October 11, 2000

On the Campus

Bonding over blisters and bruises
Outdoor Action teaches survival skills and more

By Emily Johnson '01

It's all about the hard-core points. Courtney eats a cricket. Points. Maya swallows her toothpaste. Points. Becca licks her bowl clean instead of using water. Points. Stephanie hikes five miles with blistered feet and zero complaining. Points.

As a first-time Outdoor Action leader, I saw my 11 frosh, most of whom had never spent more than a day in the woods, eat spilled rice grains one-by-one out of the dirt, store used toilet paper in small plastic bags, deal with sharp (I mean SHARP) body odors, and cheerfully gorge themselves on tattered pita bread for six days of hiking on the Laurel Highlands Trail of western Pennsylvania. What a way to begin the year.

But as they learned from my co-leader, Kit, and me how to make a tent out of tarp and rope, use a camp stove, and to leave no trace of their passage through the semi-pristine woods, we learned from them. Take Cullen, who never spent more than a few months in the U.S. because his parents were in the foreign service. The last four years, he tirelessly explains, he spent in Cairo. "Yes, it was hot. Yes, the pyramids were right nearby. Yes, our Middle East history course had Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians. Yes, the debate over Israel got pretty heated."

Rachael, three-quarters native American and with wondrous waist-length black hair to prove it, spent a lot of her life on the Cheyenne reservation. "No," she says. "There was no Native American history taught in school. I learned it all around the kitchen table." Courtney spent her summers in Kazakhstan, the rest of her time at the Madeira School in D.C. She was the savior of backs sore from 50-pound packs. "You trade a lot of massages in boarding school," she says. "And you grow up a lot." John's father immigrated from Croatia at age 20, learned English and the electronics trade, and started his own, very successful business so that his children could attend a school like Princeton.

The Outdoor Action program has been around for 26 years. Every year about 60 percent of freshmen go hiking, canoeing, or rock climbing for six days with a group of people they've never met. The trips can involve miles of uphill, heavy packs, and bruised hips, but absolutely no prior experience is necessary. One purpose of the trip is to introduce Princeton students to the outdoors. The other is to introduce them to Princeton, letting them make friends before classes start, ask questions, and get ready for the next four years. I've already been at Princeton for three, and for me this trip was still amazing. The depth and breadth of knowledge, perception, and sheer awareness of this group of 18-year-olds bode well for the university. We had two saxophone players, 10 varsity athletes, and, not to sound cheesy, 11 seekers of the world.

It wasn't all seriousness, though. Two of our number, who shall remain nameless in case their mothers read this, took time out on a pedestrian bridge to moon the passing truckers. I never laughed so hard as I did around Brian, who introduced himself with the true story of riding a lawn mower to his senior prom.

The first day of the trip I taught knots: bowline, square, trucker's hitch. A day later, Pete, New York tough-guy exterior, sweetheart smile, came up with a new bowline method and proceeded to assist the rest of the group with using the knot on their packs. Rachael and Katie invented an improved tarp setup scheme. Ross concocted enough pita recipes to fill an OA cookbook and then ate most of his own work. Brian's campfires went from a depressing 20-second twig flare-up to all-out scorchers.

At the end of the trip, Kit and I asked the group who would feel comfortable going camping on his or her own. Every single person raised a hand. We asked Katie, who frankly admitted her preference for a bed, toilet, and shower, and who distributed facial cleansing wipes every morning, if she would do another trip like this. "Sure," she said. "I had a great time."

These 11 freshmen, neophytic woodspeople all, came to OA with a cluelessness and an eagerness like a contagion. I and all my hard-core points were blown away.

Senior Emily Johnson (edj@princeton.edu) picked up only soft-core points during her semester in Scotland last year.

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