Even out in the woods, along the rugged path of the winding Appalachian Trail, you’re not as alone as you think you are….
by: Nikki Richards
“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” -T.S. Eliot
I spent this summer working at a Quaker backpacking camp for teenagers called Teen Adventure Quaker Camp (TA for short). I led twelve fifteen year olds on a twenty-one day trip along the Appalachian Trail complete with bears, bee stings, and even a bit of bushwhacking. I entered the summer quite out of shape and reeling from a particularly hard year, so I wasn’t sure I could even complete the trip. But my friends told me I should stick with it and that from the experience I would grow, so on Day One of my adventure I found myself about to hike six miles uphill with a fifty pound pack on my back and twelve kids staring at me and waiting for directions. I decided I would start as the designated counselor in the back (for what seemed to me to be legitimate reasons). After introductions and icebreaker games over a smooshed trail lunch, we began the ascent. One minute in I found myself alone in the woods with sweat pouring down my face and a crying camper named Annie in front of me. She had collapsed onto the ground and was pleading with me to let her go home because she’d “never make it.” Secretly I wanted to do the same thing as her, but I knew I would probably lose my job if I did — so I kept standing up.
What followed as we walked through the woods was a conversation about Annie’s hardest year yet: her experience as an inpatient at a mental health hospital, her frequent panic attacks, and her struggle with “Big-D Depression.” What she didn’t know was that I had experienced all of those things as well, although I’d never tell her. Gaining this insight into her character prompted me to push Annie harder than I would have before our intimate conversation. I knew we both needed the growth following extremely paralleled and difficult years stuck in our own identical ruts. So we continued up the mountain. We hiked slower than I’ve ever hiked with a camper before, but we hiked nonetheless. When we finally rejoined the group at the top, Annie looked at me and thanked me. About a half hour later she threw up; I’m guessing she wasn’t feeling so thankful in that moment. But every day of the trip following our first, Annie hiked with me. She told me about her friends, her schoolwork, and her pursuit of music. And every day of the trip following our first, I continued to push Annie up new mountains. I pushed her because I knew she needed it. I pushed her because I knew I needed it. And I pushed us, because I knew we both would grow from this shared experience.
A major tenet of Teen Adventure Quaker Camp is challenge; we seek to challenge our campers physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes when the timing is right and the setting is “just so” we encounter the perfect storm, prompting campers to grow in all three ways at once. The challenges we push towards Teen Adventure campers help them to grow in these ways through safe methods, where they can actually experience real personal growth rather than hinderance. However, there are some calculated risks that we do not take at TA, as they may begin to feel unsafe or as if they are being pushed too hard too quickly, and will thus enter their panic zones. Once in the panic zone, all hopes of self reflection and growth are futile. As a staff, we often reflect on the concept of challenge: which methods of challenge will be safest while still providing some sense of risk and growth for our campers? My favorite conclusion we’ve come to is the idea of “Challenge Circles.”
Challenge Circles provide an easy way to quantify risk and its attached level of growth. The idea is simple: There are three circles in which we might find ourselves. The first circle is the “Comfort Zone.” Those of us who frequently find ourselves in the Comfort Zone are typically experiencing very little growth. The Comfort Zone includes our couches, beds, and homes as well as relationships in which we feel extremely comfortable or classes in which we already understand most of the material. It is sometimes good to take a breather in the Comfort Zone — rest is important.
The second circle is the “Discomfort Zone.” At TA we hope to find ourselves and our campers in the Discomfort Zone most often during the summer. The Discomfort Zone might include a rock climb set up on a fifty foot cliff; a wall-less tarp full of critters under which we sleep each night; a Class IV rapid that we might navigate in canoes; and even new foods we may have never tried before. These types of challenges can provide growth – as we are trying new things – but in a safe and calculated manner so that our biggest fears during these new experiences aren’t death and incapacitation, but rather failure or mild injury.
The third circle is the “Panic Zone.” At TA we try to avoid this zone at all costs. Within the Panic Zone are experiences such as venomous snakes in the middle of our paths; getting lost (or losing a camper!) in the middle of the woods at dusk; life-threatening injuries; and running out of water or food. While in the Panic Zone, we do not grow. Once we have entered the Panic Zone, our brains begin to process the Fight or Flight response. We freeze up, our minds and bodies stop functioning, and we are unable to complete tasks until we feel we have reached safety. These three zones are a counselor’s guide to facilitating the perfect summer and finding the balance within each is a key part of leading a TA trip.
Following the end of our summer at Teen Adventure, Annie texted me a link to her Youtube page, saying: “I wrote a song about our trip. I hope you like it :).” After listening three times and crying through the entirety of each, I committed a specific lyric to memory: “You taught me how to love myself / and persevere through literal hell / I’m stronger now than I ever thought I could be.” Annie had nailed it. She knew she’d grown from all of her struggle on our trip and essentially become a new person by the end. She had entered her Discomfort Zone (after briefly flitting in and out of her Panic Zone) and through the process had learned about herself, her strengths, and her goals. As T.S. Eliot says so perfectly in the above quote, Annie had gotten in over her head this summer at Quaker Camp. And through that process, she learned how tall she was and how tall she could be.