When talking with those who lead wilderness trips, the recounting of what happened does not suffice for long. In my personal conversations with such leaders—either in a formal debrief or simply a chat with a friend or colleague—the talk quickly turns from the fun moments and grueling days to how those experiences were faced. To me, this is a telling feature, and worthy of greater exploration. Of the great number of personal recollections of how a trip was run (and the still greater number of opinions on how a trip should be run), I have noticed that all such opinions happen to fall along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the opinion ‘Miles First’, and on the other end the counter ‘Lessons First’.
Before I go any further I should be upfront that I certainly can’t hope to cover these opinions as justly as they deserve. Nor will I be able necessarily to further contextualize these or provide a convincing argument for one over the other, much less synthesize a new argument. All I hope to accomplish here is to point out the two extremes of opinion and assert that deliberation on this point is important, not only because these opinions are pervasive, but also because these can be exceptionally powerful in passing on the passion of wilderness trips. Now, about the spectrum:
I stated above that one end of the spectrum could be called ‘Miles First’, but maybe a better way of describing it would be that a trip is all about edification through Achievement. Being away from the comforts of home is the first step in allowing someone to explore how much they can do outside their comfort zone. From there, participants are encouraged to push themselves, whether that push be the most miles, the most taxing ascents, the swiftest water, or as many weeks away from comfortable living as possible.
The other end, which I’ve stated as ‘Lessons First’, could also be described as using the trip as a tool for character growth. The wilderness, in this conception, is a laboratory for interpersonal skills, introspection, self-sufficiency, and contemplation. Everything about the trip becomes a lesson, rather than an achievement or a basic need. The objective facts about the trip, how far was traveled or how high was climbed, are superseded by the subjective analysis of those facts by those who accomplished them.
The difference between these two sides is most obvious at the extremes, even while there is considerable gray area. There are certain leaders whom I have seen gravitate strongly to one side or the other, and some accomplish excellent things by framing their trips as completely one side of the spectrum or the other. More importantly, I would submit that every choice on the trail amounts to a decision between these two sides of the spectrum. When leading a trip, where to stop, when to eat, and how long to sleep are all choices which can suggest ‘Miles’ or ‘Lessons’ to participants. How these things are framed to them during the trip will have a profound impact on how participants view themselves and their experience when they return to the comforts of home, or exit the laboratory of character growth.
Thus, it's important at every choice to carefully consider which element one is enforcing at that moment. Each leader and participant has a kernel of both of these extremes in mind. Take these examples:
“We never had nylon, all our tents were canvas. If it rained you got wet, no matter what.”
“She never perfected her J-stroke, but that’s alright, it’s a hard stroke.”
“We would’ve run that rapids in ’74, but then again we were probably a lot more experienced with white-water then too.”
“Oh, just a 5 day hike I’m afraid. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“If I am going to teach the campers how to cook breakfast, then there’s no way I can make that campsite for my second night.”
“She’s not very personable, but she would make a great leader because her hard skills are top notch.”
“He doesn’t know a canoe from a coffeepot and he has never paddled anything, but he’s really good with the age group and he was a teacher, so he should be leading the 14 day sea-kayaking venture.”
The quotes above could elicit a nod of agreement, a fist-shake of anger, or anything in between. Different leaders will have different reactions, and each will have a compelling argument. Not only does the 'Miles' vs. 'Lessons' debate color how we apprehend stories of previous trips, but it colors the way we teach and pass on our own trips with participants.
Can these diverse reactions be rectified? Probably. Will the process of rectifying them be neat and tidy? Probably not. Is it worth it to attempt to rectify these? Certainly, because if we wish to convey our own love of the outdoors and pass on the experience we have had, we must understand as best as we can what exactlythat experience was, and why it was so powerful. Furthermore, if the decision to run a trip as an Achievement exercise or a Learning experience so greatly affects how we perceive our travels, should we not be deliberate in helping our participants discern this difference for themselves?
Walter Jordan has been the Trips Director at Camp Manito-wish.