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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1998 Issue #51

By: Keith C. Russell, Research Staff
Wilderness Research Center
Moscow, Idaho 83844-1144
(208) 885-2269 fax: (208) 885-2268

Leading trips with young people in wilderness is physically and emotionally demanding job. I don’t know any wilderness leader that has not asked themselves at times why are they are doing this work. This short article tells my story of why I do it. 

Laying in my dark, wet, world at 4:30 in the morning, I asked myself what in the world I was doing in the heart of the Tennessee wilderness with 8 African- American young women from the Atlanta Job Corps Center. The downpour drumming on my tarp provided a steady cadence for the relentless parade of thoughts. Why had I traveled from Northern Idaho to the Southeast to drag these poor souls out into this jungle of a wilderness? Is it worth bearing the oppressive heat of an Atlanta summer, packing out trip after trip in a suffocating warehouse with no windows or fan? What was my sweet love doing back in Idaho? The rain continued and the moat surrounding my tarp was beginning to look more like a lake. The occasional splashes were like little slaps in the face. Answer the questions!! I felt like I was being interrogated by my soul, my girlfriend, our dogs, western civilization, and the Department of Labor, who was funding our wilderness program, Wilderness Discovery. Why do I continue to subject myself to this type of lifestyle? Why do I need to take kids into wilderness? Why? Why? 

As the first signs of dawn appeared, the drumming of the rain gave way to occasional drips launched from the leaves of the towering hardwoods surrounding our campsite. The Tennessee wilderness reminds me of the jungle. The noise from the cicadas, owls, and other creepy crawlies of the previous night had been deafening, creating anxiety levels among my group which cause uncontrollable laughter, singing, and the telling of stories to help them get through to first light. As the bugs and critters emerge from their soggy hollows to announce their readiness for a new day, the exhausted students sleep. I roll out from under my soggy cocoon and bid good morning to the swollen creek. With cup of coffee in hand, I sit by the creek with my journal and ponder the questions haunting me in the night. Why do I do this work? 

I have been a wilderness trip leader for ten years, working in a variety of landscapes, countries, and programs with all kinds of clients--kids, adolescents, corporate managers, and old folks. I taught environmental education to sixth graders ten years ago who are now in college, some in classes similar to ones I now teach. I have helped a generation grow up, taking kids year after year to wilderness and teaching them a smattering of natural history and wilderness skills. In each student I tried to plant a seed, a seed that I hoped would one day grow into awareness of the wild in them and around them. I left the students of every trip I ran with a poem by Robert Service entitled “The Call of the Wild.” The last evening of every trip, with thoughts of pizza, our loved ones, and the stories to tell bouncing around the campfire chatter, I would stand and recite the poem with missionary conviction. Please remember the seed, the lessons learned out here, the beauty, power, and majesty of these precious lands. If you ever get in trouble, just stop, and if you listen real hard, just close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear the call of the wild, trust me I know you will. And when they hear it that seed will grow a little bit bigger. For as Thoreau said, in Wildness is the Preservation of the World. I taught them to think like a mountain, echoing the challenge put forth to western civilization by Aldo Leopold seventy years ago. And because wildness is not just found in wilderness, it is found in us and all around us, I taught them to think like people of all walks of life, all colors. Just like we respect the land we have traveled through, let us learn to respect ourselves and each other. In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Remember, stop and listen to the Call of the Wild. 

As I sat by the creek that morning I remembered the day I arrived at the Atlanta Job Corps center in the heart of a bulging city desperately preparing for the next summer’s Olympics. Driving down Martin Luther King Blvd. in my beat up Subaru with Oregon license plates and a beat up kayak on top of my roof, I turned heads. A lot of heads. I was in the wrong section of town, in the wrong kind of car, with the wrong license plates and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. I must admit, I was very nervous. 

Finally I pulled into the Job Corps center, and turned off Suby as I affectionately called her. We both sighed and said “Thank God we are here!!” People were peering out the window, and a few students came to greet me. I was quickly taken to meet the Center Director, Mr. Lonnie Hall, a towering man with a smile that stretched for miles and a handshake that meant business. He wasn’t quite sure what all this wilderness business was all about, but if it meant good things for his ladies, as he affectionately called his students, then he was all for it. He had 400 young women, 95% of them African American, that he was responsible for making sure they finished their high school education, received some vocational training, and got out and got a job. He was a father to these young women, and if getting them out in the woods might help them stay in Job Corps and finish their education, then he was willing to give it a shot. Mr. Hall is a born leader and he managed his Center like a father would run a household, something his students liked, for many of these young woman didn’t have a father growing up. 

