Memory is always a curious thing; I’m not sure any of us knows why exactly certain indelible moments stick in our minds while floods of others get lost somewhere in our unconscious. Most interesting is that some of us wind up basing our lives on those certain moments, the ones that are no more or less important than others except for the simple fact that we remember.
It was the summer of my fourteenth year, and I was with a group of other teenagers from across the country at the Cougar Rock campground near Mt. Rainier. It was a few weeks into our seven-week trip, known as Water and Rocks. We arrived earlier that day after a long drive from Oregon, and we’d spent the afternoon being fitted for plastic mountaineering boots and ice-axes.
I was so excited and nervous because the next day we were going to start our climb up a mountain so big and beautiful that it left me speechless. Now that I had finally seen it in person, I thought there was no way I was going to be able to handle the whole climb.
That night, we were joined by a few visitors - Jim and Donna Stein and their children. At first I didn’t recognize this couple that arrived with two little blond sprites in tow, but when I was introduced to Donna I could feel her calm presence right away. She was a small, blond woman with a warm smile that put me instantly at ease. Her shoulder length hair and flannel jacket looked straight out of a fall clothing catalog, yet she projected a quiet strength as she surveyed the mounting chaos in the camp site. We were trying to finish washing dishes and pack for the next day, and she possessed a remarkable confidence and serenity that was quite different from the way that most adults handle a crowd of teenagers. I found out that Jim, who had climbed the mountain over 10 times, was going to stay with the kids for the next few days, and Donna would be attempting her first summit with our group. That night, as I reviewed the events of the day in my mind, I couldn’t believe that she was so calm in the face of what lay ahead of us. I thought, ‘Maybe I should try being that calm too.’
As I set out to tell the story of an important chapter of my life, I find the experience of writing is much like that of climbing the mountain itself: intense, reflective, and revealing.
It has been thirteen years since my first RLT experience as a participant, and there remain certain memories that are indelible. I will never forget seeing the red sunrise below the cloud-line as I crossed the Emmons Glacier on Mt. Rainier; we had just overcome the exhausting Disappointment Cleaver, and the rosy light refracted in the snow seemed to be both a promise and a reward. I will never forget the days spent in the rarefied alpine meadows of Olympic National Park on Leadership Challenge; it was a glimpse of heaven on earth shared with an amazing group of like-minded people. I will never forget the secret world that exists among 400-foot sandstone cliffs and pristine drop-pools in the remote Dark Canyon; it is as important to me as the deepest recesses of my mind. These will always be a part of me—maybe the best part of me.
Given the readiness with which these memories spring to mind, it seems incredible to me that they are now thirteen years distant.
These wilderness experiences resonated with me at such a young age, and at that age I kept thinking about preserving the ecstasy of these moments forever, but how? By making a life as a Park Ranger? By becoming a conservationist? By reliving Into the Wild? These possibilities tantalized me as I struggled to return to the pedestrian world of school and suburb after such magical summers. During college, I couldn’t wait to leave the sweltering streets of West Philadelphia for the West each summer, but I wasn’t sure what my life would look like after graduation. Thankfully, I had the great pleasure of meeting talented, brilliant, passionate men and women at staff training each summer of those uncertain years—the powerful effects of taking ‘The Road Less Traveled’ were continuing well beyond my teenage years.
Now I spend my days as an English teacher at a Charter high school in Brooklyn. During high school and college, I promised myself I would never be a teacher. Partially because of the expansive worldview that I gained during these summers as a participant and staff member, I was determined to do something earth-shattering, something big. Only now do I realize that I am, and I credit RLT. It was there that I experienced my first inkling of the magic of the teenage years, and it was also there that I grew to love the secondary pleasures of helping others to discover their own magic. I count my RLT co-workers among my closest and most gifted friends, and I know I’m not alone in citing the influence of ‘the Road’ on my adult life. Rest assured parents, I did not naïvely drop everything to falter in the Alaskan wilderness a la Chris McCandless—my RLT friends are incredibly successful by any traditional metric: they are doctors, educators, lawyers, consultants. That said, their success bears an indisputable ‘RLT’ touch: rather than working in corporate law, Emily Benfer works for a community law center in Washington, DC to assure that low-income families enjoy equal protection under the law; Jake Berman and Bernadine Han eschew lucrative medical fields like plastic surgery to focus their studies on international health and infectious disease; Annika Swanson works at McKinsey to further her passion of the last few years: social entrepreneurship supporting innovators who are addressing worldwide health and economic problems; Timo Weymouth and Brian Murray work as a middle school dean and a science teacher respectively, to assure children an unparalleled education at a particularly vulnerable age; this list goes on for pages…
This is the RLT influence: it’s not just about having a great summer; it’s about forging a remarkable life.
In a world rife with selfishness and mendacity, it can be tough to find inspiration. Robert Frost confronts this question directly in “The Road Not Taken” when he laments the finality of the unclear decisions we make—we’ll never be able to return to the fork to see what we’ve missed down the other path. If, as he suggests, we are resigned to our decisions for better or worse, then why not choose the path that offers the possibility of something better? Our time on this earth is short, but appreciating the exceptional richness and possibility of our lives is at the root of the RLT experience. My life has been fundamentally altered by the experiences and people that make up The Road Less Traveled – I hope yours will be as well.
- Tom Huntoon