The 2017 Ogden Preparatory Academy trip to northern California’s Redwood forest was enchanting in all the listed definitions of the word. In Patrick’s Point State Park catching purple shore crabs was captivating (literally and metaphorically), watching harbor seals charmed us, and seeing sea anemones squirt was delightful. We were enraptured by elk and entranced by the really big trees in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. At Humboldt Bay the sea kayaking enthralled (and exhausted) us, the fresh (SUPER fresh) tuna sashimi beguiled us (some more than others) and the tours a Coast Guard ship, a marine research vessel, and fire boat left us spellbound. The presentations on weather from a seasoned (pun intended) NOAA scientists and the tour of a (tiny) lighthouse in Trinidad were fascinating. Pulling European beach grass (LOTS of it) from the sand dunes it is invading near Eureka was riveting, in many senses of the word.. And our attention was transfixed as we gained a whole new appreciation of what racoons can do to food boxes when the trailer door is left open and what skunks (many, many, many skunks) do at night when observed by campers from a respectful distance.
Most enchanting were the connections we made. We connected with creatures--taking photos of elk, licking banana slugs, and determining the gender of crabs. We connected with nature while hiking 14 up and down miles west on the James Irvine trail, walking through Fern Canyon, and returning eastbound on Miner’s Ridge trail. And, most significantly, we connected with each other. I haven’t the time to write (and you probably do not have the patience to read) all the stories about our connections but I will share a few.
Mabel was a large and somewhat difficult child. Weight issues were not her only challenge; she also stunck and was caustic. Naturally she did not have many friends. As we were setting up tents at 12:45 a.m. the first night/morning (Why 12:45 a.m.? That is another story……) she found me and said “I do not have anyone to tent with.” I was surprised and not surprised; surprised because in the weeks prior to the trip I had repeatedly instructed students to find tent partners and had repeatedly asked tentless students to identify themselves and she had never indicated she needed a partner and not surprised because she is not the type of person that people seek out as a tent partner. I put her into a spare tent for the night. During lunch the next day I gently inquired about the availability of tent space in other girls’ tents but found no one willing to take her in.
As would be expected, hiking was not Mabel’s strong suit. In fact, before coming on the trip, she had never hiked a step in her life. On our first hike, a three mile loop along the Trillium Falls trail, she was alone and behind...but only for awhile. Linda--cute, vibrant, athletic, fun--noticed Mabel’s social isolation and zoomed in. She slowed the pace of her steps and increased the pace of her compassion. Falling in step with Mabel, she engaged her in conversation, chatting animatedly about who knows what. I don’t think Mabel knew what hit her; she may not have known cognitively that she felt appreciated and accepted (I did not ask her) but I know that she was happy. Her smile was wide and real.
Her smile was also wide and real when she found me later that afternoon to tell me that another girl had invited her into their tent. “Angel invited me to sleep with them,” she told me, breathlessly and eyes beaming. Angel is a year older than Mabel and is not one whom I approached about including her. I have no idea how she knew Mabel needed a place in tent but I know she knew the right thing to do and I am so grateful, deep in my heart grateful, that she did what she knew to be right.
I am deep in my heart grateful for the others in the camp who reached out and pulled Mabel in, others such as Ian who spontaneously offered to share his dark chocolate with her as she passed by and Kent who did not run away when Mabel took the hug he offered to me. Bless him!! I know his 8th grade male heart was screaming “NOOOOOO!!!” when Mabel, who is at least three times his size, approached him, arms outstretched. But he held his ground and let her hug him. It was amazing.
Thursday’s hike was also amazing. I was tempted several times to change the agenda, knowing that 14 miles would be challenging, but I could not bring myself to change it because I also know that challenges are good things. Too often we mollycoddle kids into mediocrity and cheat them of the chance to be champions. Turns out I was right. The hike was challenging…..and good. Very good.
I knew it would tough for Mabel, whose size, inexperience, and choice of shoes (slip-on, thin-soled, canvas contraptions) would work against her. I also suspected it would be tough for Kevin, a young man the size of a high school defensive lineman who was plagued by knee issues. I absolutely knew both of them could make it if they would. It would be hard for them, very hard and painful, but possible. Pain is not fatal, right?
