“I signed you up to go backpacking this summer”
“What- backpacking? What’s that, like camping?” What did she just sign me up for I thought to myself. No way. I hate bugs and I’m allergic to literally everything outside. Besides, who's gonna keep up with my social media?
“Yeah, sorta. You should look it up, it’s called Outward Bound. You’re gonna have so much fun, I promise you. It looks so cool, trust me on this one.” - My mom 2018.
Turns out I had more fun than I ever could have imagined. I liked it so much I went back for round two. From building tents in the rain, cooking on the smallest stoves possible, rolling my ankle way too many times to count, swimming in reservoirs, washing my hair in streams- my expeditions were untouchable. We hiked through mud, heat, and up straight cliffs. We reached what felt like the top of the world, and even hit our lowest of lows. The terrain is always changing.
You and your crew.
“The days are long, but the weeks are short.” Time went by so fast, it's hard for me to remember what happened on what days. But what I do remember is- opening circles are the most awkward things ever. You're standing there analyzing everyone, making inferences, trying to discover who your friends are, while standing in complete silence. I remember the awkward laughs and the uncomfortable faces as we all just realized- man, we’re really doing this.
For the next days and weeks to come, this team would be there to support you 100%. Forming connections that will last a lifetime- with complete strangers. You learn along the way that your crew will back you up, hold your weight. Taking on the tasks of the day, split jobs, so your crew is working as one complete moving part. You would play games to keep your minds distracted off hiking, and sing songs that might just end up as your trail name. Spending 24/7 with these people, and you just learn to love them every step of the way. Laughing around the campfire, and sitting under the stars, not a care in the world besides the challenges of the next day to come. You get comfortable with your crew- and more than you would than in a standard classroom. But you learn to accept the moment. The things you can and cannot change. Truly living out in the middle of nowhere, you and your crew.
The solo experience
It's so much more than just camping. You're learning and understanding everything about yourself on a whole new level. Solo is what really changed everything about not only my mindset, but connecting with the outdoors. It seems scary at first, being alone in the woods, surrounded by creepy bugs until you get there. The silence, of just being. The water flows, and the birds chirping and the leaves whistling. Trying to keep yourself busy until boredom dawns upon you. I remember being by a river with a line of rocks stretching from one side to the other, perfectly placed by the person before me. The water pooling until reaching this bridge, and I watched bugs dance along the rivers' surface, while the tiny fish swooped underneath to try and take a bite. I sat by that river for hours watching this game they played, realizing night came by faster than I realized. And the silence was ready to be broken. I wrestled a lot of things on my mind that night. My problems that I imagined, they aren't really problems, just a mindset. An idea.
“Pushing past those barriers and opening more opportunities"
You're always pushing yourself out there, both physically and mentally. There are so many times when hiking and that really annoying pain in your hip hurts a little more than usual. Then rolling your ankle one more time just pushes you way too far. I hiked many miles one day and then many more the next day, learning that I can actually do it. Pushing myself, continuing on, learning that I am a lot more capable than I think I am. It's cheesy when you hear it, but “you never know until you try it.”
One day, my crew made the mistake of taking the ‘easier and shorter” route, or so we thought. The Hosack trail kicked our butts, the hills the steepest as we knew them, the air thinner than ever. However, this trail taught me self advocacy. Learning that it's quite alright to stop and ask for a break. Your crew has your back. I sat at the top of this hill, staring up at the clear blue sky, and the single tree that rose above the rest. Oh how tall it was, confident in the way that it stood, and the tiny ants scurrying up the side. Surrounded by moss and the still water droplets that sat on the leaves. It was just one piece to the big picture. There's so many components, but understanding the goal in mind, and being set on it gets you farther than you think.
“This is real life connectivity, not through a screen or liking each other's instagram posts. You're out there learning about what drives people, what motivates them, what makes them happy. Facing challenges together as a team, no outside influences or worries about opinions of you.”
I never knew how much I relied on the internet or my phone until my first course, or even how much it influenced me as a person. Especially facing a pandemic, I was surrounded by technology everyday. I used to check my phone every 2 minutes, to see if that person replied back on snapchat and I would get whisked away down into the rabbit hole of social media. I still do sometimes I admit that. But, I learned that I should stop caring about what others think about me, and learn to embrace my unique style and the quirks that I have. Everyone out there on the trail comes from so many different backgrounds and experiences, no one is alike. Each having different strengths and weaknesses. You learn about others and what challenges they have faced in life and how they chose to overcome it. This is real life connectivity, not through a screen or liking each other's instagram posts. You're out there learning about what drives people, what motivates them, what makes them happy. Facing challenges together as a team, no outside influences or worries about opinions of you. It's not about being online, it's about real life connections. Opening yourself up and allowing the experiences to happen is the best part.
"The experiences and lessons that you learn will follow you for the rest of your life.”
It's okay to not be okay. Things don't always go as planned and they never should. Your instructors are there for you no matter what. When that mental breakdown rolls in they’re there to talk, and share their experiences. They are there to help guide you along your expedition, but also take a step back and let you figure it out yourself. They are some of the best listeners I have ever met, and it’s inspired me to become an instructor as well. They teach you everything you need to know in order to tackle those tough obstacles. Teaching you to become self reliant, and grow as a leader amongst your peers. Understanding your fullest potential and helping guide you to that place of realization, that you are way more capable than you think. I know personally, without my instructors, I would've never made as much progress as I did. Ask for help when it's needed and lend a hand when you can.
My family always jokes how before my first expedition I spent 3 years in my room, every single day, never coming out of the dungeon that haunted me. Then I slept in tarps in the wilderness and came back as a completely different person. Outward Bound changed my life, and many other alumni. This program inspired me to become a better person caring more about my impact on the world around me. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but it changed me forever. Everyone should complete a course sometime in their lives. If you're 12, or 54, Outward Bound is for you. The experiences and lessons that you learn will follow you for the rest of your life.
A little about Gwen
My names Gwen, Gweneth Burke. And I am a 2 time OB alumni through Chesapeake Bay and Philadelphia Outward Bound Schools. Hopefully one day becoming an instructor too. I spend my time indulging in books, snowboarding the slopes, and hitting ramps on my skateboard. I currently attend Annapolis High school studying theatre, and plan to attend college for theatre as well. Outward Bound has opened many more paths of journey for me. It has allowed me to become a better leader amongst my peers, and strive to build a better environment around me. I want to live on the edge of the world traveling in a sailboat, or a school bus or even a van- there's so much out there to explore and this is just the beginning.
HEY ALUMNI! Have a story you want to share? We want to hear it. Reach out and say hi. Email Jen Cusick at email@example.com