Kristin Thorneloe column: A twenty-two day trek through the Blue Ridge Mountains

Kristin Thorneloe • Sep 8, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Editor’s note: Kristin Thorneloe, a Dobyns-Bennett High School senior, is spending time in the Times News newsroom this semester as part of a work-based learning program. She will be taking photographs for the newspaper and writing occasional columns and stories.

No contact with the outside world, no showers, and, most notably for me, no music for 22 days. This was what I was told to expect when signing up for a backpacking, rock climbing, and whitewater canoeing Outward Bound trip in the Pisgah National Forest.

Eleven other teenagers joined me at the Asheville Airport, the starting point for our trip. As I looked around at my fellow backpacking buddies, I realized that these would be some of the only faces I would see for quite some time. Soon, our instructor, who went by the name KK, announced to the group to send our final texts and selfies, because soon we would be heading out to the woods, with no cell phone service to be found.

Over the next few days, we 12 kids, most not having camped for more than a few days before setting off on this trip, learned how to survive in the mountains. We were taught, and later expected to do by ourselves, things like pitching our tarps (the shelters we slept in that we hung between two trees), hanging the bear hang (a rope hung up on a large tree that would hold our food for the night, away from greedy bear paws), and filtering clean water (a very difficult task for something we seem to take for granted in the developed world). In between learning these very important survival skills, we got to know each other, without doing it via text and emojis.

This was my favorite part of the trip. I learned people’s stories from all over; one from San Fransisco, another from the country Colombia, and everywhere else in between. All with different perspectives on the world. Nights by the fire were filled with stories from each other’s past, everyone enraptured by each others lives. However, we learned that even though we did have these different backgrounds, at the end of the day we were all just teenagers looking for our place in the world, which is something we worked on every day through group leadership activities. These activities were sometimes very difficult, but they helped us break down the barriers of not knowing each other the first few days. One in particular that still burns in my mind is when we were told, all 12 of us, to get on a 6 and a half by 4 foot tarp and flip it without one of us touching the ground. This resulted in many failed tries and a couple of raised voices, but by the end, (only 30 minutes later) we were working together almost seamlessly.

The ability to disconnect from our phones and be in the moment with valuable conversation was another aspect of our experience. With this decade has come an influx of the fascination with the tiny little boxes that our lives seem to be so heavily entwined with. This part of life was not present in the 22 days that we were in the woods. No news of what was happening in the real world reached us, and in a way it was freeing. For all we knew the cure for cancer could have been found or the world could have broken out into war, but that wasn’t our problem. We were just simply trying to survive and thrive in the woods, our biggest issues being if we were going to take the right turn on the trail or if we could stand one more bug bite without putting our hot bug layer on. (I would learn that in a fight between the amount of bug bites and the uncomfortableness of the heat, heat would always be the lesser of two evils.)

When I got back to real life, and the cellular data turned on, the world inside my phone came as quite a startle to me. Things like posting pictures and likes and comments that were so important to me no longer held the weight that they did prior. Even now, several months after my trip, it seems that the importance of social media has decreased for me and the importance of the real world has increased. This slight distraction diminish has helped me focus on real, substantial productivity in school and in life, which I believe is a direct benefit of Outward Bound.

The absence of outside influence and constant entertainment allowed me to do things that I’ve never done before. Sitting and thinking became a very large part of what I would do in my free time between hikes. In fact, we had a whole 48 hour period where we were dumped in the middle of the woods, without a soul in sight. This time was called “solo.” We had our own individual tarps and were checked upon twice a day, but other than that, no human interaction was present (although I did have multiple interactions with a frog). While intimidating at first, looking back at it I am very grateful for this time. I got to be alone with my thoughts and have the opportunity to write them down. I got to think about how I’ve changed as a person since I arrived and how I can continue to make improvements on my character from that point forward. Now, reading what I had written during that time, I also seemed to be very unhappy about the constant and ongoing downpour that happened during solo. Which is understandable.

By the end of the trip, we had all formed into a family, one that I believe will not fade with the distance that would soon be put between us. As the date to drive back to the airport approached, our instructors urged us to not take for granted the last few days we would have together as a group. Yes, we were tired of constantly being around each other, and even worse, smelling each other, but we knew that these last few days were the most valuable, and looking back I believe they were the best. We had worked together to climb steep cliff faces, to paddle through rapids, and to hike probably around 50 miles. What we had done was an accomplishment, and we knew we could not have done it without the other people on our team. The bonds that we had made with each other were unlike any that we had ever experienced before. I will forever be grateful for this experience and the people who made the trip worth it.