Gaining Perspective Through Experience: From Out Back to the Appalachian Trail
Jesse Ross '13, University of New Hampshire Class of 2017 (Environmental Engineering)
Every single day we look directly at opportunity and often neglect it due to the associated complications. Holderness School forces the recognition of opportunity and the most extreme instance is the Out Back experience. As an unofficial graduation requirement, Out Back (OB) is made inconvenient to avoid. The experience, while held over an 11-day period, becomes a lasting part of the individual. OB is not like cramming for the vocab section of a standardized test. Ability to apply fleeting vocabulary is not comparable to your ability to keep moving when burdened by freezing rain and 50lbs of gear. Each type of experience has its own justification for a junior in high school; however, OB is an opportunity to quantify traits that are seemingly unquantifiable: grit, mental endurance, adaptability, and humility. Following OB, students can say – with conviction – that they are, at the very least, 11 days of winter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire tough.
It is exciting to face an opportunity, commit to something that is unknown, where the only true promise is “You will learn something.” Two years after leaving Holderness I was searching for a similar checkpoint of self. In deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 5 months, I forced myself to acknowledge the opportunity for some life learning through adventure. It surely isn’t a UNH graduation requirement, but it became a personal expectation as soon as I truly considered the idea. Out Back was the longest amount of time I had previously lived in the woods. Therefore, the memories served as a solid reference that the long hike was possible and undoubtedly worthwhile. I passionately convinced my parents, friends, and academic advisor that taking a semester off half way through college to explore would only enhance the following years. The best advice I received prior to leaving for Georgia in March was not to waste time counting ounces in my pack but to focus on refining my mental approach. I developed an unshakable list of reasons why I was hiking and carried it with me for the roughest days. The words from Holderness that echoed in my mental preparation at the outset were applicable to OB and certainly the Appalachian Trail – Enjoy when you can, endure when you must.
That short collection of words is powerless if you do not constantly consider when enjoyment is possible and endurance is necessary. Before leaving to hike I changed my idea of success on the AT from reaching Katahdin to enjoying the experience. With that mindset, the areas of convergence with OB became clear; the time to enjoy overwhelmed the time to endure. Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, became just as arbitrary as the pick-up location on Out Back. The learning, difficulty, and laughter that culminate in the experience are not simply realized at the place you finish. I submit that long-term success should be synonymous with quality rather than a certain mileage achieved. I do not remember the number of miles hiked on OB because it honestly didn’t matter; it is about the exposure to life that happened before, after and throughout the miles. I doubt many students come off the bus at Holderness after OB and proclaim the statistics of their daily mileage before they share their hardships and moments of laughter. There is a lesson of quality undeniably part of Out Back.
Interestingly, after hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, the questions I am most commonly asked can be answered in numbers. How many miles did you average per day? 16. How many days did it take? 138. How much did your pack weigh? 25-35lbs. I could have projected these numbers before hiking the AT – I didn’t hike to find these numbers out.
Holderness doesn’t organize Out Back just to make students cold, smelly and tired. Adventure, whether on the AT or OB, puts people in difficult situations and consequentially yields incredible outcomes. These “outcomes” all-inclusively create perspective. Perspective is what makes the experience infinite. Perspective is what students apply in Weld 200 days after they are done with OB, when they thank the Dining Staff for preparing food. They know what it’s like to carry food around for 4 days before eating it. Perspective is hard earned, hard to define, and infinite.
There are surface similarities between OB and my 5-month hiking trip. Yes, I had to endure some cold nights and long days. I went 11 days without showering (many times), sweat, froze and slogged. I ate a lot of peanut butter and used a lot of Moleskin. Both trails have a beginning and end. It is the deeper parallels that define both experiences much more adequately. The laughing faces of the people fixed in memory, usually after the miles were done. The indescribable excitement felt when rejoining friends after long days alone. The ideas found in time spent reflecting on where you want to go instead of just reacting to life coming at you. Most importantly, the humility forced upon us by nature that makes us recognize a lack of self-sufficiency that allows for some of the most genuine human connection.
Every day we have the opportunity to learn. It is not conceivable to reach the extremes of OB or thru-hiking regularly, but it is manageable to uncover other people’s lessons and perspectives. Take time to ask people the questions that can’t be answered by a number. Ask for a friend’s reflection on a hardship. Ask a Holderness grad to share the funniest moment of their OB experience. Ask these questions to break the days when you are not on the interface of adventure yourself. Take the opportunity to let others inspire you through their earned perspective. Present the opportunity for an infinite experience, such as OB or the AT, to resurface and come alive again.
Out Back has been around since 1969 and has evolved into our most powerful expression of our philosophy of simultaneous challenge and support as the core components of leadership training. It fuses Holderness School’s love of the outdoors, commitment to experiential learning, and core values of curiosity, character, and community into an unforgettable wilderness challenge (www.holderness.org/out-back).
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