Last week I chaperoned a ninth-grade retreat at Doe River Gorge. As the last post indicated, this wasn’t the first time I’ve spent a couple of days zip-lining, hiking, and rappelling with high school students. Many of the activities were familiar, and it had been a couple of years since my last visit, but my initial intentions were to get to know a completely new group of students and fellow faculty. Still, the familiarity (and a reawakened love of the woods initially instilled by my grandma) fueled my anticipation for activities that my at once old and new boss had lined up for us to do. One was the famous (and aforementioned in the previous post) bonfire and night hike.
Needless to say, on this particular night, the sky was much clearer, so clear, in fact, you could see the Milky Way, which also meant the first part of the hike wasn’t nearly as dark as my initial encounter. (Plus, this was my fourth trip, not to mention that this particular group of students employed their flashlights more frequently, bless them. They made good music though and overall showed a great deal of affection for one another.)
I started the hike at the end of the line, and by the time we were told to turn around and go back, it was pitch dark. The direct command resulted in panic, as most of the students assumed something terrible had happened, and they began to step off the track in clusters and talk all at once. This was the last thing we needed, for huddled masses of ninth graders panicking near the edge of a gorge isn’t exactly the safest situation. All they had to do was believe us when we said to get back on the track and walk back the way they had come to the bonfire. What a lesson, which was part of the whole adventure.
Earlier that day a smaller group of the same students had bickered their way through a particular team building activity, and on top of repeating the same mistake, they completely ignored a suggestion made by another teacher. About ten minutes later, one of the teens had the bright idea to do exactly what my fellow English teacher had suggested. We both doubled over laughing, and when it came time to debrief and draw spiritual analogies, I pointed this out—how many times do we try to figure things out ourselves and not believe the simple things that God says to us?
“Wait,” my colleague said, “Did you just equate me with God?”
“Yes. Pretty much. Metaphorically. No pressure.”
So, it’s probably no surprise that getting our students to simply turn around and go back the way they came took a little convincing, and I waited until all of the students were back in line. I turned on my flashlight and tried to scan the area behind me to make sure we weren’t missing anyone, and I ended up beaming my boss right in the eyes.
“Turn your light off,” he said, squinting and blocking the light with his hands. “It makes it harder to see.”
“Sorry. I was trying to make sure there weren’t any more kids.”
“I’m the last one out,” he assured me.
I turned and trailed behind my students as they discussed episodes of Stranger Things and burst out into bits of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” even though we live and were hiking in the great state of Tennessee. A few, um, debates ensued regarding whether or not some of them should put out their lights, but I myself continued to stumble over railroad ties and rocks. After a few minutes, I realized I couldn’t hear the crunching of gravel behind me, and I paused, not sure I liked the idea of having a boss that could walk so quietly. He didn’t bump into me or say anything about me stopping dead in front of him, either, so I turned around and peered into the darkness, half expecting to be bowled over by a man the stature of a marsh-wiggle any moment. I cautiously pointed my flashlight toward the gorge and switched it on to avoid the same mistake but also wanting to cast enough light to see if I could locate him. Nothing.
“Mr. Holland?” I said after contemplating whether I wanted to sound paranoid to someone who had previously lived and backpacked in the woods with delinquent children and now ran half marathons with his wife on a regular basis. After all, he had just told the faculty his favorite T.V. show was Alone, and over the years he’s consistently shared a love for all things Jack London. I’m an introvert, too, and over the years my female friends have scolded me for hiking on my own, but it’s also true that my maternal instinct doesn’t have much of an outlet, and it’s started to show, I suppose, even with thirty-something-year-old men who’s mamas kicked them out of the nest a long time ago.
The occasional squeal and laughter ahead grew fainter. I called after him again, and still no answer. I turned and continued walking, the logical part of myself saying that, despite the fact I know he not only has much longer legs but walks considerably faster, he was probably purposefully lagging behind for some much needed alone time.
I’m not always crazy, but sometimes my imagination is as bad as Anne Shirley’s. Within less than five minutes, I had the man dead from multiple causes. My thoughts, if you dare read them, ran something like this:
Perhaps he’s been depressed and we didn’t know it. Something tragic that none of us knows about is weighing on him back at the school. It’s just like a man to send someone off with the kids while he jumps to his death like George Bailey. Only George Bailey had Clarence. His voice sounded a bit like Aslan when he tells Lucy and Susan to stay behind while he goes on alone, only Aslan wasn’t killing himself. He wouldn’t leave his wife and kids like that…That’s terrible. I can’t even believe I thought that…
…He’s had a premature heart attack and lying in the middle of the tracks and can’t call out. The farther away I walk, the less chance there is of saving him. Of course, CPR only works so long, so if I go back alone, there’ll be nobody to go get help, and I left my phone in the cabin…
Before you think I’m too morbid, it didn’t help that he’d just shared a story that morning about a near death experience in college in which no one would help him. I imagined having to confess to his wife that I had abandoned him to die in the woods for the sake of proving my own sanity, and now she was going to raise their two small children alone, and it was all my fault because I didn’t follow my intuition.
