I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. The plane skipped up, sideways, down and seemed to popcorn around in the air. I gripped my armrest on the 50 seater with people silently reciting small prayers in their heads. Or that is what I imagined since that was what I was doing. I slowly opened my eyes to see snow capped mountains. Big ones. Excitement replaced fear, my eyes glued to the window. The snowy mountain tops blended into striated red rock mesas as we landed in Grand Junction after a stop over in Denver.
Kayden and I were welcomed by the energetic Mountain Classroom crew, and off we went in the minibus lovingly named, “Deb”. On the way to our campsite, we were regaled with stories of red sand storms that filled tents, food bowls, ears, and clothes on the San Juan River trip. We heard about Moab, climbing adventures and rattlesnake encounters in the Superstition Wilderness while the greatest folky music played in the background. Deb swayed up and down, rocking like a boat sailing along the highway.
Passing well trimmed peach trees we arrived to our campsite - the swanky (marble countered bathrooms with showers, flush toilets and a luxurious stainless steel three compartment sink with running hot water, sigh) Palisades RV/Campground, nestled along the Colorado River, at the base of Monument National park. That night, Lucy and Hayes fixed an incredible meal of quinoa salad fortified with tomatoes, cilantro and avocado. Yum. Kayden and I had arrived to give the Mountain Classroom instructors, Jeff and Carol, a break for the weekend. Coming in like grandparents, Jeff gave us instructions on phones (phone calls to families on Sunday), meds, keys, and got us set up with gear. While Kayden is an former-Mountain Classroom instructor and quickly took in this information, this was all new to me. At times they seemed to be speaking another language. “The LODs tomorrow are Stewart and Gunnar”, “Stewart is the scribe tonight.” I nodded like I knew what he was saying.
Stewart led the evening meeting with a meditation bowl gong. Once subsided, he asked the group a question that we all answered. He then read his journal entry for the day, opened the floor for feedback, moved on to “CFRs” (concerns, feelings, requests), followed by appreciations from the day, instructor time, a chaos card, and lastly; nuts and bolts (logistics for the next day). What an incredible thing to do each night - to set aside time to process and debrief your day with your family. The feedback was productive and informative.
Something that Gunnar mentioned as an unexpected highlight of being on Mountain Classroom were these evening meetings. He reflected, “I am working on putting the group’s needs above my own, and I feel like I am learning better communication skills with the group work.”
Hayes acknowledged that being a leader of the day (LOD) has helped her find her voice and become more assertive. “You have to bring your best self that day (as LOD). It is motivating,” said Maura. Lucy also cited the challenges of, “planning a group activity where everyone feels like an individual is hard.” However, she feels that this gives her an important perspective on being a leader or instructor and is growing her skills as such. Romy explained that she has done other outdoor education based trips, but what stands out for her is the ownership that students have in the planning and execution of the daily activities on Mountain Classroom. This planning is a learned skill nurtured through trial, error, and success coupled with thoughtful feedback and shout outs of appreciation.
Personal challenges often become the highlight for some students. Alana explained to me her fear of poisonous snakes and her encounter with one in the Superstition Wilderness, “As a human we feel above nature, but this experience made me feel just like another animal that could be bitten by a snake. It grounded me. My body just reacted to its sound before my brain did and before I knew it, I found myself 10 feet away! It was really interesting to have that fight or flight experience, like an evolutionary reaction. It was an experience I will not forget. I am no longer afraid of rattlesnakes.”
Ada recognized that a challenge for her was being consistently exposed to the outdoor elements. However, in the next breath when asked about her highlights of the trip she smiled and said that her highlight was being outside all of the time. She found herself becoming more in tune with the natural cycles of the earth like weather and the phases of the moon. She makes a prediction about where the moon is in its cycle and where it will rise on the horizon. Someone mentioned that there is a book on the bus about the moon. She shakes it off. She wants to know if her prediction is accurate based on her observations.
Over the course of the weekend students took time to shower, do laundry, clean their gear, complete academic work and have some personal time. In one evening meeting Stewart offered how grateful he was to have time to complete an art project he had been inspired to do - spray paint his crazy creek chair. The group ventured into town to explore the historic main street of Grand Junction and found some gems in bookstores, antique shops and a local thrift store. (No Alana didn’t buy the wedding dress.)
We splurged on pizza and ice cream in town one night and toasted homemade bagels in a cafe the next morning. On our last night, Alana and Maura prepared a feast of Thai noodle bowls with all the fixings of eggs, veggies, and tofu. Gunnar exclaimed it was the best meal yet, which was high praise for the chefs as all the meals that were planned for and executed by student pairs were healthy, tasty and thoughtful. This was a very special day, since it was Gunnar’s 19th birthday!
Romy topped off the night by paying her dues on a lost bet and dancing a square dance. Lucy found a song to accompany the dance on my phone and we all got up and joined the fun. Ada and Lucy (experienced square dancers) helped guide us, as best they could, as the caller demanded, “Bow to your corner!” and “Promenade!”. As the sun lowered into the river turning the night a chill blue - our laughter and music echoed off the canyon walls.
Seeing our students go about their daily routines of divvied up jobs, self-sufficient leadership, and care of each other was powerful and humbling. It affirmed that what we do on Mountain Classroom allows our students to find and solidify their best selves. What a gift to them. And to us.