Every student goes through a honeymoon stage for his or her first week at the Journey. The student will do what you ask, keep their camp clean, smile, be respectful, and basically act as if this program is nothing. Clearly, they are tougher than this program and this experience, like some they have been through will not change them. However, by the second week most students have lost their self-control and their true behaviors start to form. I am usually the lucky one who gets them after their honeymoon stage is over. Its getting colder in Utah and by colder I mean its actually snowing, I am from Tennessee so if it even snows an inch the whole city is shutting down and the milk and bread has been sold out… why the milk and bread? I’ll never know. I can’t run from the snow because it’s my job and not only can I not run but I have to be prepared and stay calm.
A new student of mine told me all week that he cannot wait to see the snow. He loves the snow and, like me, is from a place where snow does not happen often. We were at basecamp so the honeymoon stage was not over yet, but I knew with the upcoming forecast his mind would change and as lead guide I would need to prepare myself for that. I knew I would need to prepare myself for the mental war he would endure this week, because like a bomb you never know when it is going to come until it is too late. We were dropped off at the top of Boulder Mountain late Wednesday afternoon, we hiked a little but found a great spot to set up camp and have dinner. The sun was setting with splashes of soft pinks and dark to light blues. I was admiring the sunset when I hear a loud whisper, “Afton, come quick, hurry.” I look at my student and asked loudly if he needed help. He responded with the quiet sign and then waved his hand frantically for me to come over. I tiptoed over trying to not crush the leaves between my steps, that is when I saw them. Beautiful elk running down the hillside and feeling safe enough to eat out in the open. Barely breathing and frozen like a statue I smiled with wonder like a child. Bailey, the trail dog, ended up scaring them off, but the moment, though short, was amazing. That night was filled with open hearts and amazement but the storm had not arrived just yet.
Wind pounded on my tarp all night, it was so strong that it ripped my stake out of the ground. When daybreak came I waited until the sun was higher in the sky before I decided to climb out of my warm sleeping bag. It was cold and the winds were so strong that they could catch me if I fell. A student peaked from their shelter,” I just got out fifteen minutes ago, it is too cold to hike today.” I told them I would check and then we would decide. I got out of the shade from the trees and started to walk into the sun-covered field. My hands were cold and my face was numb, if I didn’t know I had shoes on I would assume I didn’t have any feet, but I kept walking. We were on top of Boulder Mountain and the more I walked the warmer my face, hands, and feet were becoming. There was no rain just gushing wind but if we got off the top of the mountain it would be a lot warmer. I had made the decision, we would move.
Usually packing up camp can take ten to fifteen minutes but because of the cold wind and lack of motivation it was a forty-five minute ordeal and no one was happy. My honeymoon student (we’ll call him honeymoon for the remainder of this article) was no longer filled with wonder; he was filled with frustration and despair. We began walking down the trail and before we had walked 100 yards from our campsite, Honeymoon turned around and started to tell me that he was too cold and it was best for us to go back to the truck we had taken to get here. I told him that it was not an option and our best bet is to get off this mountain. Honeymoon was not having it, he started to panic and here comes the bomb. With his panic he started to yell and with yelling he started to use vulgar language. No matter how much he yelled and cursed I kept telling him he only has two options 1. We can unpack our things or 2. We can keep going. Honeymoon yelled and cursed some more but he realized my decision was final, and I was not backing down. He chose to keep going and the group followed suit. I hung back a bit and gave them some space to think. The wilderness is a great place to think and reflect.
We were walking down a semi steep hill full of rocks when I lost my footing, fell and started to roll down the rest of the hill. I ended up on my back with a fifty-pound pack strapped to my body. If you’ve ever seen a turtle flipped on its shell trying to get right side up… I looked the same way. I had no help; my group was too busy “reflecting”. So I start to swing back and forth until I was on my stomach then had to push myself off the ground and back up on my feet. I was squatting my body weight plus fifty pounds but I’ve gotten really good at this, because it is normal for me to fall about three times a day, so no worries I was back on my feet in no time. I dusted off the mud and brushed away the rock buried in my skin and kept on going getting warmer and warmer every step.
A short time later the group had stopped to take a break, the wind had died down and the sun was so hot I had to take off my jacket. My student’s smiles were slowly coming back. Honeymoon had taken off his shoes, his feet were a little red and swollen which is normal when cold feet start to warm up. He asked me if that was normal I told him yes but did a blood circulation check on his feet just to make him feel better. He was still cold but all the blood seemed to be circulating. I told him to stick his hands in his pocket or jacket sleeves, something I had to constantly remind him about and we hiked on.
We came to a spring and a sunny field and decided to make camp. Everyone was starting to feel better; one student even started a fire. After I made camp I grabbed my sleeping bag, wrapped it around me and went to sit by the fire. I was talking to a student who was apologizing to me about how he reacted in the cold situation. That’s when I saw that Honeymoon had fallen. I thought to myself, “is he crying?” when I reached him I saw that he was. Honeymoon is a large, strong young man so seeing him on the ground crying came as a shock to me.
I threw my sleeping bag on top of him and stretched my arm over him. I asked him what had happened, he burst into tears and told me he fell. Thinking about what had happened to me earlier and all the other times I had fallen, I softly giggled and grabbed his hand and told him he would be just fine. “I’ve never been this weak before,” he said, tears still streaming down his face. I told him “I fall all the time, its almost expected of me. The wilderness can bring the greatest man down to his knees, the wilderness is trying to humble you. I know you’re struggling but you can get through this and I can show you how.” I got him up to his feet and brought him close to the fire.
He finally warmed up his hands and slowly his smile began to surface. Honeymoon apologized for the things he had said earlier and another student told me how I had taught him determination that day. My job is not easy by any means but showing students that they can be more than their problems or addictions is well worth any wind, rain, or snow storm. People ask me what can the wilderness teach teens or adults over a rehab facility? I have trekked five miles in shorts and a tee-shirt in a 35 degree rainstorm to make sure my students were safe, I have followed an angry teen for miles in the hot desert, I have paddled canoes against currents and wind storms, I have climb a mountains, been brought to my knees and cried to God begging for guidance… so my answer, the wilderness will teach humility even to the strongest of people.