“So I have to get better at the boring things?”
“Yes. You have to get better at the boring things: being on time, picking up your trash, and making sure all of your gear is inside the tent or your backpack before you go to sleep each night.”
So went my check-in with one of my students on the backpacking course I co-lead this summer out in Wyoming. He was a precocious 14-year-old—with a wry sense of humor. He was tall and strong and could run up a mountain with more ease and grace than I could. He had perfected back country baking (no easy task), and he was already adept at reading topographical maps. Additionally, he was a charismatic leader (if controversial at times). But he was categorically unskillful at the “boring things” (his label). Of course, being on time and picking up after yourself are rarely a teenager’s priorities. And objectively, they are fairly boring tasks—cleaning up spilled macaroni doesn’t really supply the adrenalin rush of summiting a peak. But these lessons…these unsexy, every day, boring lessons…were, in my mind, the most important lessons he, and all of the other students on the course, were getting to learn.
In our final week of our month-long backcountry trip, we were moving towards greater student independence. As such students were responsible for planning the next day’s route and navigating and traveling on their own through the mountain terrain. The evening prior to one such independent travel day, I reviewed the map with the student leaders, fielding their questions and making sure they picked a thoughtful route and next campsite. We were at one of those annoying junctures where our travel had us moving through the corners of four different maps. In order to more easily read the maps we had origami-ed them together, and laid them out on the ground in our "kitchen" area of camp. The map review went smoothly. The next morning however, after a night of hard rain, we woke up to find that the carefully connected map sets had not made it into a tent overnight, and were a pile of paper pulp.
In the backcountry, there is no quick fix for lost or damaged gear. Some fixes you can MacGyver with tools in your repair kit and some ingenuity, and other things (like pulpy maps) you can’t. And this reality, is actually a great lesson in the truth of the natural world. In privileged, modern day America bumping up against resource limits is a rarity. The closest most of us in this sector of society come to limits is an “out of stock” notice under an item we want on Amazon. But “out of stock” is just a temporary condition. There is no larger sense that someday in the not too distant future we are going to be “out of stock” of some of natural resources that really matter: like fossil fuels and fresh drinking water, for instance. And the party line is, “Don't worry, by that time we’ll have the technology to fix the problem,” but I think that’s a fairly risky and myopic insurance policy, and one that I personally have never had full faith in.
That morning of the wet and pulpy maps we didn’t end up leaving camp until 3pm. Students ended up sharing the one dry map set and traveling as one large group (which isn’t ideal for Leave No Trace wilderness ethics). The morning languished in camp was slow and tedious. A resource issue quickly evolved into interpersonal group issues—a common progression. And by the time the practical logistics had been sorted out, the group had descended into a funk the color of blame and frustration, which necessitated a group meeting.
Blame is such a classic response to frustration. Blaming someone else, blaming yourself, blaming the world. And while blame might feel momentarily cathartic, it’s efficacy as a response is fairly short lived and unhelpful, because at the end of the blame game, you still have a soggy pile of maps to deal with.
A backpacking course is a fairly ideal research lab to really understand the value of the boring things. To realize that the small actions you do or don’t take can have large consequences, not just on your own life, but on the lives of everyone around you. So many of us are isolated from this reality in our daily lives because the consequences of our choices are veiled by distance and time.
I love standing with my students on the summit of a mountain, or watching them reel in their first brook trout, but the longer I work in the backcountry the more I love the mornings where it is rainy and messy and the oatmeal is burned and stuck to the bottom of the pot and the maps are a pile of pulp. Because these sticky moments are so ripe for learning. Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh famously says: “No mud, No lotus.” This wisdom is far more accessible when you are witnessing your students in their permutation of mud, knowing that a lotus awaits on the other side of their struggle. Keeping that faith when you are in your personal mud pit is of course harder.
My “mud” this summer was waiting for me on the backside of my wilderness course. More and more, coming in from the wild is far harder than staying out. But I’ve been out of the woods for a month now, and the mud is starting to clear, reminding me that good people and good work are not geographically bound…that a lotus flower I can’t yet imagine is emerging. In the thick of the mud it is hard to appreciate the boring, the hard, the sad, and the frustrating things. But eventually, sometimes years (or lifetimes) later, the fragments come together in a way that finally makes sense and is quite beautiful.