“Mr. Hall, time for the assembly, come on, your late!” Two students burst into the office and grabbed Mr. Hall by the hand and lead him out the door. I followed in close pursuit, my heart beat growing louder with each step. The heat, already unbearable, and it was only early June -man it was going to be a long summer. I was to run seven 7-day trips as part of a pilot-program and study by the University of Idaho Wilderness Research Center for the Department of Labor--Job Corps and the US Forest Service. I had four days to get the first trip out and my first challenge was to convince some of these urban raised women from downtown Atlanta to go into the Appalachia woods with me. We walked by the elevator to go down one flight of stairs and there were about 10 students waiting for the elevator. “You got your work cut out for you Mr. Russell. These ladies don’t even like to walk down stairs let alone a trail in the wilderness, and you better not ruin their $300 hair do's.” The ladies laughed, “Mr. Hall, what are you talking about!!” Gulp. We walked down the stairs into the basement area and my gut jumped into my throat. There they were, 400 students, and numerous staff all checking me out. Mr. Hall grabbed the microphone and spoke with the skill and enthusiasm of a motivational leader about the virtues of an education, the reasons to stay in Job Corps, and what it means to be a productive member of society. The ladies faces were all fixed on him. Respect isn’t the word. Admiration, not really. Love, probably. I was working the room, staring at the faces who shot glances my way. I heard them whispering, “Who is that strange dude over there?” I was not in proper Job Corps attire in my summer shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. As I was looking the room over again all eyes suddenly turned on me, Mr. Russell? Mr. Russell? And then the mike was handed to me and I stepped up on stage. 

I had my pitch canned, or so I thought. I had also spent the previous summer taking Job Corps students to wilderness from the Timberlake Job Corps Center in Oregon, a far cry from Atlanta. My selling points were that they would get out of the city, work and classes for a week and take a trip to beautiful North Carolina or Tennessee. I only needed 8 brave volunteers to participate on the first trip, and then I knew that news of the wonders of the experience would spread through the rumor mill of Job Corps like wildfire and I would have a waiting list. Yeah right! I spoke honestly and with my usual scattered enthusiasm. I cracked a few jokes about being a white boy, they all laughed and we fell into a rhythm. They called me Mr. Wilderness. They asked me where they would go to the bathroom. What they were going to eat. Could they drink Coke? Why go up there to the dark deep woods anyway? I told them to trust me and that I would take care of them. After the assembly, three brave souls signed up. Five more I thought, I was on a mission. Hard sell doesn’t even come close to describing my approach over the next two days trying to convince five more ladies to go to the mountains with me. But I got my eight students the next day and began getting the gear together. 

I was ushered to the warehouse where I found 30' by 30' tarps, huge cans of bug dope, air mattresses, and canned food. The list I had sent them apparently didn’t register. “You said you wanted small tarps Mr. Keith, but you can’t get all of those ladies under one small tarp, so we got you a bigger one.” With credit card in hand, I spent the next 48 hours driving frantically around the biggest and hottest city I had ever experienced, rounding up packs, tarps, water filters, first aid kits, and other essential gear. On the eve of the departure day, as I was packing up the last of the gorp, peanut butter and pasta in 100 degree heat, a Job Corps staff walked up to me. I had been treated with a cautious trepidation by the staff up to that point. They all thought the Wilderness Discovery program was crazy. “I will tell you this Mr. Wilderness, I will bet you $100 that you’ll be back tomorrow night with a bunch of scared, tired, and very upset students. They ain’t going to take one step down that trail, you hear me? This whole idea is crazy!!” That was exactly what I needed at that point. “You’ll see,” I said. “You have got at least give them a chance. I know they can do it.” 

That morning of the fourth trip as I sat by the swollen creek with a cup of coffee in my hand, I knew why! The clouds were parting and the heat of the late morning began to stir my sleeping ladies. Mr. Hall told me they were my ladies too now, a comment that meant far more to me then Mr. Hall realized. I had a waiting list of seventy-five students back on Center, each hoping to get on one of the two remaining Wilderness Discovery trips. But only 20 would get the opportunity. The Center and students were like family to me now. I loved hanging out with my Wilderness Discovery graduates, the students who participated on previous trips. They were treated like gods when they returned from their wilderness experience. They looked great. They had accomplished something no one thought they could do. But they did it. For many of them, the experience was the first time in their life they successfully completed something so positive, that earned them so much respect. 

We had regular meetings after the trips and talked about how they were doing on the goals they had set for themselves while in the wilderness. Besides learning that water comes from a creek, how to set up tarps, and make a fire, cook over a camp stove, and how to work out disagreements in a positive way, and how to swim, those young women learned that they can do more than they thought they could. “What did you tell me that first day Evelyn” I asked. “That I wasn’t going to make it Mr. Wilderness.” “Did you make it?” “Yeah, yeah, I made it, I know I can do it if I put my mind to it. I can do anything now.” 

I went back four months later to check on the students and staff and to say hello. We were tracking the progress of the students to see if it had made a difference. It had!! One student had completed Job Corps and was enrolled in a Community College. One student had not had a fight since his last trip. The Wilderness Discovery graduates all came out of their classes that day to see me. “Are you going to take us up in the wilderness again? When is the next trip Mr. Wilderness? ” We chatted, hugged, laughed, and told as many stories as we could in that short amount of time. So once again I knew the answer to my question--why do you keep doing wilderness trips?? This is why. To see how well the wilderness works for young people.

Because where there was little hope, there is now a ray of light. Where there were no accomplishments, now there were many. Where there was limited knowledge, now there is much. Where there was the world telling them they couldn’t do something, there were my ladies with hands on their hips firing back “You want to make a bet?” I walked by the elevator to go down to the cafeteria. There was an overweight student waiting to use the elevator to go down the one flight of stairs to lunch. One of my students who volunteered for the first trip, who before the experience was almost kicked out of Job Corps, who now was heading to a Community College to get a nursing degree, a student whom I will never forget, said to her “Girlfriend, walk with us, that ol’ elevator ain’t going anywhere.” She smiled shyly and followed suit. That is why!

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