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The Story of Orion - Part 3

Sometime during my first collegiate year, Prescott College, mired in financial hot water, lost its academic accreditation. Significantly, the staff of twenty-four professors, despite being booted off their remote, wilderness-like campus, and in spite of a loss of accreditation, chose to conduct their seminars and classes right out of their homes.

I returned to Prescott after Christmas break, and though I admired the professors’ temerity, I did not return to take classes. I couldn't see spending perfectly good money on an education that wouldn't transfer to any other university program. I spent the winter and spring of 1975 umpiring volleyball games, trying to commit suicide by instructing myself in skiing techniques like negotiating moguls (the knee-pounding humps, not the rich fat cats), and hiking in the Grand Canyon with my Prescott College friends.

I researched alternative colleges throughout the Midwest and West --- Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio(!), Colorado College, Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri(!!), Jordan College in Minnesota(!!?) and the University of Santa Cruz in California. But, in a sudden schizophrenic direction change, I opted to enroll at the University of Texas’ Honors College --- theoretically, a college within a college --- 200 undergraduate students selected out of an enrollment of 50,000. But the main attraction for me to attend the University of Texas was the reunion with my high school friends and the proximity of three siblings --- my two brothers and a sister.

Though I was enrolled in the Honors College for Liberal Arts, all that I remember from the entirety of those two semesters, was playing intramural sports. My brothers and I, along with my high school buddies, organized teams for everything --- football, coed football, basketball, coed basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, badminton and racquetball. Looking back, I have no idea how I found time to study. Perhaps I didn’t. I mean, we played sports and organized pickup games, even when we were not involved in our intramural games.

But the ‘outdoor bug’ had bit me. The trouble was that Texas didn’t feel like it had an ‘outdoors’.

There was, however, one notable exception.

It was during my University of Texas stint when my brother-in-law, Ed, hired a kayaking instructor who guided Ed, my brother, Mike, my father and I on a three-day whitewater kayaking trip on the Guadalupe River outside of Austin, Texas. He tried futilely to teach us to kayak from scratch. Teaching a mule to bake cornbread from scratch would have been easier. At least, the mule would have been less stubborn and would surely have bellyached less.

I think you can describe our experience as ‘fun’, but we spent most of our time swimming to shore with kayak in tow, or refusing to make any maneuver that might jeopardize our upright, above water, natural air-breathing position. I distinctly remember being exhausted from doing the one-armed crawl-stroke in my stone-washed denims.

None of us reminisce about our kayaking adventure, without recalling our physical exhaustion, Mike’s ability to avoid turning over (which either stemmed from his low center of gravity or a well-honed sense of survival) and our incredulity that Dad managed to clamber out of his sleeping bag on that first morning following a day of ingesting water and dragging his ass back to shore. But, clamber he did. And he kayaked with us two out of the three days. On the third morning he wised up and ran the shuttle.

Afterward, I invested a fair amount of time perfecting my roll in a swimming pool, but it was a few years before I ventured onto moving water in a kayak again. Of course, for a Texas boy, the ice baths of the rivers in the Northwest were never as enticing as the bath tub water of the Southwest.

The whole time in Texas I dreamed and schemed of returning to the West. I imagined a program and a university degree entitled ‘Wilderness Education and Counseling Psychology’. I had visions of a life of therapeutic outdoor recreation. In fact, Boston College offered a program along those lines, but Massachusetts was a long way from my ideal setting.

My Dad rode to the rescue again. An old friend of his was the Dean of Recreation at San Francisco State. Dad suggested I pick his brain in regards to wilderness recreation programs in the West. I phoned him and got his list of recommendations.

San Francisco State topped his list, of course, but he also plugged the University of Oregon and Western Washington State College. My best friend from Prescott, Bob Ratcliffe, tried steering me toward Evergreen State College in Olympia where we could create our own program and wouldn’t have to deal with grades and a traditional education.

I met Bob during my wilderness orientation and admired his outdoor savvy which was light-years beyond mine, but I was impatient to be finished with public schooling. The small taste of freedom that accompanied the unexpected turn-of-events at Prescott primed me to get on with joining the ‘workforce’. The thought of attending a school, which required critical thinking in order to emerge with a degree, seemed overwhelming and daunting. I wanted a ticket out of school.

In the end, I selected Western because the Recreation program included an emphasis on outdoor recreation, their classes were bunched together in what they called ‘phases’ --- similar to Prescott’s intensive one or two subjects at a time in month-long ‘blocks’ --- the campus was lovely with red brick paths and towering evergreens and, as a bonus, the wilderness reaches of western Canada were a mere hop, skip and a jump away.

I toiled through the scalding hot and blistering dry Dallas summer laboring as a nursery worker unloading semi-truck loads of fresh, chlorophyll-laden plants imported from British Columbia. Each time I climbed on board to start the unloading process, I would take a deep breath and the lure of the verdant Northwest grew more and more irresistible.

It was September of 1976. With just a week to go before classes were in session, I packed every possession possible into my 1972 pastel-blue Ford Pinto, the interior crammed full except for the driver’s seat, and set out on the interstate for one of the farthest corners of the lower 48 states --- a sleepy little burg at the end of the interstate called Bellingham.

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