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  Time Off

Evan at work in the Blue Range of Arizona.


—Evan Belknap

Lately, schools have been giving me small amounts of money to take kids into the woods and force them to appreciate nature for days at a time.

I show up and am often handed a set of keys. “You’re in B4,” they say. “Your kids are already loaded up.”

“And where are we going again?” I ask.

“Just follow the caravan.”

As I get into my bus, suddenly entrusted with the lives of ten to fifteen little humans, the kids go silent. I look into the back. This is an important moment. One in which I want to instill in them a great fear of me and an understanding of my great authority. “Buckle up,” I say—solemnly.

On the road, to keep them from singing Let It Go from Frozen for hours, I put the kid in the passenger seat in charge of the radio. He is often from Botswana or Uruguay, and I make it very clear that I have ultimate veto power over his every musical decision—so no country and no jazz. In the back, they will always sing along. To everything.

At the trailhead, I make sure I have the maps and an EpiPen, and as soon as we start our hike, the questions begin: How much further? Will there be more uphill? How much? What’s for dinner? What time is it? What’s for lunch tomorrow? How old are you? Is there going to be water there? Are we going to see bears?

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m not a wizard.”

One has much time to fade into one’s head and think about things. One thought that comes up again and again is the this-is-a-ridiculous-amount-of-responsibility-to-give-to-someone thought—that whole making-sure-peoples’-children-don’t-find-ways-to-kill-themselves thing. But other than rattlesnakes, cliffs, cacti, knives, mountain lions, and every allergy one could imagine, I think, what’s the worst that could happen?

One time, we summited a small sand dune and stood atop it looking out at beautiful expanse of New Mexico nature. The aspens had just starting to turn, making the mountains glitter yellow. Then, like a mother eagle teaching her chicks to fly, I jumped down the sand face, arms stretched out, and ran to the bottom where I turned and looked up expectantly. The first flight took off and were soon there by my side, laughing and catching their breath, but the last bunch, still up there on top, were confused, or apathetic, or something, and they rebunched up into their circle and continued whispering at one another. “Hey!” I yelled. “That dune isn’t going to run down itself.” And then an incredible thing happened as they came down. One girl’s feet couldn’t keep up with her body. She lost her balance and face-planted into two others and, rolling together, they crashed and bounced all the way down to the base of the dune, skidding to a stop in a twisted pile like an elaborate Twister game gone wrong.

“Welp, I’m fired,” I thought and went to dig the medkit out of my backpack. Sometimes they fall over, and there’s nothing you can do about it, I mused, as they cursed and spit the sand out of their mouths.

At camp, the boys are sharpening sticks and cutting themselves. I’m running out of gauze and Band-Aids. In the kitchen, I say “Don’t walk over the stoves” over and over again, and “Don’t put that in the dirt!” and “Don’t cut that so close to his leg,” etc. It’s important that they learn how to cut vegetables and use camp stoves and not burn themselves or pour boiling water onto each other’s laps. These are important life skills that are, it seems, very hard to learn apparently. I sit there close and micromanage intensely because no matter how closely you watch, little rocks will end up in the food—always. And it’s a bitter moment, crunching down on that little bit of granite in your chicken mac. Almost all of my coworkers have cracked molars.

At night, in their tents, they gossip and tell secrets, talk about the girls, talk about the boys, as if they weren’t twenty feet apart separated by a few thin veils of nylon. But I know how that goes—out there in the woods, in your little make-shift home in the dark with your friends, bundled up in warm layers, one feels like an astronaut, hidden away in the deepest part of space. “Go to sleep!” you yell into the night and they giggle and then hopefully surprise themselves with how easy it is to sleep outside.

When we hike for longer than a mile, I realize that many of these kids are experiencing the most difficult thing they have ever experienced in their lives. Never before have they been challenged like this. Carrying a heavy pack. Pooping in a hole. Being afraid of the dark and the noises of the night. I mean, let’s be honest, no one really likes hiking. The kids, like everyone who has ever gone backpacking, suffer up and down the hills and eventually come to the question: “Why am I doing this?”

And it’s a good question—to which I reply, “Because it’s hard.”

And then, of course, out of those challenges come these magical moments when they accidentally start to have fun. The cliques go away, they meld together, and start to enjoy this wooded fantasy they are all a part of. When the space truly becomes theirs, they make up games, and hide in the trees, and laugh and run, and not once think about time. These moments have made me a devout believer in experiential education. As the leader, you go kind of quiet, as if seeing a fox. Not wanting to scare it away, you keep on reading your book, only looking out of the corner of your eye, and it feels good to be there.

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