How a good dream became a nightmare
Last week I described the first part of a dream. I used a thousand words, eight flowery phrases, and four picture-postcard descriptions to get a half-dozen sixth-grade kids to the base of Shrine Peak on an outdoor education trek. One stomachache and harsh weather forced most of the class to retreat somewhere before the thirteenth paragraph.Above, an imposing, 30-foot high, mile-long cornice guarded the summit ridge. A narrow rib of land bisecting it provided the solitary safe route up. As a heavy breeze began to blow, Highlands ski patroller Mike Tierney and good guy Tigey Eads led us upward. Swirling spindrift hinted that the wind might be getting motivated about work.On the ridge we made an assessment of the deteriorating conditions. “We’ll have to go like crazy,” I said.With collective assent, I took off at a furious pace. The skins on my skis held tight, allowing me to burst through fresh snowdrifts. The kids charged behind. No time passed and we were on the summit. In an instant, frozen perdition was unleashed. The gusts became a steady blow of between 30 and 40 miles per hour. The heftier cousins of the former gusts were hammering along in excess of the legal speed limit. A yell couldn’t be heard above the roar. Using hand signals, we took cover in a deep, nearby tree well.It was a whiteout! Our tracks from moments earlier were obliterated. I looked at Mike and Tigey. What words couldn’t convey, faces depicted: “We’ve got to get out of here, now!”Our strategy was simple: sprint from one tree well to the next down the ridge. Serious peril was not only lashing at us from above, but also looming to our left, the monstrous cornice now camouflaged. I stepped out from our shelter and braced myself against my poles. One of the girls following me was summarily slammed down under the gale. I helped her up, and we staggered to the next tree. My inclination was not to wait for the others; the clues for finding our way out were rapidly disappearing. Yet I knew better. Nine people separated on a miles long ridge, above timberline, in a raging blizzard was asking for more trouble than we already had. So we fought our way down the ridge together, slowly, one tree well to the next, picking kids up, scanning faces for frostbite, never losing sight of anyone for even a moment.As we got close to where we thought the notch in the cornice was, my stomach knotted. How would we find it? You couldn’t see your feet. I shouted into Mike’s face, “Watch me, closely!” I crept towards the cornice, stopping several times to let tremendous gusts howl past. Vertigo took control. I felt my stomach go and then my ski tips. I saw the crack and took a step back. The lip of the cornice gave way for 20 feet on each side of me. Did I hear or feel the rumble that followed?It was more than a literal break. I got a glimpse of the tumbling chunks. They smashed just 10 feet below. The cornice was lower here! We were near the rib that would be the accomplice to our escape. I hurried back with the news. At about that moment, the storm took a breath. At precisely that moment, Mike saw a small shrub that he had noticed clearing the cornice on the way up. From there we carefully located the gap and ushered ourselves through it to safety.And, as dreams often change course unexpectedly, so did this one. I found myself alone in what looked to be a courtroom.”That was bad, what happened today,” a gray-wigged man in a big-city suit boomed. “But, things are unpredictable out there; it’s part of the beauty,” I explained. “It was a freak storm, and we were prepared!””Oh, don’t worry,” he laughed derisively. “You’re not on trial. It’s the program. The whole outdoor education program is on trial. This doesn’t bode well, though. Endangering kids in some godforsaken mountain range when they could have been in the classroom reading books …” Then I got mad. “Now, you look here! You’re implying that outdoor education is a waste of time. It isn’t! There is an amazing world out there to discover. Today was just one tiny example. Those kids experienced something that few ever will. It’s life-changing! I guarantee that not one of them will wake up 30 years from now wondering blankly, ‘Is this all there is?’ Do you know why? Because they’ll know for certain that there’s more to learn and see in this great big world than anyone could in a million lifetimes! “These programs aren’t about encouraging kids to sacrifice a college education to live in the hills and bathe in streams. They’re launch pads for the imagination, jump-starts to ask questions. They break down barriers and push out boundaries. When a child comes back from a trip like this, just about anything is possible! “I’ll agree that books are important, but how can anyone fully appreciate them if they haven’t tested the world that gives root to their lessons? If more people had hiked the Canyonlands of Utah with their classmates, we’d produce more prose and less Prozac. If more kids studied the signs of living geology, I know there’d be less wasted time. I can’t help believing that if more of our leaders had spent a week of school each year climbing mountains, figuring out what it takes to work with others, and discovering who they are in places free of societal clutter, that the world would be a better place. “To really learn, you have to be inspired. These programs are inspirational!” “Ah, save your sentiments,” he snorted at me. “You’re too late. The jury, selected on a last-come first-served basis, is already deliberating. “Fear woke me, and I couldn’t chase the dream-turned-nightmare away. It seemed so real. Roger Marolt has experienced the Aspen public schools’ outdoor education programs as a student, assistant and parent. He can’t get enough. He’s fighting to save it at firstname.lastname@example.org
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For those of you who follow my monthly missives, and occasionally read between the lines, you may have noticed a trend toward a bit of cognitive dissonance and some internal conflict on my part.