Britta Gustafson: Outdoor education is our gift to the next generation

Backcountry trips are a ceremonial rite of passage for Aspen students

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Like the ceremonial rite of passage from ancient civilizations and worldwide throughout various cultures, solitary time spent in nature — hungry and alone — ignites a deep connection from within to the vast outer world.

I can still hear the sound of my footsteps crunching on the pine needles as a 13-year-old walking to my much-anticipated eighth grade outdoor education solo site. My teacher pointed out my boundaries and then quietly disappeared into the forest, leaving me alone on the mountainside for the next 24 hours.

For the first time in my life, I was all alone.

Once my human instincts to survey, stake claim or manipulate the natural environment had subsided, I began to explore the sensory experience. At first I listened hard for the sounds of others, only to become aware of how much the silencing of human life provided an opening to the sounds of nature. Before long, that space between mind and body became more distinct.

Early on, hunger began to initiate a fundamental focus, perhaps because I knew I would not be eating for the next 24 hours. But the pangs of an empty stomach amplified my senses. I can still recall the dewy pine scent and that smell of the Rocky Mountain dirt. And as the day continued, the passage of time became more gentle. Without a watch or any way to wonder or worry about human time constraints, I slowly found myself aware only of biorhythms and sun-cast shadows.

The day seemed endless, and yet the loneliness subsided into a feeling of liberation. I was the decision maker, the survivor; reflecting on my impact on the space and diminutive and insignificant — almost trivial — I was in this vast wilderness.

As the shadows stretched into late afternoon, hunger was real and the night seemed to loom. But as the sunset emitted vibrant streaks of evening light through the pine trees, the hunger subsided and a dreamy presence of mind took hold.

I had imagined the night would be met with unwanted fears or anxiety, something I would have to brave through. But when the stars came out overhead, I felt connected and cradled. I was not afraid but rather supported by the space which I had come to know so well in all those hours. One with the universe.

Alone in the wild, even today, I reflect on how I had imagined battling fear and loneliness during that night, only to discover inner strengths and true identity emerge feeling empowered and self-reliant. You really “go into yourself,” as one of my classmates put it. And it does seem true that often when we are alone in nature we find our true inner peace.

From the early elementary years in the Aspen schools, students are aware that they will one day embark upon that eighth grade outdoor ed journey. The grueling backpacking trip through challenging Colorado weather and over backcountry passes pushes students to their limits. And, to top off the initiation into maturation for any budding teenager, that 24-hour solo in the woods is transformative.

Left alone, devoid of technological stimuli and cultural responsibilities (with not even a book to pass the time) students have the opportunity to experience real self awareness at an age when it is vital. It’s a pivotal cultural experience and a ceremonial rite of passage for kids in our community.

Given the time and natural space for self-reflection at a young age, we often begin contemplation on the sacred and deeper meaning of life. And the inauguration into adulthood that takes place up in the mountains during those 24 hours often ends up enriching the core values of every teen who experiences it.

When I reflect upon what it was like growing up within the Aspen public school system, my most developed memories, those that I can see, smell and still feel in my core, were gained on our annual outdoor ed trips: rafting, snowshoeing the Tetons, horseback riding through canyonlands and many more.

And when I connect with other Aspen school alumni, those powerful memories provide an instant bond, an experience that has helped shape who we have become.

Those experiences promote a connection to our world and to one another that lasts a lifetime, encouraging teamwork and offering solitary reflection and spirituality.

If we want to return to normal in any sense of the word, returning to that fundamental belief system that nature can be the greatest guide should remain at the crux of our school system. Our outdoor education is without question one of the greatest gifts this school system has to offer each new generation.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


See more