Story by Leon Kraiem
A week after the end of Wilderness Trips, Chewonki is busy once more, in its own calm way. Students power-walk through the quad with tea and ethics textbooks, Orchard cabin rises early to do farm chores, and in about six hours, my French class and I will be cooking dinner for the semester, in-language, for our midterm. In short, we’re back at school.
But we’re also back home. I was on the backpacking trip, traversing the same trail, in the opposite direction, as Julia. It was one of the most difficult, most fun, and most fulfilling weeks of my life. We hiked twenty or so of the hardest miles on the Appalachian Trail, including Mahoosuc Notch- a gap between mountains into which rocks and boulders have cascaded over thousands of years, making more of a rock-climbing expedition than anything one would normally refer to as a “hike”- done, of course, with forty pound backpacks by a team of untrained high schoolers.
Ask anyone from the trip about the Notch, and they’ll probably tell you variations of the same thing- it was terrible, and it was fantastic. Assuredly one or the other, but almost definitely both. I personally can place a clear marker on what part of the Notch was the former and which was the latter, for me. It happened that I was the leader that day, along with Eliza Christman-Cohen. (Every day, pairs rotated through a handful of chores- finding, filtering, and distributing water was one, cooking breakfast and dinner at camp was another, finding pearls of wisdom from our book of nature writing to share with the group one more.) That meant that for the first two, maybe three hours of our four hour journey through the Notch, Eliza and I were right in front, before even our instructors, climbing over rocks, sliding under boulders, and looking out on the next who-knows-how-many-minutes of trail.
I loved it. My body had never done anything like this, and every rock was a new challenge to find, analyze, work through, and overcome. Some steps were precise mental calculations, and others came after an hour of bouldering as intuitively as putting sunbutter on everything we ate (extra calories for the hike, and as Hannah, one of the Outdoor Classroom instructors on our trip, taught us- “hungry is the best sauce”). Either way, we were the first to see that rock, the first to get to it, and the first to leave it behind as we coached our friends through the same path. We were like those old explorers you find statues of in science museums, trudging through the American conifers with round glasses and strong horses- the mountains and steep cliffs above us confirmed the comparison’s legitimacy.
But once I fell behind, sliding to the back after a logistically cumbersome pack-exchange at the mouth of a small cave, I didn’t quite enjoy the Notch the same way. Where before I had been exploring, with a 360 degree view of possible jumps and climbs, I was now just inches behind my classmates, quite literally following in their footsteps. As I placed my foot right where they had just placed theirs, pulled my body onto the rock the same way Jenny just had, and saw a seemingly never-ending line of other semester students taking step after step, climb after climb, I lost sight of the spectacular views, and wasn’t so psyched for the challenge anymore.
Luckily, we all got opportunities to be leaders on the hike, and our OC instructors did a great job of making sure we traveled as a group while still giving us all the opportunity to hike with few others in sight- one of the highlights of my trip was the “solo hike”- a half-mile or so that was done starting at 3-minute intervals, which in practice meant once the previous hiker was out of eyeline. Punctuated only by a little wave from Ann halfway through, we were on our own, just us and the wilderness- and also some mud. Falling in the mud was fun too.
But throughout it all, even when we were enjoying our trip like never before, hiking mountains taller than we ever imagined we could, and looking down at islands of mountaintops in a sea of cloud, we still kept talking about going home. How excited we were to do some knitting in the Flintstones, toss a frisbee in Osprey Circle, or just take a shower. It happened so naturally that we almost didn’t notice the change in language- the Chewonki campus was now “home”, and that’s where we wanted to be.
Maybe it’s the shared challenge, the new appreciation for central heating, or just a certain threshold of how distant you can consider a principal who taught your classmates and you a lesson on how to use the woods as a bathroom, but something was different once we got back. I think it’s all three- we all told different stories around the campfire Saturday night of how our respective faculty members taught us bathroom etiquette- but I think it’s more like my experience of the Notch:
When we were getting ready to go, after breaking by the “Mahoosuc Notch” trail sign, we ran into some day hikers who effectively told us to brace ourselves. Similarly, we heard a lot about how hard Chewonki was going to be- academically, on the farm, in the battle against homesickness- not the least of it from the Foundation itself and the many inspiring packets we received in the mail. When we were dropped off here, we created a community where everyone was figuring it out, following the lead of the faculty members who most looked like they knew what they were doing (probably Paul, Amy, and Sue). We formed great friendships, but they were all colored by a thankfulness that we had managed to find someone in this bizarre, alien world of organic farming and unicycling English teachers. We got used to campus, and formed our own culture, but to a certain degree we were just like I was during that interminable stretch of the Notch, watching the next person’s ankles, taking step after step until we could get to a nice flat point and grab some granola bars.
Fast forward to Wilderness Trips, when we redefined our group of ten or so other Chewonkians as everyone we needed to survive the Mahoosuc mountains, and suddenly we’ve formed a little family unit, calling each other by trail names and playing “fantasy”- a game in which we all tell Ann something we hope to do someday, and then guess as a group which ambitions are whose. To put it simply, there was some serious bonding on that trip. It was our granola bar break.
And then we came back, and looked out at two and a half months of open book. But this time, we knew what was what, we knew and loved everyone else on campus, and we could start leading our own trails for the rest of the semester- the human ecology projects we’ve been thinking about nonstop this past week come to mind. And all because we took the time to leave Chewonki, and then we came back home.
With our return came midterms, woodstoves, and Wi-Fi (!!), the third of which, so hotly anticipated, turned out to just not be that big a deal. We can Facebook our friends now, and we can Skype with our families, and we do. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to see a tribe of relatives being shown around campus, or watch a friend parade the Allen building with a sending school buddy on his laptop screen. But if you come to visit, as all now can and many parents already have, you’ll probably see that we’re not calling home anymore, so much as we’ve been inviting others into our own. So if you’ll excuse me, I promised my Dad I would FaceTime him today, and I’ve got little excuse after writing this not to.