Given my lackluster high school grades, it would have been hard for me to get into any decent school. But with my high school enforcing a ‘no reference’ policy because of the school assembly incident, my chance of getting into college was nil. So I felt very fortunate when, at the last second, Regis College in Denver agreed to let me in. At the time, the original ‘flower children’ counter-culture was becoming mainstream, and its ‘back to nature’ movement was as central to it as sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The Back to Nature ethos played itself out in the Rocky Mountain High state as much, or more, than anywhere else.
Regis responded to this imperative by allowing me a three day a week school schedule. I dedicated the rest of the time to the mountains – skiing, hiking and camping out. When four days off became insufficient, I left school for a semester in Aspen. I found temporary work in a kitchen and spent my afternoons walking in Maroon Bells.
After two years at Regis, I enrolled in Denison. That meant I’d managed to switch from majestic Colorado to, well, central Ohio. In this part of the mid-west, hippies were not a thing of the past; they’d never arrived at all. Denison was a fraternity-oriented culture. I was fortunate to find a group of faculty and students who cast themselves outside of that. We got credentialed by a program called ‘Challenge/Discovery’ to take students on month-long wilderness adventures. The first one we did was to Big Bend national park in Southwest Texas.
I don’t recall if there was a selection process or if I got included just by hanging around the group. However it happened, I was included as instructor/guide in a truly memorable crowd. Among the great people I met there was my eventual roommate, Doug. The first time I met him I’d just yelled ‘Falling’. That is the rock-climbing command you shout to alert the person on the other end of the rope that you’ve seriously blown a move. It is what you yell as you break into a free-fall. In this case, though, I hadn’t ‘blown a move’. I’d just wimped out. I had convinced myself I was too tired to finish up the pitch, or that it was too tough or something.
In my defense, I first asked Doug politely for a little ‘assist’. I asked him to add a little tension to the rope so I wouldn’t fall when attempting a move I doubted I could make. But he refused, insisting that this was so much not the point of rock climbing. So I decided that I’d just let go. I announced it by yelling ‘falling’.
As soon as he lowered me to the ground, he stomped over and ripped my shirt open. When I asked what the fuck that was about, he responded more to our climbing group than to me. “I’m looking for the holes where they put the filling in, you Twinkie.” Fortunate for me, the nickname didn’t stick – at least beyond the next few weeks.
Then there was Espen, this huge Norwegian friendly giant. As fate would have it, he dated my high school girlfriend immediately after I’d left for college. While I didn’t know he even existed until I met him at Denison, he let me know that he knew me. He’d had to endure his girlfriend telling stories…and I think it may have skewed our relationship a bit. But besides his knowing I am something of a dickhead, we still managed to be friends.
Janny was a pistol…a cigar smoking tough-ass broad who was just the cutest girl. There were a bunch more – Jon, The potter and Jan the dancer, and of course Sue-Sue, who was also a volunteer EMT. A terrific crowd.
When the time came to take the group out to Big Bend for the month, Doug and I got assigned the logistics detail. That meant taking our van into the hiking camps before the groups arrived and prepping the place by dropping off water. Big Bend is a desert and water’s heavy….eight pounds a gallon. So you can’t carry more than about three day’s-worth along with all your other gear.
By design, the program builds leadership skills as much as outdoor proficiency. It ends by having small groups make week long treks through the featureless desert. The pervasive brown sand makes it difficult to ‘orienteer’ or guide yourself by map.
Doug and I were ‘sweepers’ for one of the groups. We were to stay out of sight but ensure the group found their water. And to do that, they needed to follow their maps. A big part of the exercise involved checking each other’s orienteering plan. But our group decided to follow a guy who claimed he knew what he was doing. By the third day, I’d determined that they were an extra day’s walk from their next water stop. That meant they were at risk of running out. I decided to intervene.
Once they settled into camp, I came in and explained their situation. What I said upset everyone, some to the point of tears. They blamed themselves for letting one person take on all the navigation responsibilities. They acknowledged that the task of orienteering should have been everyone’s job. They decided to go up a nearby bluff the following morning and figure out where they really were.
The next morning they returned to camp and reported. “You taught us a very valuable lesson. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate that.” I nodded solemnly, though I wasn’t looking for their thanks.
“You told us not to listen to someone just because they convince you that they know what they are talking about. That we should always assume it’s our responsibility to double check the facts. So we thanks you for that lesson, but there is a little catch. It turns out that the self-proclaimed know-it-all who got it wrong wasn’t who you thought. The person who doesn’t know where he is…is you.” Turns out, I had been doing my triangulation wrong. The guy they followed had it right.