Mountain Classroom: The Power of Being Present

Posted by Mountain Classroom


Proctor's Mountain Classroom group visited the Tohono O’dham Reservation in Arizona and completed three and a half day solos in the Arizona dessert over the past week. Check out reflections from Luke '18, Augie '19, and Julian '19 in the blog post below. The group apologizes for fewer photos and videos this week (broken camera/phone), but promises more to come next week. Enjoy! 


Luke '18: 

While in Tohono O’dham, a Native American Reservation in southern Arizona, we did many things, but three experiences especially stood out to me. We hiked a large mountain, met a man, and squeezed into a cave. All three experiences drew me closer to the land, people, and culture, but also reminded me of how different and foreign I was. These actions on their own, stripped of context, seem trivial, but through the deep culture and religion of the Tohono O’dham, they created impactful memories in our whole group.

The hike, which lasted from 8:00am to sunset, roundtrip, was an excellent way to learn about the history of the land that we stood upon. We learned from the caretaker/guide, named James, that the mountain is sacred because it is where the Creator lives. The Creator is who the natives of the area worship for annual rains and other natural events. The night before the hike, we were encouraged to set intentions for this day and ask for blessings from The Creator. I have never felt religious before, but as we hiked up the 7000 foot mountain in the middle of the desert, I felt humbled and in awe of the beliefs that have survived since almost the beginning of human existence. I also felt my butt get more and more tired as the trail got steeper. Finally, after using our hands and feet to scramble up the last 150 yards, we got to the highest possible point. James said that it would be dangerous to ascend to the summit without climbing ropes, so we gladly broke for lunch at a rocky outcrop nearly at the summit. As we were sitting on the rock and looking at the endless expanse of barren landscape spread out beneath us it seemed so likely that this spot would be the spot of The Creator’s existence. We all took a couple minutes at the top to think about the magnitude of where we were and during this time I thought about how so many people today never get to experience to be as close to the natural world as we were in the moment. I felt so lucky to be able to experience such an amazing place that also has a complex history.

While on the upward part of this hike, we came across a man. This man was desperate for water and food because he had been climbing across the mountains for seven days without either. He told us, in Spanish, that he is from Guatemala and is trying to get to the U.S. so he can have a better life. He lost his whole family and only knows one person in the United States who is in Mississippi. His story was astonishing, and as a group of well-off high school students, we could never relate to this man. We gave him water, food, James gave him directions, and then we parted ways. My philosophical ideas and wonderings came crashing down as the reality of the present smashed its way into my head. We knew as a group that this moment was something we would never forget, and will think about well into adulthood. The life I am living now is what so many people dream about. I am privileged beyond even what I had imagined. When I get back home, I will encounter problems, but nothing even close to what other people experience. I started to understand how grateful we really should be, not just for going to private school or getting presents on our birthday, but for having caring families and futures where it is guaranteed that we will survive and be comfortable regardless of how much effort we put into our lives.

The next day, James took us up another trail. This trail only took 45 minutes to ascend. At the end of the trail, James told us that there is a cave in the side of the cliff. The cave is even more sacred the mountain we had climbed, it is filled with the offerings of people from all over the country. Climbing up the trail, I felt afraid to see the inside of the cave. It didn’t feel right that we would be allowed to enter, being tourists to the area. James assured us that as long as we had respect for the culture and the religion, we would always be welcome. When we got to the end of the trail, there was a large wall of rock, and upon further examination, a small opening in the side of the rock just wide enough to fit through appeared. Once inside, all I could see was the side of the cave illuminated from the hole in the wall. With the help of my flashlight, I started exploring the inside as more people entered. We were all taken back by the cave and the amount of things that were left as offerings. The edge of the cave was filled with everything from water bottles and sticks to to wallets and jewelry. The silence and stillness of the cave was terrifying but also beautiful. There was something about a lot of people joined together in one belief that is so powerful, and in the cave, even though it was just our group from New Hampshire, it felt like everyone who had ever been in the cave was joined together.

Our time in the Tohono O’dham reservation was a time to look at a different culture. By comparing the cultures of Tohono O’dham with the culture of the world I live in, I have come to realize the importance of believing in a greater being or idea as a community. There are many problems that are persisting in our environment today that are not being dealt with, and by coming together under a common belief as the Tohono O’dham do, I think that we can instill a higher level of change.


