Mountain Classroom: Solos and Superstition Backpacking

Posted by Mountain Classroom


After four day solos in the Arizona desert, the group planned and executed a week long backpacking trip through the Superstition Wilderness, Proctor Academy's Mountain Classroom program enters the final two weeks of their term-long expedition throughout the American Southwest. Check out reflections from Vienna '20 and Jane '20 in this week's Mountain Classroom blog! 


“It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”

- Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “The Invitation”

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Solos - Vienna '20

And with that we were off…Half of the group, lead by Kate, hiked into a wash to our left and the other half, lead by Quinn, hiked into a wash on our right. We walked in silence to our solo sights. 
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Solo is mentally challenging; however, something that is proving to be more of a challenge for me, is the ability to describe solo itself to an outsider. Most people, in my generation especially, are never truly alone. For me personally, I don’t think I’d ever been alone for more than ten hours. Even then, I had access to technology and was in the comfort of my own home as opposed to the desert. I’ve decided that the best way to describe my solo experience to an outsider is through the journal entries that I wrote throughout the course of four days. Below are a few excerpts from each day of my solo experience. Please keep in mind that the solo experience is different for each individual.

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Day One:

After having hugged everyone goodbye, and hiking, in silence, for about twenty minutes into the canyon, I arrived at my solo sight. The first thing I did was go to the bathroom, to mark my territory. Next, I spent what seemed to be three hours setting up my tarp. They took our watches, so I have no sense of time, other than the sun. Realistically my tarp fiasco may have only taken thirty minutes. I had been so confident that my tarp skills were amazing; however, it has taken me till now to realize that the desert vegetation is nothing like New Hampshire’s. I moved my tarp three different times, quite literally hugging the prickly bushes that provided the best support for my tarp. I laughed out loud to myself as I painted a perfect representation of tree hugger. The third time was the charm! My tarp lied so close to the ground that I had to army crawl to get in it and it lies on a slight pitch, which might prove difficult if rain moves in, but it is nevertheless, perfect. I hung one of my colorful sarongs in the inside to add a homey flare. After setting up my tarp, I ventured down to the mouth of my tiny canyon to make my “mail box” and cairn. As I’m writing currently, I hear a classmate whistling in the distance. My anxiety has shrunken because I realize that my peers are not just close, but they are going through the same thing that I am. After setting up my cairn, I return to my camp to write and transfer food to the chain link “animal proof” bag. It is now that I have my first snack. Unlike a few of my Mountain Classroom peers, I have opted not to fast. I haven’t brought a lot of food, so I will ration it.

