It was raining hard, the temperature was dropping, and our morning hike had turned into a slog. Attempts at trail games and songs were drowned out by the constant patter of rain against the hoods of our rain jackets. The trail turned to a stream, and our boots were soaked through. No one was talking, and at this moment, I’m pretty sure everyone wanted to be home bingeing something on Netflix.
Thankfully, the rain hadn’t started until that morning, which meant that the previous night’s camp had been dry. For the members of G-Unit, it was a much-needed night of sleep, as our second day on the Appalachian Trail had taken us more than 11 miles from our first campsite. What had been an easy morning had turned into a more challenging afternoon as the trail got steep, people got tired, and the team struggled with a growing and intentional leadership vacuum.
It is part of the philosophy of Outward Bound that the experience, whether backpacking, canoeing, dog sledding, or rock climbing, become a journey owned by its participants. Through the struggle of learning to lead and work together, students become more self-aware, experience personal growth, and come together as a team. Each five-day expedition starts with Outward Bound facilitators at the front, teaching students the skills—tarp setup, cooking, pack organization, hiking formation, orienteering, etc.—and modeling behaviors necessary for success on the expedition. Days are deliberately routinized to provide structure and security for students not at home in the woods. From morning breakfast and the breakdown of camp to day-ending reflection and conversation around the fire, Outward Bound creates familiarity in unfamiliar environments by providing a knowable, repeatable structure to its participants. This structure, new to and accessed by each group member equally, facilitates learning that is shared, collaborative, and meets students where they are. As the expedition progresses, the facilitators step back, creating space—many times, uncomfortable space—for the students to take ownership for and leadership of the experience. Students have to work together with the tools they’ve been given to complete the tasks of the day and achieve their goals.
But today, Day #3, G-Unit was struggling to navigate that uncomfortable space. We were cold and tired, and the group struggled to keep up its spirits.
We reached our lunch site, got out of the rain, and tried to dry off as our designated cooks prepared our lunch of peanut butter and jelly bagels. Andrew, one of our facilitators, led the discussion of the plan for the remainder of the day. We were scheduled to “cowboy camp” at a site about five miles from our lunch spot—not too far a hike for an afternoon. After all, we had already covered five miles that morning. But, it turned out that “cowboy camping” involves sleeping in the open, an option that looked a lot less attractive once we realized it involved neither horses to carry things nor tarp covers to protect us. We could make it work, but it wasn’t an ideal site. With storms forecasted into the night, Andrew presented G-Unit with an alternative option: if we wanted to push on, say, another five miles, past our “cowboy camping” site, we could hike to our next day’s campsite today. It was a good site, with plenty of room and good space for tarps. It had fire pits and was close to our rock-climbing site. But, it was 10 miles away.
The choice, Andrew said, was the students’ to make. He handed them the map and gave them time to deliberate.
It didn’t take long for the students to reach consensus: we would march on, another 10 miles, to the better campsite.
And that was it. That moment of decision was the Magic Moment for G-Unit. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s so clear when I look back on it now. The opportunity to choose their own destiny for the day, to use the knowledge and tools that they had been practicing since the first day to make a collaborative, informed decision, proved to be the moment that their cohesion as a group began to take shape. They had chosen the long road over the short road, and it was a decision that they had made together.
That afternoon, the rain let up on the trail, and the adults drifted to the back of the group. The students led each other, kept time, managed snack breaks and pack breaks, and pushed each other harder than they ever thought they could go. Most importantly, they cared for each other. When a student got tired, they took a break, or they encouraged that student to head to the front to set the pace, just as their facilitators had taught them to do. There was no arguing or fights or other things that might be expected from a weary group of students. They had rallied around a challenge, and they amazed me with their quiet, collective determination to reach a goal they set for themselves.