Last week I had the opportunity to join up with other Veterans on an Outward Bound course in North Carolina. Outward Bound, if you are unaware of this amazing program, is a “non-profit educational organization and expedition school that serves people of all ages and backgrounds through active learning experiences and expeditions” (http://www.outwardbound.org/about-outward-bound/). Normally there is a cost for anyone wanting to try one of their programs, but for Veterans it is absolutely free! My sister, also a Vet, went on a sailing trip in Maine a few years ago when she separated from the Air Force, and when I told her I was struggling with my separation, twiddling my thumbs and not knowing what to do, she immediately sent me to their website and told me to sign up for a course. If for nothing else, a reason to get outside, be active and maybe figure out what I want to do with my life without the outside world telling me what is best. I had 3 months to get ready once I had applied and was accepted to the 6-Day North Carolina Backpacking and Rock Climbing Course. After following my packing list (which was by far the least amount of clothes I had ever packed on a 6 day trip before), I hopped on the plane Sunday morning for Charlotte, NC where I would meet my fellow “teammates” and instructors, Jason and John. When I received my bags in Charlotte, I walked aimlessly, nervously looking, expecting to see a wilderness looking man with a big sign that read “OUTWARD BOUND”, but the only wilderness looking people I saw were 3 guys with military buzzcuts, hiking pants and boots, and a bag the size of mine…bingo! Hi, are you guys with Outward Bound? “Yep, did the haircut give it away?” My teammates and I sat there making small talk as we waited and watched new members arrive and anxiously waited for our instructor. By the time our Instructor, John, arrived we had all been acquainted: Aaron, Medic in the Air Force Reserves; Eric, Army Medic Retired and now a Chemistry student; John, Active Duty Navy ER Doc; Ed – Active Duty Navy Medic; Chris – Active Duty Army Nurse; Bruce – Army Cop from Boston but now a Las Vegas Cop; and Kerri – Prior Air Force Load Master
John, our instructor piled us up in the van for the 2 hour drive to base camp in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. More small talk continued as we made our way closer and then we finally turned onto the 9 mile long gravel road up the mountain to the Outward Bound Base Camp area. The van fell silent as the beauty of the trees swallowed us along the windy road of 40 shades of green and beautiful mountain scenery. Our journey was beginning; we would soon say goodbye to our cell phones and the crazy world we had decided to leave behind for a week. When we arrived at the camp it was rainy and getting dark so the plan was to get our gear packed and sleep at the camp, then start our trek into the Linville River Gorge in the AM. Outward Bound supplies all the necessary gear for you, except clothes/shoes (personal things). We all had a backpack, sleeping bag, bowl, spoon, water bottles, plastic mug and compass/whistle set up and ready for us to add our personal gear to. Then there was group gear – tarps, ropes, bear hang pulleys, cooking supplies, and food for the week, all to be spread out equally among our team. After we had all of our gear prepared we met up to cook dinner, immediately put into a team setting and working together to cook, clean and build a fire. This process continued for the week and each night we got better and better at it. This was, by far, my favorite part of the day, as much as we would talk during the day, the evening meetings were where we really got to know each other and each person was able to open up. PTSD is a major reason why veteran’s come to this program, and we all had our own personal reasons for signing up (can’t relax, just got back from a deployment, family, work is bad, life needs direction…), some more emotional then others, but overall you really got a feel for why we all put the world behind us and as I sat there to think about my “Why”, it had originally been to get my life back on track post Air Force and discover my inner adventurer again, but I looked back at the last couple weeks since Boston and realized, I was there for not only to get my life back on track, but because I had closed up, I was tired of telling people I was OK, I was tired of people asking my opinion on what I thought of the whole situation and didn’t want to talk about it. Not to sound ungrateful, I was very grateful for the overwhelming love by friends and family and strangers, but just unsure how to react. I was grateful that this program was so close to our local Boston Terrorist attack (not something I would ever hope for but glad). To my surprise, I needed this break more than I had thought.
