Have you ever heard of “Take Your Kid to Work Day?” What about “Take Your Parent to Work Day?” For outdoor education, that seems like a pretty big request. However, after I’d worked at Outward Bound for two seasons, my mom was curious about what I did and why I did it. In a way, I got to take my mom to work when she attended her 8-day adult course for students 30 years and older. She’s a pretty cool lady.
I was nervous. I have to admit, I probably felt the same way most parents feel when their children go on an Outward Bound course. I found myself thinking “maybe I should send her my inflatable sleeping mattress” or “maybe I should give her my winter puffy coat so she doesn’t get too cold.” I held out, because I didn’t want her to be the spoiled one just because her daughter was an Instructor. I wanted her to get a full Outward Bound experience, and left the winter coat and inflatable sleeping pad in my gear closet and hoped for the best.
I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision. But when we met after her course, I was grateful to hear about her experience and how it wasn’t at all impacted by the gear I hadn’t given her. I interviewed my mom about her experience and why she thinks that every adult should go on a backpacking trip, even if or especially because, you’ll be sore for weeks afterwards.
A Deliberate Decision
I was curious about why my mom chose to do a course when she did. I assumed it wasn’t for the Instagram photos. She loves the outdoors and beautiful places, but she was certain this was the best time for her to go. When I asked her why she said, “Because the last kid was off to college, and I wanted to hit a reset button on thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, whether I wanted to go back to work, or volunteer and how I was going to volunteer. I wanted a different way to think about all of that.” At “50-something,” as she says, she felt a desire to turn inward and distill her thoughts. She’d spent the past two and a half decades raising three children and putting her family first. An Outward Bound course felt like a great challenge and one that could be for her – to think, to learn, to grow.
On the course, she found that the simplicity of meeting her basic needs helped her find clarity in her thoughts. She thought back and noted that she’d been trying to clear her mind for months, but it wasn’t working. Needing warmth, sleep and protection from the elements “helped get rid of some of the chatter in my mind that was keeping me spinning in loops. It distilled my thoughts. There’s something very freeing in prioritizing your needs.”
Paths are Made by Walking
My mother reminisced about being put in the leadership role on an off-trail travel day. She noted, “As adults, we are used to a path, a literal or figurative path. There are so many things that are mapped out for us or that we map out for ourselves. On our course, there was not one. We were put out in the woods and it was on us to choose the path, find it and follow it.” As she thought more about the group, she said, “When you’re over 30, you’re in a world where you’re in control most of the time. At Outward Bound, you’re not in control of your world; it’s not an office, it’s not a school, it’s very unfamiliar. And I think that’s a good thing for people to be challenged by something, especially if our biggest challenge in everyday life is the drive home in traffic. That’s not helpful to our personal growth. On a course, you have to rely on your team of different individuals in an environment that you cannot control. It was really striking to me that I had made my life so that I could control it, and this was like, ‘Oh, crap this is not in my control, I can’t go back, I have to be here and literally go over the mountain.”
Alone Under the Stars
At her favorite campsite in the Elk Mountains near Marble, Colorado, my mother had another realization. As she got up to go to the bathroom, she said “We’re sleeping on rock and I’m so tired, but I realized that I would not be back in this space. It took us two days to get in and the stars were stunning because there was no light around. I realized that no matter how tired I was, I needed to sit there and enjoy the stars. No one else was around and it was not something you could photograph.” My mom sat and enjoyed the simplicity of the stars and the solitude as she acknowledged both the challenge that she had overcome and uniqueness of the moment.
My mom often reminds me that she was able to put on her backpack by herself on day six of the course. If you aren’t familiar with what this involves, it is not an easy feat and requires a lot of strength. This was a big accomplishment for her because she knew that I was able to do it and wanted to gain enough strength during her course to complete the same task. This is what she thinks about physical activity on a course, “Okay, this is a big thing. I learned that it is okay to push yourself physically and emotionally more than you think you can. Don’t be afraid to physically push yourself. It’s actually fine and dandy to be sore and banged up and you will be just fine. I came back telling your Dad, ‘We can work out a whole lot harder than we have been.” During the course, she realized that she had more physical strength than she realized. When she thought back to her course, she mentioned that a basic level of fitness is required, but participants should know that regardless of what they think is their limit, they will be able to push past it.
Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork
Choosing to sign up for an Outward Bound adult course is a personal endeavor, but it’s important to remember that the system is set up to create small communities. Although students don’t know one another, they learn to become a team in order to succeed. My mom said, “I think it would have been helpful for me to know that I was going to be on a team. In my mind, it was an individual journey, but I wish I had known that these other people were going to need my support on this journey.” Throughout the course, they learned to support one another through difficult weather, steep passes and long travel days.
When backpacking, it’s important to cut weight and think about everything that you’re bringing with you because you have to carry it all on your back. I wanted to know what gear my mom appreciated the most and what she would suggest to others to bring on a course. She remembered her favorite piece of gear being her ‘sacred socks.’ These are a pair of heavier and warmer socks that students keep in their sleeping bag and only use at night to help keep their feet warm and dry. She said that a nice pair of wool socks made all the difference for her! She also used a simple camera to take some ‘memory pictures’ and liked being able to come home and describe the trip through images to her family. Her last favorite piece of gear was her Outward Bound journal, where she was able to write memories and thoughts of each day. Simplicity is key in the backcountry, but these extra bits of gear made my mom’s trip even more enjoyable.
Would she recommend an adult course to others? “100%. To anyone.” My mom was surprised by all the backcountry living skills she learned on her course, such as tying knots, pack packing and even how to go to the bathroom in the woods. She also greatly appreciated all of the non-tangible things she learned from her time on the course. She felt she learned to practice patience, that she doesn’t need much to survive and that she can be a strong leader to a group of her peers.
I took my mom out to breakfast after she finished her course and she said it was one of the best meals she’s ever had in her life. Nothing like cold bagels and oatmeal to make us appreciate a hot breakfast. Talking to her about her course showed me that Outward Bound is different for adults, yet still so impactful in many ways. I still ask her, “Mom, are you practicing walking without a path? Are you stopping to see the stars? Are you practicing being uncomfortable?” These days, the answer is always ‘yes.’
Interested in an adult course for ages 30+? Check out these expeditions enrolling now:
Yosemite Backpacking for Adults – starts 8/31
Southwest Canyon Backpacking for Adults – starts 9/17
Maine Coast Sailing for Adults – starts 9/19
San Juan Islands Sea Kayaking for Women – starts 9/24
About the Author
Annie is an Instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School who enjoys eating chocolate after a long day in the backcountry, walking for extensive amounts of time carrying a heavy pack and going on adventures with dogs. She has a degree in Psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill and enjoys talking about how our brains work and why we decide to do what we do. She also likes climbing up rocks and then rappelling down them directly afterwards and confusing her family by randomly going to places without cell phone service.