The Story of Orion
As told, and remembered by the Grand Poohbah Hisself
In Twelve Parts. . .
I am going to begin at the very beginning.
At a time when Orion was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. At a time when I had no idea I would spend the majority of my life in ‘The Great North Woods’, as my high school girlfriend’s father liked to call it, or ‘The Great NorthWet’, as Emily Johnston prefers to call it. A time when outdoor recreation meant Starcraft pop-up trailers and the word campground was spelled with a ‘K’ as far as my family was concerned --- as in Kampgrounds of America, aka KOA.
It was the early ‘70’s. I was in love with iconoclasm, progressive country and environmentalism. I was out-of-step with everyone who lived in north Texas. A high school classmate reminded me the other day that I would recycle my paper lunch sack until it was as limp as toilet tissue. I had begun questioning the twin Texas sacred cows of competition and football. If old enough, I would have voted for a Hispanic (a relative of Fidel Castro) for governor. My father campaigned for him, a sacrilege in the Republican fortress of Dallas.
The Vietnam War was winding down. Watergate was heating up. And disco, thanks to the BeeGees and John Travolta, was catching on.
I did not have a single clue where I would go to college or what I would study when I got there. I wasn’t even certain college appealed to me. Even though I was a member of the National Honor Society and a successful public school student, I sensed an ‘emptiness’ to my education.
‘Garbage in, garbage out’ was a popular expression of the time. (Had something to do with technological hunks of junk known as 'computers'.)
For some unknown reason, since I deplored mathematics, I applied and was accepted to the University of Santa Clara’s engineering program. In fact, I was offered an academic scholarship to study environmental engineering. I have a vague memory of wanting to work on the reclamation of strip mined lands. I distinctly remember the program stretching through five years with practically every single class predetermined --- all the electives were clustered toward the fifth and final year.
Despite my antipathy toward math and science, I felt I needed the scholarship in order to attend a college, so I awaited my enrollment like a prisoner awaits his execution. I have no idea what I was thinking. It seemed the ‘thing to do’.
Out of the blue, my father, a Presbyterian minister with a nationwide audience through his weekly column in the Presbytery’s national magazine, came to me with an alternative proposal. Perhaps he had noticed my lack of excitement. Perhaps he saw something in me that I hadn’t plumbed. Perhaps he played a hunch. Maybe he hoped to live through me vicariously.
In any case, he told me about a small liberal arts college in northern Arizona called Prescott College. A reader of his from Arkansas had mailed a letter and a National Geographic article featuring Prescott and its unusual curriculum, educational style and freshman orientation. This reader told my dad that she thought his youngest son, whom she had read so much about in his weekly essays, might enjoy this sort of education. (I don’t know the name of this ‘angel’, but in hindsight, I send a much-belated and deeply heartfelt thank-you.)
When my father suggested I consider Prescott College, and that he would foot the bill, at least for the first year, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. If nothing else, I could postpone deciding my future for another couple of years while I explored alternatives at Prescott. Those of you who know me well, know I do not tend toward excitability. So it won’t surprise you that my father was more excited about Prescott than I was, and what excited him the most was the orientation program for all freshmen and transfer students.
Prescott’s wilderness orientation program, following a week’s worth of matriculation, was a thirty-day sojourn somewhere in the wilds of Southwest. The incoming students were divided into several groups of ten and then trucked to Baja to sea-kayak, the Manti La Sal mountain range to trudge about in the snow, the Grand Canyon to hike or to the Green River in Utah to raft. Each group was joined by several other students with outdoor recreation experience and one faculty member.
As it turns out, and quite by accident, I was shipped off to Moab, Utah, for my very first experience whitewater rafting.
I was eighteen. I had never camped without running water. I had certainly never camped without a physical structure over my head. I had never been on a river with whitewater and, the concept of controlling a boat in cataracts (for we were rafting down the Green River to and through the Colorado River’s Cataract Canyon), was incomprehensible to me.
I don’t remember physically shaking in my boots. But I do remember being infinitely relieved I wasn’t in a lecture hall with a couple of hundred other students listening to a professor drone on about trigonometry equations and the importance of slide rules.