Augie '19: 

On Friday morning in Cascabel, Arizona, students on Mountain Classroom packed their bags full with food, clothing, tarps, water, and sleeping bags to prepare to leave for their solos. The cold air greeted us as we all ate our own individual breakfasts and nervously chatted with one another about what the next three and a half days would have to offer. At 9:00 AM, Alex rang the old, rusty triangle dinner bell and we all fell silent. Two groups left in two different directions off to the solo sights where previous Mountain Classroom students experienced their solos. Luke Weber, Sam Fulton, Anna Hollenbaugh, Olivia Clark, Alex, and myself all trudged off with Birget and David (Cascabel Residents) through a dried out creek bed. We all had to carry out all of our water and food for the next three and a half days, so our packs were very heavy. Forty minutes later we reached the beautiful canyons of Cascabel. One by one, we were individually dropped off at our campsites. Luke and Anna were dropped off first, then I was dropped off, then Olivia, then Sam Fulton. In silence, I said bye to everyone and walked into my own canyon.

As I scurried up a little hill, I was greeted by a flat, grassy land filled with cacti and spiky bushes. I set down my bag and the first thing that I did was set up my rock cairn and hung up my bandana. After that, I quickly spotted a perfect spot to sleep. Carefully, I lifted my heavy bag down and took out everything. One by one, I took out my tarp, my sleeping bag, my clothes, my books, my food, and my water bag. Unfortunately, I packed my food bags at the very bottom of the bag. I checked my food, everything was in good shape BUT my bananas. They were terribly squished. I shrugged and placed them back into the bag. I carefully set up my tarp and then put everything under it, with my food bags at the bottom part of the tarp. Tired from the walk and camp set-up, I took a much needed power nap. Thirty minutes later, I woke up in a sweat to the buzzing sound of bees. I quickly launched up I was swarmed by hundreds of bees. Out of sheer frustration, I started to swat at the bees who were constantly landing all over my body and I was stung on my right pointer finger. I leaned forward in my sleeping bag and noticed that the majority of bees were trying to get into my food bags. OH NO! MY BANANAS! I yelled to myself and I frantically got out of my tarp and grabbed my food bags. Quickly I moved all of my good food into one food bag and all of the ruined/ bee infested food into another bag. I proceeded to move that bag about twenty feet from my tarp and put my good food back in my pack, protected from bees. I grabbed my crazy creek and my book, and read on top of a hill, overlooking the entire canyon. I read for about an hour until I suddenly realized, I am a lone in the wilderness surviving off of what I carried on my own back.
That thought stayed in my mind until that night. I crawled into my tarp around 5:00 PM as the desert became more quiet. Morning came and I rose with the sun. Saturday went by slowly as giant dark grey clouds rolled over Cascabel. It was predicted to rain throughout that day but it never did. Around noon I snacked on a burrito filled with only avocado and green peppers. I was enjoying my meal as I was aimlessly throwing rocks at a nearby bush. Suddenly, a heavy whoosh swept over my head. I was in shock in my seat as I watched a huge, beautiful Red Tail Hawk land just ten feet in front of me, searching for something moving in the bush that was just a rick that I threw. The hawk realized that there was nothing in the bush and it flapped its wings and perched itself on top of the bush and immediately saw me. With my eyes wide open in disbelief, I stared back at the hawk as it stared at me. I was frozen with amazement. Without hesitation, the hawk flew away as if nothing ever happened. My first reaction after this happening was running to the nearest person to tell them what I just experienced, but I couldn’t. I could only tell myself. I only had my own thoughts with me at that moment. I thought to myself, I could immediately feel that birds presence. I could feel its eyes looking into mine. Why wasn’t it scared? I couldn't answer my own question. What felt so significant about that moment was that we were both alone, both surviving in the desert.
Over my time being alone, I felt limitless of doing anything I wanted. I felt limitless to be whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t have anyone else to stop me, only myself. I felt alone, but I wasn’t scared. Wasn’t scared of the dark, of the coyotes, of running out of water, running out of food. I felt happy, content, but it was indescribable at the moment. I felt surrounded by my peers, we were all being alone together. To really capture the true solo experience, the first thing that you have to do is to immediately accept being alone. 
Throughout writing this blog, I realized that one of the best ways to really capture the solo experience was to ask my peers and classmates about their time alone. I asked them, what their most impactful moment was and why it stands out for them. I also asked what the most difficult part of being alone was. My first “interview” is my good friend Lucas Bush. His answer to the first question was, “My most impactful moment of my solo was at the very beginning when I finished setting everything up. At that moment, I realized that there was nothing to do and I was completely alone. Hearing about the solos, I never truly considered the idea of being completely alone which made it stand out to me even more in the moment”. His answer to the second question was, “The most difficult part of being alone was I had no one to talk to and interact with which left me slowly with my thoughts. This felt new and a little frightening at first, but with time I adjusted”. Upon hearing Lucas’s answers, I felt a strong connection towards my experience and several others. 
My next interview was with Amanda Hinds. Her first response is, “On the first night, it was starting to cool down and it was just starting to get dark and I started to feel claustrophobic in my tarp. So I stumbled out of the tarp and I was completely barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt (but I wasn't cold) and I looked up at the sky and it was pink all the way across with mountains poking up into the sky with cacti on top. The stars were just starting to come out and the moon was bright. And I just stood there and looked up and realized where I was.” Her response to the second question was, “I didn’t bring any books or other entertainment so I was forced to be completely be by myself and to be present all the time. And it was really hard to understand that I didn’t have to do anything. I was really restless at first until I started thinking a lot and just existing and accepting where I was.” After talking to my peers, I started to realize that everyone got the most out of their solo experience and even found something about themselves that they couldn’t figure before. 


