Six Outward Bound folks weigh in on the books that have provided them with lessons and perspectives at just the right moment in time.
One of the greatest gifts that comes along with an Outward Bound course is the opportunity to pause. Most people are never given that chance or think to give themselves that chance. Spending just a week in the wilderness, isolated with your cohort and Instructors, is enough to break the routine of normal life and produce a profound experience.
But going on an Outward Bound course isn’t the only way to take a pause.
I’ve found that reading is another great way to slow down for a moment and it can stir up something equally profound. Transporting us to other worlds and minds. A few years ago, I was heading into a bookstore when I saw a sticker posted on the door. On it was a quote by author Paul Coelho, perhaps best known for his novel The Alchemist, who once said, “Whenever someone dies, a part of the universe dies too. Everything a person felt, experience and saw dies with them.” Books are both a way to experience other worlds and the worlds of others.
“Books have a way of accidentally making their way into our hands at just the right time.”
I’ve talked to a few people about the impact of books, and I’ve learned it’s rare for the books that stay in our heads to be the ones assigned to us in school. Books have a way of accidentally making their way into our hands at just the right time.
Here’s a quick story about a book that stands out to me.
TTW and Lessons From a Desert Library
During the summer of 2018, I was a media intern for Outward Bound’s Southwest Program in Moab, Utah. I grew up in the Northeast in one of the country’s first boomtowns, which gave rise to manufacturers and mills—where rivers weren’t something you paddled down but passed by. Living in the desert was unfamiliar, exciting and surreal. It was hard to believe that this place had always existed—that families had lived here and floated down the rivers and driven through the red rock canyons, while my family was trying to get me to my soccer games on time via the interstate.
I was curious about this desert landscape, its history and people, and so I popped into the bookstore on Moab’s main street one day. Several miles south, the Southwest Program had recently inducted three new rafts into its inventory and it was tradition to give each a name. One of the new boats was called TTW, named for Utah-native, author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams. Back in the bookstore I recognized her name on the Local Authors shelf and picked up one of her books. It was An Unspoken Hunger, and it changed how I approached my limited time in the desert landscape.
Williams’ book is a collection of personal stories and observations from the field that create a powerful narrative calling us to examine our strained relationship with the natural world and how it shows up in our relationships with ourselves and others.
Williams’ work prompted me to closely observe the birds in the sky, to contemplate the intense heat in Moab’s valley and weather up in the mountains, and it changed how I approached my relationships. I tried to be more honest with myself and others about what I was feeling and it made me feel vulnerable but strong too. This book made me see that the relationship between people and land is incredibly intimate and often overlooked. “The land is love. Love is what we fear. To disengage from the earth is our own oppression,” Williams writes in the book.
Inspired by my encounter with An Unspoken Hunger, I asked some Outward Bound folks to weigh in with some of their standout books. Here is what they had to say.
Kaitlin Irvine, Outward Bound Alumnx
Working by Studs Terkel
“In the 1970s, author Studs Terkel just went around the country interviewing folks about their jobs—any job, whatever they wanted to talk about, no angle, just listening and being curious. He treated all the workers with respect and value. The people he interviewed could be a Wall Street executive, a grocery store clerk, a housewife, a migrant worker—anything. Then he put it all together in one glorious book. I first heard of it when I saw a high school theatre group perform the musical version of it the summer after 9th grade, then I got my hands on the book it was based on and did my entire AP Language project on it in 11th grade. Looking back, I think it really influenced my love of and belief in people and the value of everyone and their contributions. It’s kind of wild that I ended up in a career where I work with students to figure out their college and career paths.”
Ethan Kurinsky, Instructor, Outward Bound’s Southwest Program
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
“On my Outward Bound course as a student, we read Endurance, the story about the expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton that gets stranded in Antarctica in 1914. It was a powerful read in the backcountry, and powerful to compare our own struggles which seem minuscule to that of the crew of the Endurance. To hear that survival is possible in those terrible conditions made any problem we encountered while backpacking seem manageable. That book has always stuck with me and is a testament to what humans are capable of surviving, as long as they don’t give up hope.”
Jake Blakely, Former Outward Bound Logistics Coordinator
Crossing Antarctica by Will Steger
“This novel is about a multi-international group traveling by dogs across the long length of Antarctica. It kept me sane when I began my career as a commercial fisheries observer, spending long stretches of time on small boats or isolated fishing port towns.”
Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth
“Jill Heinerth is a badass who makes a name for herself as a cave diver in a male-dominated and dangerous field. She defined for me the iconic concept that life never goes as planned and you’re never done growing and developing no matter your age or experiences.”
South from Alaska: Sailing to Australia with a Baby For Crew by Mike Litzow
“Ever think about traveling for six-plus months on a sailing boat, with a child? This book might convince you otherwise, but you’ll never forget the amazing experiences that come with it.”
Ryan Stewart, Outward Bound Instructor in Minnesota
Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine
“I just finished instructing a 30-day winter semester course and while the students were on Independent Final (an expedition’s final section when Instructors step back and students step up to lead) I read ‘Positive Intelligence’ by Shirzad Chamine. It relates to a lesson we teach [on course] and provides a story for what is going on in your mind and how to achieve more positive thinking. It’s designed as a self-help corporate workshop-y book, which is kinda annoying, but the ideas are good!”
Miles Ryan, Instructor, Outward Bound’s Southwest Program
Siddartha by Hermann Hesse
“This book about a spiritual journey and self-discovery reminds me to recognize the teacher in every opportunity.”
The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs
“Craig Childs has spent a lot of time in the desert, a place known for its arid landscape. But in this book, he shares descriptions infused with the science of the many forms of water.”
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson
“Robyn Davidson’s story is beautiful. She takes us along her 1,700 mile walk through the Australian outback, a trip she shared with four camels and a dog, that shows the personal challenge in following a dream.”
I’m always curious about what people are reading. One of the best things about books is that there are so many, and everyone always has a good title to share. What’s a book that has shaped your life or currently sparks your interest?
About the Author
Olivia Schneider has worked for the Colorado Outward Bound School in Moab, Utah as a Logistics Coordinator and Media Intern. She is an alumnx of the Voyageur Outward Bound School, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School and has volunteered for the Philadelphia Outward Bound School. She is pursuing an MFA in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts.