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Psyche, back to work

—Evan Belknap

After four months of fun-employment—seeking out warm rocks to climb on and, otherwise, watching my chickens peck about the yard—that multicolored block of work trips on my calendar has finally arrived.

It started last weekend, facilitating climbing adventures for the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). They contract on with the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, my employer. The WWP has had a lot of bad press lately, alleged misappropriation of funds and whatnot. It seems to me that the negative attention primarily hurts the people the project was designed to help—donors drop out, and all the good stuff that the nonprofit does gets harder to do.

Regardless, it didn’t stop us from taking them out climbing. Seven men and women arrived—normal, kind, local people. Three of my coworkers and I loaded up everyone in a van, and we drove up to Las Conchas, a climbing area by the Jemez River in the Jemez Mountains. The Regional Events Coordinator of the WWP had never been to the Jemez Mountains (being from Phoenix) and everyone enjoyed her awe at those chalky pink cliffs that emerge out of nowhere, and the snaking cottonwood-lined river glittering in the sunlight. “I didn’t expect this,” she said. The others compared fishing notes and told epic stories and, soon enough, we arrived.

I rigged ropes on the nearby cliffs as my associates Paul and Kobe did some icebreaker games and fitted people into climbing shoes and harnesses. Then we got everyone climbing—most for the first time in their lives. Some of the warriors had physical injuries, others emotional, but nothing that kept them from climbing.

It might sound odd, but I love these days of belaying. It might seem simple to get someone on a rope and 25 feet up a wall, but it’s not; its complicated, and revealing, and intimate. Many of these men and women expressed that they had a hard time trusting people, especially with their lives (as in, someone holding the rope that keeps them safe, or watching their back on a battlefield). It’s a delicate thing, asking someone to trust you to keep them safe, and then launching them into unknown territory.

I am all too fascinated by it, watching people take that first step onto the rock; you can see who a person is in that second. You get to see how people deal with fear and exhilaration and challenge, how they move and react, and all of it tells a story about who they are and what they have been through.

For a few hours, we climbed in the sun, lay in the grass, ate sandwiches, and talked, and it was a good day. People tried hard and surpassed what they believed they could accomplish. Back in Albuquerque, we shook hands and a couple people promised to come back the next day for more—and they did.

A few days later, I had a minivan full of ninth graders from Albuquerque Academy and was driving south to the Apache Kid Wilderness. I learned, as a captive audience, all about who was cool and who was, definitely, not, and you wouldn’t believe who had a crush on who, and about how old their teacher Mrs. Blank might possibly be.

The Apache Kid wilderness, in the Cibola National Forest, is about an hour south of Socorro. It’s rugged, divided by narrow canyons and several ten-thousand-plus foot peaks. We hiked up into dense aspen, fir, spruce, and pine trees with a surprisingly minimal amount of complaining. After about five miles, we stopped to set up camp.

We all agreed that while our camp was more open and wind-protected, parts of the hike were “eerie”—all the wind-blown trees like pick-up sticks in the dark, snowy forest, that bitter, cold wind, and the obvious presence of bears from scat and scratches in the trees. The trail signs were eroded and mostly broken and the trails often disappeared under vegetation. This was a truly wild place. That night, we built a fire and ate spaghetti, and the stars emerged between the trees above and shone brighter than any of our kids had ever seen.

We explored around for two more days after that, hiking Blue Mountain and San Mateo peak. Kids built their first fire, washed their first dish, and cooked their first meal. They admitted that, while at first they dreaded having to go on this trip with all these people that they didn’t like, it wasn’t really so bad after all.

I’m back in Albuquerque now, with many trips coming up. Each trip is so different, with varying ages and circumstances, but one theme that that comes up in all of them, for me, is facilitating self-discovery (unlocking people’s potential) and encouraging people to take ownership of even their smallest action. It makes me pretty happy that I get to work outside.

P.S. The Cottonwood Gulch summer programs are awesome. Check them out at:

Goblin along Oak Canyon Trail in the Jemez Mountains

Put a spring in your step

On April 17, Jemez Historic Site will celebrate Earth Day with a picturesque hike up Oak Canyon (a.k.a. Church Canyon). Located just east of San Jose Mission, the canyon is a geologic marvel boasting large outcroppings of both sedimentary and igneous rocks. Flora and fauna are equally diverse. As the trail ascends towards the top of Cat Mesa, it transitions from pinyon and juniper scrubland to beautiful ponderosa pine. Expect to exercise both your body and your mind on this two-mile journey. Jemez Historic Site Instructional Coordinator Marlon Magdalena will lead the group. He will identify animals and plants encountered on the hike, as well as discuss the cultural and historical significance of these species. The event is free and will run from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., on April 17, starting at Jemez Historic Site, (18160 Highway 4). Participants should bring water, sturdy shoes, sunscreen, and a sack lunch. For more information, call 575-829-3530

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