Every semester in English class, students read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, which follows the fatal journey of a young protagonist rebelling against society and family to explore western wilderness frontiers. Students debate the protagonist’s (Chris McCandless) character, and the elements of authorial bias that color the book’s tone. They then write an argumentative essay about whether Chris McCandless was heroic or foolish. Each semester students get fired up about this young man. Discussions are heated and the jury is split – hero vs. fool. Whether it is his lust for adventure or his fight for independence, there is always something that resonates deeply with this adolescent age group. Regardless of which side of the fence students fall on, the story never fails to spark excitement for our next expedition: backpacking in the Owyhee desert of Oregon and Idaho.
The Owyhee expedition was our culminating backpacking expedition this Spring 2015 semester. Students planned the gear and individual packing lists, prepared all the equipment, and student leaders planned campsites based on topographical maps. It is a 27 mile expedition that requires map and compass navigation – completely off-trail. Student leader teams guide our group over mountains and through red rock gulches. Students really get the sense that, like Chris McCandless, they are walking into the wild.
The trip offers an opportunity to pull together many different ideas and subjects we’ve been tackling in English class as well. Students discuss Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey monomyth in analyzing Chris McCandless’ odyssey, and then chart their own journey for this expedition and the semester.
They use the same 10 Elements of Leadership with which they analyze student designated leadership performances throughout the semester, and apply it to Chris McCandless to identify whether he was heroic or foolish.
They also get the chance to chat with a contemporary adventurer: Andrew Forsthoefel. Post-college, Andrew set out on an odyssey of his own to walk across America. His mission: listen to people’s stories. We listen to his This American Life radio story and then Andrew Skypes into our class and students get the opportunity to ask him questions about his journey, or even advice for their own journeys ahead.
In his beautiful story, Andrew discusses what it feels like to walk over 30miles in a day alone. He identifies all the types of walking he felt along the way: Fear Walking. Trudge Walking. Float Walking. Weep Walking. Students were so enamored with him and his tale, that they have kept in touch to seek his advice on all manner of challenges from Culminating Leadership Project planning to seeking encouragement for the next “big walk.” (Don’t worry, he hasn’t encouraged anyone to ditch home and set out across the country.)
For English class on the Owyhee expedition, students keep a walking journal. Every day they have to write one sentence that mimics the epic tone Chris McCandless uses when he wrote about his own adventures. Chris McCandless’ journal uses the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp”- and so students must choose their own trail name, and write from this perspective. They then have to title each day – like Andrew Forsthoefel – the type of walking they did that day.
Some excerpts form the wild wanderers of Sp’15:
Alton Wiggers: “Slide walking”
The Riddler takes two steps up, and one slip down going to the top; he needs to reach the summit of a mountain of falling sand.
Becca Cerra: “Wild Walking”
The sweat beaded on her forehead as Painted Rocket stopped to catch her breath midway up the hill, she gazed down at the wild horses and wish she could join them and feel the wind in her hair.
Skye Ellison: A.k.a. “Three Terrible Toots”
On our second to last day in the desert, we declared our types of walking to the echoing red rock of a dry oxbow canyon… followed by a war cry harnessing the epic adventurer within each of us. See below to share in the ceremony:
Thanks for following our journey!
Alton Wiggers (aka “The Riddler”) as Chris McCandless: Portrait in front of Alzar School “Magic School Bus”