The following is another installment of the Trip Manual series of posts, intended to provide value to guides and their students on Expeditionary Trips:
From the moment you and your group leave the school or meeting place to venture out into the wider world, the trip has begun. Intentionally capturing the moment of transfer from our usual bubble, filled with hedonic adaptation and a stifled awareness, to the world of possibility encountered on a trip can be hugely important. This chapter will describe some general principles that can be helpful on day one of a trip in order to capture the magic of the moment and set the stage for transformative events over the course of the trip.
In the Outward Bound tradition, readings hold a special place. I tend to start with them, and with reflection. Before beginning to dive into some readings and examples of effective management on the first day of a trip, there is an important consideration for readings to keep in mind: you make them your own, and pull them out when you need them.
On a trip with a group of twenty-five ninth graders to New Mexico, we stopped at an old, western-style gas station. Hanging on the walls were photos of Mexican families from the revolutionary period (1910-1920, I presume), each with two bandoliers full of ammunition slung over their shoulders. I realized that my collection of quotes, each of which I had read many times and reflected on, is like a non-violent bandolier. Each quote is a unique piece of ammunition that can be used to create positive change, and I have more of them than I could possibly use on a trip. However, each unique situation may call for one of the quotes, so I have it as backup should I need it.
Thus, the readings I suggest here are examples of ways to engage students in the purpose of your trip, and your unique circumstances may cause you to want to draw from a different part of your bandolier – it’s the intentionality, scaffolding, presentation, and meaning behind your reading that matter. After all, any one bullet from the bandolier, if thrown by hand at the enemy, will not do much good.
Because of the power of the first day of a trip, I like to do three separate readings: one before we even get on the buses to leave, one when we arrive at a place, and one before we hit the hay that night. The examples below come from a very challenging trip – a 14 day backpacking trip for Freshman who have not really done any backpacking previously. Therefore, my aim is to prepare them mentally for the fact that they are going to face challenge on this trip!
Before we even load up the buses, students gather in a circle for this reading. Some preparation work goes into the reading: we welcome students to the beginning of an experience that can be transformative, announce that we have some logistics to cover, and then will be doing a reading.
The major logistics deal with how you will go about packing gear onto the vehicles to leave for your trip. You may choose to have this be a group challenge activity, having students do the whole thing silently and reflect on successes afterwards, or you may choose to scaffold it in some other way. We like to also have the first 30 minutes of the bus ride be silent – reflection time. Announce whatever you decide to do before the reading.
I like to then start a challenging trip with a reading like this:
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look a lot like complete destruction.”
Decide based on how well you know the group whether to ask “what does that mean to you?” and do a mandatory share-out of at least a couple words, going around the circle, or an optional popcorn-style share out. I personally think it is valuable and acceptable for me to take notes as students share – I like to use them as part of my observation process.
When we arrive at our destination, I like to again ground ourselves in a reading. One of my favorites is this:
Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”
– Wendell Berry,
The Unforeseen Wilderness:
Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
As you may notice, this goes right along with some of the ideas from introduction to this manual. In the case of this reading, I find it valuable to listen to what meaning students make of it, but also to insert some of my own meaning: There is something in the language that makes us think there are teachers and there are learners, but in reality, we all must learn for ourselves before we can share an experience. We are all just meaning makers, and the meanings we make have to be made first, discussed, refined, re-made to fit within our experience (including societal ‘answers’) and our language sometimes blocks us from seeing that process. In this way, there are no teachers, only learners.
Finally, before we go to bed we will have a closing circle. I like to have one, final closing reading. Per usual, logistics may preclude the reading.
The trouble with philosophy is chairs. The academic language says it, where a chair of philosophy is located in a seat of higher learning. A narrower perch on which to rest our wisdom than ‘the seat of the pants’ of action; confined in stale rooms rather than opening out into wildness. “Time to close the books,” writes Dale Pendell the poet, “Time to open the library of the world.”
-Philosopher and Climbing Pioneer Doug Robinson,
The Alchemy of Action
I like to follow this with something to the effect of “You may have noticed that you have embarked on an educative experience that transcends the ability for classroom expectations to remain relevant. This new education will require a whole new mindset. You, and only you, will choose over the next thirteen days, to either make yourself miserable, or elated. Tonight, begin the steps to elation. Notice the sound of crickets; the sound of silence. Feel the limestone under your skin, the chill in the air. Take solace from the moonlight in the shade of a juniper tree at night, and of course look up and take wonder in the mystery of the stars.” After a pause, wish them an elated good night.
As discussed in the Introduction, languaging plays an important role in the experiences students have on a trip. Because students are ‘meaning-makers,’ and yet our language processes help to create direct experience for them, it is very important how we, as educators, phrase our verbal messages.
A common situation on the first day of a trip (e.g. actually heading out into the field rather than on buses traveling to a place) involves a group hoping to make a decision. Supplies have been dispersed to each group, and now the group must decide upon what to eat first and what to save, on what pace to set, on where exist likely camp locations, or on the route to take. Our language has a habit of narrowing our focus during these critical decisions and making us not ‘see the whole picture,’ by lulling us into thinking we are working in a ‘closed system.’