Night One
I have no clue what time it is. I’m all snug in my sleeping bag and all that’s bothered me thus far are some moths. I’ve been writing letters. I’m sure I’ll wake up bright and early, It is very strange to not have a watch. Moths are taking over my tarp. I am restless, it’s still dark out and I keep popping my head out of my stuffy sleeping bag, expecting the sun to be out. Realistically it may be about 3:00 am. I know the sun comes up around 6:45 am.
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Day Two
After a somewhat restless night, I woke up for what seemed to be the 100th time. I saw the sun creeping down the hillside behind my tarp. I inched myself out of my sleeping bag, army crawled under my tarp and want to reset my cairn. I felt oddly relieved to see that my cairn had been knocked over. This meant that Quinn or Kate had come to check on me. After reseting my cairn, I grabbed my notebook to write some small love/appreciation letters for my Mountain peers, to leave in my mailbox. 
One great thing I’ve discovered about being on solo is that it allows you to be a child again. One poem, a favorite of mine, has crept into mind. “On Turning Ten,” by Billy Collins plays through my head. I imagine all of the stages I went through as a child. Now I am able to be a child again. Yesterday, as I arrived to camp, I was Nim, from a childhood movie called, “Nim’s Island.” Last night as I lay under my tarp, with my headlamp, I was survivor woman, dropped into the desert for three weeks. Now I am a warrior princess. I am wearing only my Chacos and a sarong draped around me. 
I’ve spent most of my second day/first full day laying in the sun writing. I played solitaire for a while, but after some time, I realized that I must be playing wrong. When Quinn or Kate came to check in on me, they dropped off mail for me. Drake and Timmy sent me letters. It was so nice to receive mail.
I’m not sure what time it is, but it seems to be getting later. The sun went behind the hill so my solo sight is getting gradually cooler. I’ve changed out of my princess outfit in warmer clothes. I’m tired, but it is not yet dark, so I will sit and wait. Will sent me a hilarious letter. He claimed to have made a stone throne on top of the hill that I believe separates our sights. There are grey clouds moving in and I’m praying that they aren’t rain clouds, but I’ve made some adjustments to me tarp just in case.
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Day Three
When I woke up this morning, through the sliver of viewing area between my tarp and the ground, I saw the desert plants that present themselves as hay, were spun to gold. This must mean that the sun was out. I did a half army crawl/crab walk out from under my tarp, to avoid the damp ground. To my dismay, the sky was dark grey except for one sliver of sunlight, which happened to be right next to my tarp. I giggled to myself and then crawled right back under my tarp and into my sleeping bag. 
Eventually the clouds gave way and the sky turned to a rich blue. The sun was bright and hot. I began the morning by writing the first draft of my epiphany. After finishing, I went to collect my full water bottles and mail. Along with mail from Sean and Charlotte, I received my art supplies, as promised by Kate and Quinn. Guided with excitement, I wrote to most everybody and decorated them with colorful designs. The rest of my afternoon was spent similarly to yesterday. It is odd how, when alone, you make your own routines. If something had worked for you the day before, then why not do it again? Now as the sun inches down behind the mountain, I move with it. I inch my crazy creek chair every thirty minutes or so, trying to catch every last inch of desert sun on my skin.
Tomorrow is only a half day. Of course, I know nothing about what that means. For all I know I’ve been waking up at 4:30 am. 
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Day Four
I woke up bright and early today and took my top tarp off. I then crawled right back in my sleeping bag, to watch the clouds roll by and the sun to appear. In my last few hours of being completely alone, I have come up with a lost of things i learned on solo: alone in the desert for four days. 
  • Peanut butter goes well with everything.
  • You are bound to either learn something about yourself you didn’t already know or face something you had been avoiding.
  • Pretty much all of the desert plants are prickly. 
Lastly, I suggest that all of you take some time to yourself, to find yourself. Even if it is only for a day, give yourself the gift of being alone with yourself. Do you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments?
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Superstition Backpacking - Jane '20

The morning of February 5th was met with anxiety and last minute packing for our first backpacking trip. The day before we had completed our expedition prep which included: packing food, cooking supplies, whisper lite stove, cleaning supplies, and tents. The group was extremely well organized and on top of things compared to our first expedition in Georgia. Any who, that morning we woke up, finished packing, and drove to Canyon Lake (a welcome sight after not seeing a large body of water since the Rio Grande).

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The lake was gorgeous. First of all it’s water… so that’s always nice. Secondly, it had dramatic cliffs and mountains surrounding it on all sides, making it even more picturesque. We said our woeful goodbyes to DEB (the bus) and were driven in a van by a nice man named Dan about an hour to the other side of the Superstition Mountains. He dropped us off, packs in hand, at the trailhead. The nervous laughter could be heard for miles around. I think we were mostly anxious for the strenuous exercise, or it may have been that we were venturing into mountain lion, rattlesnake, and black widow infested land… who knows. After adjusting our packs with the help of Kate and Quinn, we hit the dusty trail. We met some nice Canadians, and some others just out for a day hike, but as we made our way farther and farther into the wilderness we stopped seeing anyone.

