comprise a treasure I am grateful and proud to pocket.
As our trip drew to a close, I felt the claws of everyday life in Castro Valley grabbing my pack and raking my back — before long, we’d be home and I’d go back to summer life as I knew it. By this time, after seven days of weaving our lives together, our team cheerfully breathed, sensed, and thought as one. It was no wonder an adult team member pulled me aside and asked me how I was feeling — I had begun to withdraw in my thoughts about what I thought would be a permanent return to civilization. She listened carefully and empathetically, encouraging me to
live in the moment, a goal I had set for myself at the beginning of the trip. “Why not savor these last hours of trail time with the team?” she asked. I tried, knowing she was right. I couldn’t, however, completely ignore the inner conflict between the general feeling of end-of-trip accomplishment and elation, and grief at the permanent end of my stay in a home in which I had become incredibly comfortable — the outdoors.
Without any gear of my own, with parents that associated camping with carnivorous
animals, and friends who expressed little more than incredulity at pooping in self-dug holes, carrying soiled sanitary pads in a ridiculously large backpack, and sleeping on a pad about a finger’s width thick, I knew that my BCM-inspired fervor couldn’t last.
Adjusting to civilized life wasn’t as difficult as I had secretly wished — I hoped I had undergone some sort of organic transformation and would forever shy away from gas stations and microwaveable foods. My own taste for luxury and convenience, however, betrayed the more world-conscious, frugal lifestyle to which I had adjusted. I soon went back to my old indulgences: Green Tea ice cream and steamy, twenty-minute showers. Although I had fond BCM memories, they drifted into dormancy as I gently shelved away my developed pictures and trail journal.
In December 2005, I received a letter with the bold words, “Continue Your Outdoor
Adventure!” at the top. The same team member who had approached me with concern had
recommended me for a scholarship that would pay for a course with Outward Bound. Eagerly, I applied, and writing out “What I remember most from my Big City Mountaineers Experience” flooded back the memories I had set aside five months before.
When I flew to the Seattle/Tacoma Airport to meet eight strangers who would become
my Outward Bound family, the jitters I had felt on the way to Yosemite felt like tiny bugs compared to the full-grown rabbits romping around in there — it would be my first time in Washington, my first time mountaineering, and my first time being in the backcountry for over twenty days. The days of snow travel, talus sliding, bush-whacking, and summiting flew by, and I returned home, more bruised, muscled, triumphant, and humbled by nature than I had ever been.
My Outward Bound trip gave me a second chance to realize what I hadn’t the first time
around—that a part of me thrives in the outdoors, and can’t live without those moments of raw interaction with the natural world. I don’t know how the barriers I foresaw before — not having the tools I would need, lack of approval from family and friends — had somehow managed to loom up and squelch the thrill and delight of living in the backcountry. Now I realize that if I stop backpacking, mountaineering, hiking, I would be depriving a greater part of myself that thrives on trekking and living in the outdoors. I could never give it up, because it has become an integral part of me.
Can I possibly give back the incommensurable gift BCM gave me with my first taste of
the backcountry and an opportunity to delve deeper into my love affair with nature? I feel completely indebted for both, and yearn to give others what has miraculously befallen me. As I head out with College Track this summer, a year of my own college experience under my belt, I want to be both an inspiration of BCM success and an open vessel of resources for the teens on our trip who will, in turn, embark on their own adventures in the backcountry and life.