Thirty days in the redrock country of Utah did not make me an outdoorsman. (Thirty five years hasn’t molded me into one either, for that matter.) In all honesty, I don’t recall learning very many ‘outdoor skills’. No survival skills, no map and compass skills, no river rescue skills. Since a majority of the river trip was a float trip, we barely learned how to steer the rafts.
It was a thirty day wilderness orientation trip with minimal structure. I remember a fair amount of hiking, as well as backpacking. We ate an enormous amount of peanut butter and jam on round crackers called ‘Bolton biscuits’ which was just one of the indestructible foods that we hauled down river in used military black bags referred to as ‘blags’. We also ate an enormous amount of tasteless granola and freeze dried dinners. We brought 5 pound bricks of cheese that we kept unrefrigerated for the entire time. The cheese blocks grew sweaty and greasy in the unremitting heat of the desert, but, remarkably, none of them grew moldy or had to be discarded.
We had three rafts and they were all paddled. The rafts were stuffed with thirteen people’s worth of gear. Two people shared one blag for their sleeping bags, ensolite foam pads, extra clothes and a second set of shoes which were, typically, boots for hiking. We carried no coolers. We had no tents. Our aluminum-framed backpacks were strapped to the rafts separately in one large awkward bundle.
As we paddled the silver-painted glorified military assault rafts, we sat amongst our gear which was spread throughout the raft from the bow to the stern. You may imagine that I learned knots from rigging gear every day, but until we reached the seventeen miles of whitewater below the confluence of the Green and the Colorado, we relied on gravity. The only knot I could tie in 1974, before the wilderness orientation and after the wilderness orientation, was the one I used to tie my shoelaces.
(And, everyone who watches me tie my shoes laughs because I do something back-asswards, but I can’t tell you today what it is. My mother taught me that bow-tie and I have no intention of relearning a more efficient method five decades hence.)
Two of the rafts we paddled were 15 feet long with large diameter tubes. The 15 foot model with the upturned snout was called a ‘Yampa’ after the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado. The smaller 13 footer was named for the Selway River in Idaho. Ironically, I have never paddled either of those rivers.
The rafts had been christened with names as well. The Selway was named ‘Guacamole’, perhaps because it was the craft most likely to be turned to mush in the whitewater of Cataract Canyon. The two Yampas were named ‘Merlin’ (I always presumed for the magician, but it might also have referred to the town near the Rogue River) and ‘Orion’, the company’s namesake raft and constellation.
Other than hiking and backpacking and eating ‘cardboard-flavored’ meals, the only other organized activity I remember --- not including the three-day solo at journey’s end --- was a rapell from a one hundred foot sandstone cliff somewhere in the bowels of The Maze. Somehow I was selected to go first. As I nervously hung over the cliff’s edge, my mind waging a battle between fear and humiliation, I remember Len Barron, the sociology professor who had accompanied our trip, leaning over the precipice and say in his East Coast accent through his brushy gray mustache, "You know, James, it’s perfectly permissible to smile."
Len would later say during the campfire evaluations that I should consider breaking the mold, dare to go out on a limb, commit to doing something out of the ordinary. I was not a risk-taker, and it was obvious. If I played my cards at all, I always played them close to the vest. Len challenged me to think outside of the box I created for myself.
(Of course, he also told one of the slightly uptight female students that she should get herself laid. Len’s candor and generalizing repelled most Prescott students. Indeed, only a couple of us selected him as an advisor.)
I ramble about the Prescott wilderness orientation because it was during that period I realized there was something about being outdoors with a group of people that energized and inspired me. I sat down in the mouth of Dark Canyon at the beginning of those seventy-two hours knowing I valued family and community, but I don’t think I understood or fully appreciated the extent I valued them because I had never been forced to confront my values and to mull them over endlessly.
My time in slickrock country during the fall of 1974 did not seal my career path. I did not receive an epiphany that said, "Go forth and found an adventure travel company and you will be forever satisfied with your existence". The whitewater of Cataract Canyon was sufficiently exhilarating but it did not convert me into a whitewater junkie. I did not pursue rafting or kayaking or hiking or rock-climbing immediately after my wilderness immersion.
What I learned in my wilderness sojourn with Prescott College was the value of community and a method by which communities can be formed, strengthened, reinvigorated and grown. Up until that time I had blithely wandered through my life cherishing my friendships, my family and viewing from afar my father and mother growing church communities throughout Texas, but not fully appreciating that I needed to maintain contact with the process of community-building or I would wither away.
This wasn’t fully clear at the end of my wilderness orientation either, but it was beginning to be a niggling irritant in the back of my mind. The sort of irritant that might just blossom into a pearl if given sufficient time.