Mabel fell hard several times within the first three miles and stopped for more rest breaks than you and I have digits to count on but every time she fell she got back up and every time she stopped she started again. Kevin, though he was drawn to Mabel by nothing more than a common adversary (the trail), encouraged and supported her. He was instantly at her side when she fell, helping me lift her to her feet. When she tripped over a root the third time, he took the lead and warned her about every protrusion in the path for the next two miles. Darling.
As Mabel realized that she could indeed complete the hike, Kevin began to question. Fatigue took its toll while knee pain sapped his strength and willpower. “I can’t do this,” he said repeatedly. With 2.2 miles left, he collapsed on the trail. “I do not have 2.2 miles left in me,” he said, tears pooling in his eyes. “I cannot go on.” Yes you can. Yes, yes you can.
Kneeling next to him, I shared with him my confidence in his ability. I knew his heart’s capabilities and I knew those capabilities exceeded his body’s weaknesses. “You can do this,” I coached. “You can do this the hard way, which is by telling yourself that you cannot do it and undermining your efforts. Or you can do it the easier way by tapping into your strength and telling yourself that you can do it. It will not be easy. It is going to be dang difficult but you can do it. And it will be easier if you will believe in yourself. You can do hard things. I know you can.”
And he did. It was not easy. In fact, it was hard. Super hard. But, bless his giant, courageous heart, he did it. Mabel helped. She encouraged him and took her turn warning him of trail obstacles. I did my part by telling stories, singing songs (yikes!), and praying….lots. And he stepped up...and over….and across. Step by painful step, he walked out of those woods.
And the crowd cheered. When we rounded the last bend, entering the clearing trail’s end, the rest of the group, those who had been patiently waiting for us to finish, some for hours, cheered. Loud. Long. And with love.
Love! I love the connections. Totally enchanting.
Stories. So many enchanting stories. I will share just a few more tidbits before finishing.
- Wiggling with excitement, almost hopping up and down, Ellen found me after the 14 mile hike and said, “I did it! I finished!! I have started tons of hikes before but this is the first I have ever finished!”
- Freddy, who had never before seen the ocean, collected a gallon Ziplock bag full of sand dollar shards. He earned the money to pay for the trip by going to local businesses and petitioning sponsorship.
- Linda, who heard that rubbing fern fronds on stinging nettle rashes eases the pain, decided to test the claim. She voluntarily rubbed stinging nettle on her forearm and then treated half the exposed area with fern fronds. The real kicker is that she convinced three other students to do the same. Four days later their arms were still stinging.
- In a similar story, Hadley (a cute 9th grade girl) convinced several 8th grade boys to lick a banana slug, claiming it would cause their tongues to go numb. She led by example. The effect lasted for hours.
- One of the parents referred to me as a “choking chicken” when my morning wake-up song was mentioned and one of the students offered me $10 not to sing.
- Mabel beamed as she was applauded by her peers at the trip’s concluding awards assembly. Beamed.
- One night Kade pulled me aside, looked me in the eye, said haltingly “Mrs. Hislop, I love you”, gave me an awkward hug and walked off.
Before ending I must make a brief statement about the parents who took a week away from work to drive these teens to the and from the California coast. “You have GREAT parents,” Miles said to me. He was not talking about my mom and dad. He was referencing the adult volunteers who made the trip possible. And he was right. They are truly great men and women.
I must also recognize God’s hand in making the trip possible. He helped with every step from conception to conclusion. Having never been to that part of California, I knew nothing and no one. But He did. He led me to connections that opened the doors to kayaks, boats, lighthouses, scientists, and service projects for us. On a dark and seemingly never ending night, He kept us and our heavily-loaded, without-brakes trailer on Highway 36, a narrow, steep, very curvaceous road. He moderated weather, touched hearts and probably calmed skunks. (GIven the number of kids and skunks in camp, it is miraculous that no one was sprayed.) I may never know the extent of His help but I do know (and very much appreciate) that He helped.
Enchanting. Spellbinding. Transfixing and transforming. The trip transformed us. We will never be the same again. We are connected to God, connected to His creations and connected to each other. And enchanted with the connections.
NOTE: All student photos have been published with written permission from their parents/guardians.