Julian '19: 

During the fall term of my sophomore year, I remember being in the kayak bus (the old Mountain Classroom bus) speaking with a now Proctor alum Lucien Wiener. As he described the life changing adventures and the incredible experiences that he had been apart of during the Mountain Classroom of the year prior, I became increasingly interested in the program as a whole. After he shared many stories of his time off campus I remember being especially drawn towards one of the prominent parts of Mountain Classroom: the solos. The solos consist of three days alone in Cascabel Arizona, with only a tarp to sleep under, a tarp to sleep on, and any personal gear required (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food, etc.). This three day experience away from all civilization, entirely alone sounded like a time that would stick with me and the members of our group forever. When my junior year rolled along and embarking on this journey was just around the corner the one part that still was most exciting was the solo. Jump forward to the present and my mind hasn't altered one bit.

Once everyone landed in El Paso to begin the second part of Mountain, we all knew that the solos were just around the corner. That is when the mental preparation really started. Little possible factors started racing through our minds, we started thinking of all the potential positives of the experience: the warm desert all to yourself, the sunny days, waking up to the sound of birds chirping and ground animals scurrying about. These blissful thoughts lasted right up until the actual preparation for the solos, then all possibilities became a possible reality: what happens if I run out of food, what happens of I run out of water, what happens of it rains, what am I going to do with three days to myself? These questions ran through our heads one after the other until the reassuring voices of Alex and Kate reminded us that we would all be totally fine, we just needed to have a good idea of the possible outcomes and plan around them. For food, bring items that will not go bad in under three days (canned soups, tortillas, peanut butter, not quite ripe fruit). For rain, learn the correct and most efficient way to rope down your tarps and don't sleep in low places to which water could flow. But most of all, for the three days alone, be open minded how far you can stretch mentally.

The most challenging part of mentally preparing for the solos is coming to the realization that boredom is inevitable, but that that is OK. There are going to be times where all you want to do is call out for a friend and know that one will come from right around the corner, but having these moments is OK. This time alone is designed to take students who put a significant amount of their time and effort into their schoolwork out of the constant repetitive routine and structure. The time is designed to have us sit still and just, well, honestly, just not do anything. We have to be willing to take ourselves outside of our comfort zones and into a world of nothing but our surroundings. It is in these moments where we will learn the most, getting into the thick of it. Truly experiencing everything around us happens more efficiently completely alone. It is in these moments where we will learn more about ourselves than anywhere else. The knowing and accepting of the inevitable on our solos is almost impossible, but knowing and accepting ourselves out there isn’t. That is what solos are all about: getting to know ourselves better. Over all we are all incredibly excited (and some of us nervous) for the adventure that lies ahead. Solos don't have anything on the Mountain Classroom Class of 2018! Watch out!

Click here for more photos of Mountain Classroom Winter 2018!



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