Sixth-grade outdoor education stands as one of my all-time best school experiences. Visiting Mendocino Woodlands, which is located about three hours north of Sonoma, was my first meaningful connection with nature, and with my peers. Singing around a campfire and nervously hiking in dark woods together bonded us in a way that no activity on campus could. We went in October 1991 — 17 years ago exactly — shortly after starting middle school, and the trip set a positive tone for the rest of the year. I recorded in my journal that my classmates and I had named our small group “The Poisonous Flying Raccoons” (see reference below) and they had nicknamed me “Bob.” Don’t ask me why, but I liked it. I penciled in my slanting cursive about Outdoor Ed, “I wish it would never end.” As a senior in high school, I still remembered the week vividly and wrote the following poem about it.
[Notes: Christina was my best friend and neighbor throughout middle school, and we’re still in occasional touch. I ran into Alara — one of the people I’d “never see again” — at a youth event last spring. Who knew that one day we’d become Facebook friends?]
Eleven years old and dragging
Duffel bags as big as we were,
We ran to met the yellow school bus
That would take us away for five days.
Teary mothers stood waving as we
Remembering the days of diapered daughters and sleeping sons.
We sang for hours, about ninety-nine bottles of beer,
As if we knew how they tasted, so many times
That our count pushed 495.
The teachers exhaled when we arrived.
The deep green of the pines crowded the blue of the sky,
I’d never seen such blue,
Or breathed air as clean and cool.
The land of night hikes and compost,
Of unheated cabins and women with unshaven legs.
In Cabin 31, alone at the heart of the forest,
With large uncovered windows through which I imagined
Bears and stalkers,
You and I played checkers into the night and talked of nothing in particular
That means everything to me now.
By day we lunched on peanut butter sandwiches
And tiny green apples as fresh as we were,
By night we told stories round the fire like characters in storybooks.
Devin, Alara, Ann,
The Poisonous Flying Raccoons that I’d never see again.
As I packed my bag for home, I took with me
The musty woodsmoke of our cabin,
The early-morning KP,
The longest time I’d been without parents or a shower.
Up in the woodlands with the tidepools and the hippie counselors,
This was my education.