…Outdoors Experiences

Have you participated in any outdoor activities recently? In the past decade or two, I had not spent more than a few days in more or less comfortable cabins in Pennsylvania or Northern Mexico. So, now that one of my sons has outgrown the children’s summer camp he used to attend, I thought it was a good idea to go hiking around the Appalachian Trail in one of the state parks in Virginia with other teenagers, some of their parents and a few expert guides. With 2,179 miles, this is one of the largest footpaths on Earth, touching fourteen states, from Georgia to Maine (http://www.appalachiantrail.org/).

Back in November, when I learned about this excursion, it sounded like a neat father-son activity that could strengthen our relationship, in addition to learning survival skills and meeting other like-minded individuals. I also thought that I should experience on my own flesh what I preach in the classroom: in my Organizational Behavior courses, I review the classical stages of group formation and tell my students that outdoor activities --such as the classical “rope courses”--can be powerful experiences for groups of individuals who need to work together. Maybe a similar experience could remind me of my teenage years, when some friends and I used to spend a weekend outdoors every now and then.

It all started quite well on Saturday, after driving for about eight hours, from NW Pennsylvania to the Western side of Virginia. We met in a camp center with a simple but comfortable house near a state park, where we received a general description of the week we were about to experience, and made sure that all participants had all the essential gear that would be needed during the week. Most participants got to know each other there and our guide split us according to the camping tents that we had available. We also assembled the tents we’d be using for the first time and learned the basics of camping ethics, including leaving as minimal a “footprint” as possible by properly disposing of garbage depending on its type. The teens swam in the nearby river, played cards and everyone got to know each other better, as we had come from at least four different states.

On Sunday, we moved to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we learned how to use portable saws, find the best wood for the fire, and properly use our pocket knives to sharpen sticks for cooking hot dogs, marshmallows, and similar delicacies appropriate for the occasion. It was particularly important to keep our tents as dry as possible, as the places we were about to travel are known for “drastic weather changes”!

And drastic changes we had! On Monday, we were able to take a good deal of sun, after walking –with camping gear, clothes and food for several days in our backs-- slightly less than six miles on the Appalachian Trail and some subsidiary trails. That very night, we had some rain after we had set up our tents, had a simple but delicious dinner and our organizer read a few paragraphs from a Western novel in front of our fire. I thought the rain could give us –particularly the younger trekkers-- an incentive to turn in earlier, instead of playing cards or chat the night away. It’s hard to believe how priorities --and energy levels-- vary so much with a little age difference!

“Yours Truly,” sitting on a rock near the Appalachian Trail after cleaning up a bit, Wednesday night of the excursion
Fast forward until Friday; we had gotten drenched most nights, walked about 24 miles, and not used a bathroom since Sunday morning (fortunately, we had found a creek on Wednesday and that night, in spite of the rain, we slept cleaner and more comfortably than most other days). We had also climbed to Mount Rogers, the highest peak in the state of Virginia. One half of our group who did not clean their dishes but left them out at night had their food raided by a half a dozen wild ponies, and most participants had had a blast. After we ate our first meal of the week in a restaurant, dried up our gear, and took showers, we realized how easy it is to take for granted the food, shelter, fresh water and even toilets that a large proportion of people in our world so sorely lack.

Reference mark at the top of Mount Rogers, indicating the highest point in the state of Virginia: 5729 feet (1746 m) above mean sea level
The next day, it was hard for young and old to say goodbye, after having spent almost a week together, at the expense of the elements and helping each other get wood, build fires, filter water, cook, clean up our gear, and admiring the beauty of creation. Email and other addresses were exchanged and new facebook friends were made. I can now more than imagine the strength of cohesiveness these activities may generate on people who work for a particular organization!

What do you think? Have you had similar experiences? Do you find outdoor activities inspiring, challenging, a waste of energy or else? I would love to read other points of view with respect to how organizations use these activities to improve their climate or environment (in the social or interpersonal sense). Please send me your comments via email to drolivaslujan_at_gmail.com or by posting a comment on my facebook profile. I look forward to hearing from you!

¡Hasta la próxima!