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We stopped at an old creepy windmill for “lunch”, which basically consisted of trail mix, pepperoni sticks, and canned kippers. We arrived at our campsite around 5 o’clock and set up camp just in time for the much anticipated rain. We were expecting to be in rain all day, but we somehow lucked out and managed to hold it off until we had some tarps to crawl under. We enjoyed some delicious dinner and went to bed quite early, I believe some of us fell asleep around 8. In the middle of the night we were all awoken to the most intense rain storm I’ve ever experience. Oh lordy the wind! It was terrifying. One of the corners of the mega mid we were under popped out, so I held onto Vienna’s feet as she crawled and did a plank while re-inserting the stake. It was wild.  

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The next morning we awoke and ate a quick breakfast. Following this we did some intense blister care for those of us less fortunate, and then we had an expedition skills class which included an exercise where we decided what type of decision making would be best in what situation. On this morning, we were pretty nervous because it was supposedly the most difficult hike of the trip. We started walking along the stream which the trail parallels and crosses, and we quickly got lost. After a fair amount of bushwhacking and guessing, we got back on the trail and began our ascent. Conversation was light, as we were all out of breath and tired. We finally made it to the top of the first steep hill, we took a quick break and talked to a man and his dog who were out for a hike. We kept walking, and walking, and walking, until finally we stumbled upon a campsite. We were all relieved, and anxiously took off our boots and socks. I think I actually screamed when I saw Charlotte’s feet. Two words. Trench foot! It was the funniest thing I’ve ever experienced. After recovering from that devilish sight, we set up camp and made a yummy dinner and had a nice evening meeting before hitting the hay. A few of us attempted to sleep out so that we could fully appreciate the stars, however when we saw some clouds coming we ran into a tent in fear of rain. This was a good idea. 

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We woke up, but it wasn’t easy. No rain. But a lot of frost. Sean had slept with his back slightly outside the tent, and woke up a snowman. Rolling up sleeping pads and packing up sleeping bags was the most painful thing for our fingers. We made a group decision to pack up camp after our expedition skills class so that the sun would be hitting us and hopefully would melt some of the frost. After a delayed departure we were on our way again, ready for our last full day hiking. There were lots of laughs as we played childish games and bonded more and more over the little things. However it was not all fun and games. There were some pretty bad blisters and sore feet today that really put a damper on not only our moods but also our speed.

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We passed multiple campsites, one with a few people who we greeted, and we even passed two guys (one looking oddly similar to Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall”). We stumbled upon our campsite for the night years later, or so it felt. It was getting late so we got moving on setting up camp and cooking dinner. But don’t worry, we still had time to go scorpion hunting. Will started this trend and when he needed to cook, he left me babysitting his new babies in his bowl. Rookie mistake. Kate insinuated that one of them was crawling out and I screamed and threw the bowl. Many, many scorpions were in the kitchen that night. Apologies. Anyways we went to bed pretty early to yet another chilly night in the desert. 

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The last morning didn’t feel quite as cold, but it could have been the thought of showers that afternoon warming us up. We ate breakfast and then crossed the river to read our epiphanies to each other in the sun, which had not quite hit our campsite yet. They were all incredible. Kate is such a mom. She was crying the whole time. We got out of camp nice and early and made good time along the trail. We went up, and up, and up. Of course, the views for the entire trip were breathtaking, but for some reason, they were extra spectacular on this day. We could see for miles around on all sides. There were needles sticking up touching the sky, cliffs dropping down to the ground, and cactuses covering every square inch of the mountains. As we got closer and closer to Canyon Lake, we started seeing more people just out for day hikes. We passed a group of elderly Canadians and Lulu whispered to me “we just flexed on them”. It’s no big deal. We’re faster than 75 year olds. We made our way down hill and finally ended up back where we started at Canyon Lake. DEB was a welcome sight. We all might be a little sore and blistered, but all in all this expedition was a success and one of the best ones yet. 

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Check out more photos from Winter 2019 Mountain Classroom here!

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