Read the essay as published on "The Lesson Collective" with photos here.
It is 6:30 pm at 12’400 ft. and we’re deep in the Weminuche, Colorado’s largest wilderness area. My co-instructor, Rachel, and I peer up at the 45-degree talus field before us, and then back at the sinister thunder cloud two ridges behind. After donning down jackets, our intrepid band of SOLE Sisters circle up, erratically hopping and swinging their arms to stay warm. We encourage our veterans to lead some sort of psyche-up activity to boost morale. To our chagrin, they link arms and initiate a round of blood-curdling expletives followed by a roar of giggles. Rachel and I take that as our cue and walk a few meters away to weigh our options. Should we just camp here or capitalize on the group’s renewed bravado and go for it?
We turn back to our rosy-cheeked and beaming students. They are ready. I think of Ainsley, one of our tenured participants, and her sage advice earlier that day: “Ashley, it doesn’t matter if it’s 2pm or 12am; we’re just climbing”. And so, we wave the girls on.
Less than an hour later, we crest the pass as alpenglow sets the adjacent peaks on fire. Our voices join together in one giant “yeeeoooooop!”, which echoes across the valley. Before we begin our descent, eager to find camp before dark, I swear I hear Allen Ginsberg’s voice among our yips and howls: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”.
On the way down, I slip in next to Margaux, who just yesterday had stubbornly fought back tears as she fell behind, each step a painful suggestion to her that she didn’t belong here. Yet after her polar bear plunge in Vestal Lake earlier that afternoon, something clicked in Margaux— She confronted and silenced the inner voice that told her “you can’t”. Now, her bounding strides reflect her new confidence and I tell her how proud of her I am. She looks me right in the eye and replies, “I’m proud of you, too, Ashley”. And like that, she signals that this trip, this community, is not a one-way street— She has my back, too. They all do.
And yet, this entire experience almost didn’t happen this year.
Navigating the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 required equal parts determination, adaptability, and creativity. Cases were on the rise in our area and Rachel and I worried about the safety of our students, instructors, parents and community. We consulted with our medical advisor and other outdoor education organizations, and we relentlessly worked to revise our 35-page COVID protocol handbook.
We considered canceling it one month, two weeks, three days out, but we realized we made the right choice as soon as we stepped out of our vehicles and onto the trail, and a relief befell us all. Each step along our route was one step further from the uncertainty and chaos of the “real world”.
Without a doubt, our ability as 12 white women to escape, to take a break from it all, is privilege incarnate. On the trip, Rachel and I are careful to remember this fact and gently bring it into our participants’ awareness. We tell them the Weminuche is named after the ancestors of the Ute tribes. We are walking through stolen land, and while it is now public land, “available to all”, you don’t have to dig too deep to expose the ways in which access to these lands have been limited for too many people of color.
COVID has been good at that— exposing. The pandemic has pulled our nation’s skeletons out of the closet and into broad daylight, exposing how skin color predicts the likelihood of contracting or dying from COVID; how working from home compounds the domestic burden born by women; and how the environment can catch its breath when we all slow down a beat. Literally. Air quality, worldwide, improved with the decrease in traffic and a number of different analyses show that emissions this year will fall by 4-8%, somewhere between 2 and 3 billion tons of the warming gas.
It’s clear our SOLE Sisters feel these issues. They express a sense of restlessness, a desire to help but lack an outlet to do so. As Edward Abbey once wrote, “action without sentiment is the ruin of the soul” and so these young women have begun to feel that ruin manifested as loneliness, depression, self-doubt, angst.
On the sixth night of our trip, we dine on homemade pizzas topped with sautéed blue bells and marsh marigold leaves we’d harvested earlier that day. Bellies full, we amble across the alpine tundra with sleeping bags like scarves around our necks until we arrive at the edge of granite cliffs that plunge some 1’000 feet below us.
We each find our own nook among the lichen, alpine sage and quartzite and nestle into our down sleeping bags as the sky erupts into a fevered sunset— a neon yellow orb sinks behind Turk and Sultan peaks, casting vermillion rays across smoky thunder clouds. I hold up a coyote femur we found along the trail, our new “talking stick”, and communicate the expectations for tonight’s circle—she who holds the femur will have the power to speak. I ask the group to reflect back on the past four months since the stay-at-home order hit Durango.
Like most circles, the discussion starts slowly. The first speaker is self-conscious, but by the third speaker something shifts in the group; their awkwardness gives ways to a sense of relief. The circle provides a container in which to hold their collective sorrow. Amidst tears, Sailor explains:
When normal life was cut off, I was just hit by this darkness. I was feeling lonely, but I was seeing some friends and so how could I be lonely? But loneliness isn’t about that. It is when you don’t know yourself and you’re lonely from yourself.