The next morning (Monday), we set out for a high ropes course where it really got us working together and learning each others names and fears much better, our team was a well meshed team within 24 hours. After a morning of high ropes we were piled in the van and set out for an hour drive to the trail head where we would set up camp, learning new knots to tie a tarp up, how to make a proper bear hang (can’t let the bears get the food), how to properly filter water from the stream and make dinner. That night was when Kerri (the only other female) and I had connected and properly sealed our friendship by flicking spiders at each other when they crawled into our sleeping bags at night. As excited as we were about how light weight our tarps in place of tents were, we decided maybe just a tarp isn’t our style and the idea of a closed tent would give us a less eery sleeping environment. BUT, we were here now and no turning back – a tarp will at least keep us “dry” and maybe provide us with unintentional protein through the night 🙂
The week continued in this pattern – starting with a long downhill to the Linville River Gorge then going north where we would find a bridge 2 days later and cross the river for a long uphill out of the river canyon to get to the top of Table Rock Mountain. Wednesday we arrived on the top of Table Rock and had agreed that we would all sleep on the Attic Window, a very cool cliff side cave where it would comfortably fit the 10 of us. It was a bit misty and thought it might clear up, so we set up one tarp for 4 people and the others would sleep in the cave. The view when we set up was absolutely stunning, overlooking the Gorge and beautiful green mountains surrounding us. After convincing one the members, Bruce, to stay up on the cliff as opposed to going down the mountain to a real campground, for the opportunity to wake up to a view like that, we stayed. Halfway through the night, Bruce, in his thick Boston accent as the rain continued to pour and puddle up said “opportunity, huh Sarah?” Yep, opportunity! How many people can say they slept on a cliff edge in the pouring rain and in puddles of water? He laughed it off and ultimately our view sitting in a very wet cloud was not the view we had anticipated. Thursday morning we hiked to meet our Rock Climbing Instructor, Keith, and even as the rain continued we decided we would stick together and rock climb/rappel. Rappelling was great! Rock Climbing….well let’s just say it was a little more than wet and cold and not the easiest of tasks. None the less, it was fun.
As the afternoon of climbing came to a close, we took the mile(ish) hike back to base camp where we helped clean up and do some “service” for the staff. In turn, the Outward Bound staff set up a nice dinner for us and we prepped for our last night of camping and reminiscing in the woods, preparing our minds to head back to the real world and what we plan to bring home with us.
In 6 days can you change? Can you decide that what you felt and gave to the trust of nature be held in the hands of the not so trusting society? Only those 8 members that went out into nature can make that decision and look at this experience as an opportunity (wet rainy cloud cover or not). An opportunity to change, to give back, and to decide that life is worth living, especially when you know that other people are in the same situation. Someone, an anonymous donor, gave a lot of money to the Outward Bound Veteran’s Program. Someone with a large heart decided that they could use their large wallet to help our veterans get through the hardship of post war or transition into the lives of civilians. The discussions (which I don’t intend to tell any one’s stories due to their personal hardships) that were held around that fire, filled with hatred, love, and hurt, were supported by strangers who were feeling the same things. Most veteran’s don’t want to go to “Mental Health” and talk to a military Psychologists, it may be embarrassing or awkward and in the small world of the base, everyone knows or maybe it’s just not your style to sit in a office and express your feelings on a laid out couch while someone writes notes of your life. Outward Bound is able to offer a different type of therapy. Something that you can look back on and not only say “I needed that time with nature to reflect”, but “this was the opportunity of a lifetime” and exactly what I needed in my life. That brief life pause was…perfect.
Thank you to my team for listening and helping, hugging when we needed a hug, not talking when we just needed a moment of silence and just plain old being awesome. Thank you to John and Jason, our instructors, for taking us into the woods, teaching us new skills, and being the most compassionate and patient people I think I have ever met, and Thank you North Carolina Outward Bound and the Veteran’s Program donors for this Opportunity.