"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path."
~ Gautama Buddha
Truman is a kid who sets his hopes high and feels passionately about everything he does. Before leaving for a week of outdoor education at Walker Creek, he ranked his expectations of the adventure as “up there with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Christmas.” In a letter he sent home, he described his cabin arrangements, bunking with his best buddies, and the photos he had taken. He ended it, “I want to tell you how happy I am here.” I knew he’d love it at Walker Creek, but it still felt great reading that. And at the end of the week, I could not wait to throw my arms around Truman and hear all of his stories.
When I arrived early to pick him up, I had time to explore the bucolic setting. At first, I saw no children, just a family of deer watching the parents assemble, as parents must do every week, anxiously awaiting reunions with their happy campers. Then a group of kids slowly began gathering in the outdoor amphitheater. I scanned the crowd looking for Truman’s face, silently reminding myself for his sake not to make a showy scene of affection whenever I did spot him. A dad approached me and introduced himself as the father of a girl in Truman’s class. “We’re hearing a lot about Truman at home this year,” he told me with a smile. Ah, I’ll file away this girl’s name, and causally ask about her later, I thought. As we stood there watching a sea of excited parents and kids hugging and talking, we looked for our kids and swapped stories of the week with the “babies” of our families away. “We went out to eat a lot,” he confessed. So had we — every night! We laughed. And then I noticed that nearly every bench seat was filled, but still no Truman...until I turned my head and saw a familiar red jacket in the distance, running directly at me, waving and calling to me. And I forgot all my composure and ran toward my boy. With our arms still around each other, he said, “Mommy, I missed you SO MUCH — how’s Dilly?” Then he talked a mile a minute. “I got to try new and exciting foods I’ve never eaten before. Like tater tots!” How has he never had exciting tater tots, I wondered. He raved about the food. “The dining hall did smell really good, but our kitchen just has a special Mommy smell.” Even without tater tots, I thought.
Truman described his cabin group’s teamwork, and was particularly impressed with the group’s behavior toward a boy who is a wheelchair user. “I love how compassionate and understanding my friends are,” he said as he relayed tales of taking turns pushing his wheelchair and brainstorming ways to include everyone in every activity. Truman was struck by how such a wheelchair user must trust those who push him up and down steep hills. I agreed and thought about this for the rest of the day. As Truman took his seat for the closing ceremony, I noticed his rosy, sun-kissed cheeks. And had he actually grown an inch or two, or was it my imagination? Perhaps he was standing a bit taller.
The Walker Creek principal had explained in the opening ceremony that the week’s theme was “connection.” And now I noticed evidence of connection everywhere I looked. Kids had their arms around each other’s shoulders, talking excitedly to new friends that had met that week. Truman told me later that kids had bonded with each other and their cabin leaders, the naturalists who lead their outdoor adventures, and their teachers from home. The students stood and shared during the ceremony how they had been changed by their week. Many described a new-found connection to nature and to each other. They expressed gratitude for the week, for the food, and for help when they needed it. They talked about what they had learned, about nature, botany, and wild animals. One child said, “I learned I like poetry.” Thinking about his group’s day-long hike to the top of Walker Peak, Truman offered, “I learned I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.” Reflecting on his solo nature hike, he said, “I felt scared in a good way, and independent in a good way.”
And then the ceremony concluded with guitars and bongos and everyone singing the Bill Withers song Lean on Me. Glancing around at other adults nearby, I saw plenty of parents wiping tears, and was glad I wasn’t the only one. From my experience with Geneva’s Walker Creek adventure eight years earlier, I knew that this week changes lives. Geneva still calls her time at Walker Creek a highlight of her childhood. Kids learn to push themselves beyond limits, and out of comfort zones. Many hadn’t ever spent a day hiking or a night away from family until then. They discover strength and independence. And apparently tater tots.
I left the music off on our drive home, and my four boy passengers filled the space with tales of creeks and wet socks, deer and foxes, and girls peering into the boy cabin windows. They talked endlessly about the food, raving about its quality, “...and you could get seconds and thirds!” a boy yelled. My favorite cabin story: one (high school aged) cabin leader brought his ukulele, and softly played it each night at lights out as the kids fell asleep. The kids named him UkeDude.