She pauses. It feels to me as though we’re all holding our breath, in awe of this wise-beyond-her-years human, and not wanting to break the spell. The words of Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born, Canadian poet, illustrator and author, come to mind: “The irony of loneliness is that we all feel it at the same time”.
Sailor begins anew, describing how, for her, COVID has crystalized the vitality and centrality of human connection, reminding her of the preciousness of life and how to be more present in the moment. She shares how this awareness began after the death of her dad, who passed away from a stroke a year ago. Her dad who owned a bakery whose motto is “Drop Bread, Not Bombs”. Her dad who, when you walked into the bakery, would sling a loaf of olive bread at your head and tell you to “gettouttahere!” and refuse to take your money. If you weren’t on your toes, you might end up with a minor concussion, but it didn’t matter because you knew it was all yeast and love. So when Sailor wonders what her dad would do amidst this pandemic, I don’t miss a beat. I know he would bake a ton of bread for the people who need it most right now. Tonight these young women are fostering the same wisdom, enunciated by Kurt Vonnegut in a 1974 commencement address: “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured”.
Sailor wipes the tears from her eyes and sets the femur in the circle. Annika picks it up and explains that at the onset of the quarantine, she initially felt happy and free to live each day just as she wanted: “everything was on my time. I could sleep in. I could wake up early. I could eat five meals a day. I could eat one”.
She takes a deep breath, rolls the femur between her hands and adds,
But then it was like a cloud came over me one day. I realized how just being around people was a distraction and I had no idea who I was or why I was here. I didn’t feel like the main character of my life; I was kind of watching it go by in front of me. COVID just stripped away everything and all I was left with was myself. But there have been moments on this trip when I’ve realized why a lot, like coming over each pass, and this sunset; that’s why.”
Sailor and Annika speak to the loneliness and purposelessness so many people feel today during a time of immense uncertainty and adversity. We’re not only experiencing a global pandemic, but a racial justice revolution as well. These truly are crazy times.
Rachel Velcoff Hults and Dr. Steven Adelsheim published an op-ed for Stanford Children’s Health explaining just how crazy these times are for our youth as they juggle the unique challenges of COVID with “processing news of the violent murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans, the country’s reaction, and the impact on themselves, their families, and their communities. Many are experiencing a range of intense emotions, from grief to anger to hopelessness, to hopefulness about the possibility for real change . . . with limited access to the support they need to process these complex feelings”.
When the last speaker returns the femur to the center of the circle, Rachel leads us in a round of “pass the pulse”. We hold hands and she starts by squeezing the hand of the person to her left, who then squeezes the hand of the person to their left, and like that the “pulse” makes its way around the circle. It’s a cheesy NOLS-it-all practice that typically makes me squirm, but I now recognize its symbolism— the pulse affirms our connection, as if to echo Rupi Kaur: “it isn’t the blood that makes you my sister/it’s how you understand my heart/as though you carry it /in your body”.
Annika may have struggled to find her “why” during COVID’s lockdown, but I’m pretty sure she reminded me of my own. My “why” is to continue to hold the container that keeps passing the pulse of passion, earnestness, determination, humor, moral outrage and compassion of these 10 young women.
It may be old hat to punish tomorrow’s generation for the crimes of yesterday’s, but it is also naïve to say tomorrow’s generation doesn’t have some heavy lifting to do. Yet, I’m confident they can carry the load. My SOLE Sisters are becoming stronger than I am. Oddly, I get older every year and I’m starting to feel it. I can’t sprint without risking pulling my hamstring, or trundle downhill with a 60 pound back without feeling a pang in my knee. But these girls, they are my legacy. They’re capable of carrying more of the weight, and so I give them my extra fuel bottle, the satphone, the bear fence. They teach the younger ones how to light the stoves, how to pee and poop in the woods, how to be vulnerable. They lead classes on leadership styles and lovingly support my own continued leadership development. In short, they are taking the torch and carrying it with grace and grit. I hope they’ll outdo me because I’m falling short. We all are. But I don’t despair in that. I find hope in each day I work to make the mountain taller so the women who follow have that much better view of the sunrise.
The day after our trip ended Annika dropped a note off at my house on her way home from work. She wrote it during her shift at a local restaurant on the only paper available to her at the time, an old menu. On the side opposite the appetizer and salad offerings, she wrote, “not only are we all women who find excitement in the outdoors, but we want to change the world forever. Change can be scary when you face adversity alone, but with these women . . . I feel loved, safe, supported and empowered”.