As much as I tried to reason with myself and then finally shut off the thoughts completely, worst case scenarios, however implausible, continued to race through my mind. A wild animal had attacked him—don’t ask how I wouldn’t have heard anything from that one, or a crazy person had just happened to pop out of the woods and stab him and left him bleeding, and I’m surprised I didn’t think he’d been kidnapped by ISIS. I mean, my other thoughts were just as logical.
I kept fighting the urge to turn around and find him because deep down I knew that not only would it be like Pippin trying to save Gandalf, but in all reality he’d be perfectly fine and mad that I’d left my post, namely, the kids. (“Fool of a Took!”) I knew as soon as I abandoned them, one of them would fall off the edge, and once again, it would my godlike fault.
My mom’s advice about not insulting men by treating them like children came to mind, and she always told me they don’t like their word questioned. If he said he was the last one out, then I needed to trust he would be the last one out. Period. I also knew that contrary to blaming me for not checking on him, his wife would have full confidence in his abilities to handle himself. Well, all I can say is, we signed different contracts, and at least mine was signed in daylight. Mine doesn’t say “for better or worse,” either, which is why I send him home to her at the end of each day. I was ready to send him home early if he popped up whistling.
We arrived back at the bonfire again, and I turned on my light for a third time and scanned the tunnel behind me. Still nothing. I entered the amoeba of teenagers to find my male colleague so I (Mama Bear Wannabe) could send him as a search party of one, but before I could approach him, I heard him ask about the whereabouts of our boss and then, “Oh, I bet he lagged behind on purpose to get some alone time.”
A minute later, Mr. Alone Time appeared like the party had just started and began pointing out constellations. (It was not until then that I looked up and saw more stars than I’ve ever seen at once time.) A tiny part of me wanted to push him off the cliff. (Okay, not really.) Had he not considered that there were others of us who would have liked the prerogative of strolling in the starlight and communing with our own souls?
I have never actually been that afraid of the dark, but this particular time, I realized that it is actually true that the dark can cause your mind to play tricks on you. What I really hate, as those who really know me, is the unknown. I want to know what’s going to happen. Half of the time, I’m not nearly as concerned with what is going to happen as I am with knowing about it beforehand. I like to be in control, and as a result, I assume more responsibility to fuel my pride than I should. I also want to be the last one out, the hero who sacrifices to make sure that everyone else is happy and safe. (More later.) Earlier during the small group’s team building activity, I made the observation that there were “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” When the students panicked at a simple instruction, I thought it would be a good lesson in trust for them, who, as Dorothy L. Sayers observed, are at an age in which they question everything.
Apparently I never graduated from the age of questioning everything, and it’s quite evident from my last adventure on the railroad tracks by the gorge (which, by the way, holds a river that does sound beautiful at night) that I’m just as much in need of a lesson in trust and obedience as my students. I’m reminded of the part of Psalm 139 that speaks so clearly each time I read it: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” So many times, I have read over that verse, needing it to fuel my faith through depression, anxiety, and all the lies I believe about God, others, and myself. So much of our faith involves renewing our mind, and trusting that God is, just as He says He is, “the last one out.”
 It’s important to note that the man has managed to scare me out of my skin several times while I’ve been furiously grading papers. I’m not the only one.
 In fact, during the same trip something was mentioned about the Bermuda Triangle, and I shared my high school dream of learning to sail and survive in it so no one could find me.
 It was fitting that I be in charge of the medicine and First Aid kit this trip, not to mention I packed a special bag of bug spray, sunscreen, baby wipes, and other items and dubbed it my “Mom Bag.”
 Okay, so I know I don’t send him home. He leaves of his own accord, and if anything, he sends me home.
 Perhaps I should admit that, as a kid, anytime I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night, I did have this weird thought that there might be spiders crawling on the floor, so I’d dash across the floor to the bathroom and then practically leap back into bed on the way back.
Photo of Blue Ridge Mountains by Thomas Moore from https://www.skyandtelescope.com/online-gallery/milky-way-blue-ridge-parkway/
Photo of Doe River Gorge from http://www.doerivergorge.com/property.php.