An Advisor’s Perspective by Celia Martin
I had been hearing about “the Tenth Grade Odyssey Trip” for years. That title denotes challenges, struggles, and obstacles to be overcome, but also triumph at the end. I had viewed photos of the trip, heard stories and seen the tired yet confident students limping or walking slowly down the halls the Monday after, and I wondered what the trip was really like. How difficult was it? Would I be able to do it? This year, as a tenth grade advisor, I found out.
After a seven hour drive on Sunday, October 7, we (28 students and three adults) arrived at our campsite along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia in a cold drizzle and set up our tents in a wet fog. We managed to get the charcoal lit and then worked to hack off slabs of frozen ground beef and cook the “hamburgers” in a steady rain. Thirty people were trying to hover over the sizzling meat, not only to keep the rain off the burgers and prevent it from putting out the fire, but also to feel a little bit of that wonderful dry warmth. There were no tables and no chairs so we stood around awkwardly, not wanting to sit on the cold, wet ground. We were chilly and damp and it was so foggy that the flashlights couldn’t cut through the mist. This was already an Odyssey! We were all very grateful for the warm, delicious food. Almost miraculously, the wet wood that we added to the charcoal after dinner started to burn and we crowded around a big campfire and laughed and talked and sang, the fire lifting our spirits. We looked forward to crawling into nice warm sleeping bags and we hoped that our tents wouldn’t leak.
The next day we were paddling down the James River and even though it was misting a bit, and a little cool, it was great to be paddling down that beautiful stretch of water. I couldn’t think of anyplace I’d rather be on that Monday morning, surrounded by the peace and tranquility of the river and that fantastic group of students. Everyone was full of energy and in high spirits.
For two more days we followed the river going through riffles and rapids and stretches of calm. We saw turtles and Great Blue Herons and the Kingfishers went chattering by. Each night we had a big campfire with songs, riddles and a story or two from Andy Dill. Everyone had their jobs to do so while some gathered wood or scooped water from the river, others cooked or washed dishes. Everyone was so willing to pitch in that it never seemed like work at all. We were tired from the long days of paddling and it felt good to crawl into our tents at night.
On our third night we camped just above Balcony Falls and we listened to the loud sound of the water pouring over the rocks all night. In the morning Andy charged the students with creating their own canoeing partners so that everyone felt confident about getting over the falls safely. After much discussion and rearrangement, we were ready to challenge the falls. Those on shore shouted encouragements to each pair as they prepared to go through, guided by Andy standing out on a high rock giving signals. Everyone was nervous but once we were all safe on the down river side, albeit a bit wet, we felt re-energized to keep going.
Later that day we traded in our canoes for backpacks and hiked three miles to our first campsite on the Appalachian Trail. The outhouse there was much appreciated after having nothing but the trees for three days. Some already had blisters and other foot problems. After just a few miles with those heavy packs, we all decided to eat the dinner that weighed the most so we wouldn’t have to carry it the next day. After a delicious and filling meal of lentil stew with vegetables, we had another wonderful campfire filled with fun and laughter and went to bed early in preparation for the nine mile uphill hike the next day.
Our first full day on the trail was very challenging. Our packs were full and heavy and the trail was very steep and rocky. It wasn’t easy for anybody but we all kept going and we elevated our spirits by singing, joking, playing word games and by believing that soon, very soon, we really would be at the top. At one point we were treated to a beautiful view of the landscape below and there, far, far below us, was the James River winding around the base of the mountains where we had just been the day before. That was the first time we had a sense of how high we had climbed, and it felt very gratifying.
At our campsite that night we found that the spring was very shallow which made it difficult to scoop out the water. A group of dedicated students worked for hours into the darkness scooping and filtering water to painstakingly refill everyone’s bottles. I was amazed by how well everyone worked together and how irrepressible this group of kids was, despite the difficulties. They smiled and sang through the struggle and helped each other always.
The next day was technically not as difficult as the previous but because we were so tired from the day before, it was a challenge. Andy spent time each morning caring for foot problems and blisters and now we also had some wrapped knees and ankles and sore hips where the backpacks sat. Almost unbelievably the trail still continued to go up, but not as steeply as the day before. The views were awe inspiring and gave us a reason to pause to catch our breath. When the first group arrived at the campsite that afternoon, a few of the boys left their packs and ran back to help those at the back of the group who were still about a mile out. We were really tired that night but there were tents to erect, water to be purified, meals to cook and dishes to clean. Remarkably, the students were still singing and laughing and helping each other through their exhaustion. We talked about how much we missed the conveniences of home but no one was complaining.
At the campfire that night we calculated that if we wanted to be home at 8 pm the next evening, we needed to get up extra early at 5:30 am. We all readily agreed and the next morning we quickly took down our tents, ate breakfast, loaded up our backpacks and were silently hiking out of our campsite in the dimness of the morning at 7:10 am. After two miles we reached one of the vans along a road and were able to leave our heavy backpacks to continue the last five miles carrying only water and food. This was our steepest elevation rise yet – a 2000 foot gain in only a few miles. It was an arduous climb even without heavy packs; steep, rocky and seeming to go up forever. Whenever we thought we were at the top, the trail kept going higher. We could feel the air getting colder and colder. Finally we arrived at a beautiful grassy meadow stretching out along the top of the ridge. It was sunny and peaceful and many of us just wanted to lie down and take a nap. But we were so close to the end of the journey that a whole new energy overtook us and we hiked the last mile to the vans full of energy and triumph. We had done it!
On Monday morning, there we were – limping or walking slowly down the hall, tired yet very satisfied, each of us feeling an unspoken connection to everyone else. We had struggled together, overcome obstacles together, supported and helped each other and kept each other going. We had met the challenge and met it well. Now we knew, really knew, what it means to go on an Odyssey.