A closed system is one in which the knowables are fixed. Examples of this kind of system would include any in which most of its answers are either yes or no, right or wrong, clearly and without any other possibility. Most mathematical problems are closed systems (at least as they are presented in school). There is a right answer, within the limits of the system, and any other is wrong. Some “moral” and “legal” answers are of this type. There is a right and a wrong; no imagination is required. Since most of our formal training consists of learning to make decisions (yes-no answers in closed systems), we tend to assume that this approach is applicable to all situations. Even when we are trying to be open-minded, we are likely to say, “Let’s look at both sides of the question,” or “Let’s hear the other side of the story.” Note what happens when we talk this way: the words we use to pattern the problem force only two possibilities, and these are automatically assumed to be in opposition. Of course, if we do this with most questions, what we do in effect is to make closed systems of largely open ones. Open systems may be thought of as situations in which there are degrees of “rightness,” and in which a right answer today may well be a wrong answer tomorrow. If we are not aware of whether we are working in a closed system or open one, we can consistently arrive at answers that are at best frustrating and at worst tragic.
Teaching as a Subversive Activity
Therefore, introducing the terms ‘closed-system’ and ‘open-system’ become one of the first suggestions a guide makes on a trip. You may even choose to let the group begin to form for 20 minutes or so, and then re-group them to read the paragraph above. Ask if the decisions that the group has already started to discuss have ‘degrees of rightness?’ At this point, you will begin your first discussion of what group dynamics are going to be on this trip. Give students some ideas and thoughts as discussed in the Group Leadership section (to come) before continuing on.
There are several technical skills that you will want to discuss with your group at least early in the trip, if not on Day One of the backpacking itself. Some of these skills are listed, but are not described – you know how to do it well and give tips! Some of these have a few tips and tricks associated with them.
- Packing a pack.
- Sleeping through a storm (setting up a bombproof tent).
- Stove basics (including SAFETY!)
- Self-Care (including blister prevention, sunburn prevention, etc.)
- Pooping in the woods. Get ready for some frank and maybe gross tips.
- It’s worth making this instruction VERY explicit. If desired, have an instructor to cover this with males/females separately; however, be aware that separate discussions may also restrain open communication if things aren’t moving properly… I typically wear underwear that is very conservative for this section so that I can literally demonstrate taking my pants off and showing my method, which is that I like to remove my pants at least from one leg so that they are completely out of the way! Note that facing a downhill slope makes things more comfortable, and stress Leave No Trace (packing out toilet paper, not destroying the environment to make yourself a comfortable spot, etc.)
- I also demonstrate how to fold toilet paper – kids like to crumple and USE SO MUCH! When packing out, they should have a very small, flat looking waste bag by the end of the trip. For reference, a fold is made by folding toilet paper at the seams 3 or 4 times to create some thickness that is the size of one square (because of the folds, it is 3 or 4 squares thick). You can then get one wipe, fold the dirty part on itself, get a second wipe, fold the dirty part again, and get a third wipe before putting the toilet paper away. If you have access to water, the ‘Backcountry Bidet’ is a good idea as well – pour a little bit of water down the top of your crack and scrub with your hand. Wash hands after, as usual. This is helpful because ‘chafing’ that we all have experienced is often more a function of bacterial buildup than it is from rubbing of skin on skin. Because poop is hydrophilic, this method helps to keep us clean and chafe-free.
- The 7 D’s of Defecation (or Dumping, if you prefer): Desire, Distance, Dig (like you mean it), Do, Dry/Deal (with your body cleanup), Disguise, Disinfect. Hopefully you fill these in with some good description for each. If you like, add the Bonus rounds: Dance (‘cuz that’s fun) and Discuss (you probably know some rating systems that make things fun).
- GPS Coordinates
- If you know the coordinates of any campsites, water caches, objectives, etc. that your group needs to make it to, make sure to have the learners do a bit of critical reflection on their math skills to get there. GPS coordinates can be written in decimals, or in ‘minutes and seconds.’ Whatever system your map of your field location uses, give the learners the coordinates they need in the other system. This way, they will need to do some ratio conversions to know where they need to go on the map. If you are rusty yourself, remember that if you were to get a decimal coordinate, for example 39.7392° N, 104.9903° W, then the decimals are all you need to manipulate. 0.7392 N would convert to 0.7392/1=x/60. With a bit of cross-multiplication, x = 0.7392 * 60 = 44.352. So now we know that we are at 44 minutes. Now use the decimals to repeat, and x = 21.12 seconds. So our GPS Latitude is 39° 44 minutes and 21.12 seconds. Repeat the same process for Longitude. Be patient if students take a while to figure this out – I’ve had trips where it took days, and they still searched the general location for most of a day to find the water cache!
- Leave No Trace – Following are some helpful hand symbols to help learners remember!
- #1 – (take one finger and pretend it is a pen that you are writing with on the other hand) – Plan Ahead and Prepare
- #2 – (turn your two fingers upside down and pretend to walk with them) – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- #3 – (use your three fingers to ‘scoop’) – Dispose of Waste Properly. Kids sometimes mistake this one and say ‘Bury your poop!’; however, stress that we are also packing out ALL trash.
- #4 – (use your pointer finger and thumb on each hand. With your palms facing away from you, turn your left hand inward so that you form a rectangular ‘window’ and say ‘click’ as if taking a photo). I like to call this one “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” but the actual name is Leave What You Find.
- #5 – (wiggle your whole hand with the crackling sound of a fire) – Minimize Campfire Impact.
- #6 – (use the first three fingers on each hand and put them to your head) – Respect Wildlife.
- #7 – (make a peace sign with two fingers on one hand and wave with your other) – Be Considerate of Other Visitors.
We all know trips are special because more learning can occur in the relatively few days of a trip than during the entire year of teaching a subject; however, it’s easy for us to allow ourselves a few days to ‘settle into our groove.’ Don’t. We only get one shot to set ourselves off on the right foot. Take it!