My first college, Quest University Canada, was in British Columbia, in the small town of Squamish half way between “Van” (Vancouver) and “Whis” (Whistler). It’s a small, liberal arts school on the border of Garibaldi National Park, so of course First Year orientation has to include something involving the surrounding nature.
Coming from Colorado, I knew nature, or at least I thought I did at the time. My family’s not religious, but God was and is powder days on Sundays, and the Aspen leaves changing from vermilion to scarlet to gold every autumn. I wasn’t as intense about nature like some of the kids at Quest. I mean there were people who hiked Patagonia before they were twenty and went rock climbing in perpetual rain because they just had this drive to be out in a nature in a way I didn’t personally understand. There was an unspoken prerequisite which dictated one must have an overwhelming sense of amazement for nature, and the ability to let profound moments steal the air from their lungs and exhale the word “Wow!” every thirty seconds, in order to go to school there.
I knew I had that kind of love for nature in me always. I still called out “sunset alerts” to my family to catch the best colors and applauded thunderstorms, but I didn’t hike or appreciate nature nearly as much as I could have. I sort of created a resentment toward nature that I didn’t notice. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I realized I had this new skewed relationship with nature, until I went to BC and had this experience one September day.
The second week of school—my second week of college ever—First Years take two days off class to go out on what’s called “Adventure Pursuits.” It is a school tradition, meant to help one bond with their classmates and feel connected to the school community, as well as the local attractions. First Years who experience Adventure Pursuits before all the others keep the secret in order to keep the surprise. I, of course, was delighted to have a two day break already, so early on in my college career, thanks to homesickness and the slight existential panic of adulthood catching up to me. But the dilemmas I had while immersed in nature for two days were plentiful, and though I’d love to say this school experience helped me to overcome all my issues with nature, I do still struggle. The happy ending to this story is that I rediscovered what makes my heart beat hard in my chest.
We spent the first day of Adventure Pursuits out in the late summer heat, in the backwoods near Brohm Lake in BC. Without realizing why I was so uncomfortable and slightly irritable, I had all these slight fears of nature infecting me the whole time. I hate bugs. As a kid, I was bitten thirty-seven times in a single week, and became terribly sick for a short period of time because of this. I hate being cold, too, and I sunburn easily. I don’t mind getting dirty as long as it’s not too dirty and I can shower right away, and I am constantly afraid of getting hurt, especially my face. I have this irrational fear that I will break my nose or gouge my eyes out. I had never before realized that these fears I had developed impacted my relationship with nature. I went back to my dorm feeling as happy as ever, though, since I was ignorant to these fears at the time. My fears were overlooked because I did not face them that day, but they showed their true forms eventually the next day.
We started walking into the forest—which I hadn’t had a chance to visit since arriving at school—and was told we were going to walk blindfolded through the forest, following a drum beat to the challenge’s completion. Which of course my punk-ass, snobby eighteen year old self scoffed at, because on the inside I was freaking out a little bit.
The man administering the exercise made it clear it would take him a moment to find a spot from where to guide us with the drum. Once he started to let out a steady rhythm of beats, we could either start to move right away or wait as long as we wanted to start our blind quest through the woods. When we reached him, he would touch us on the shoulder, and that would be the end.
“It isn’t a contest,” he said. “It isn’t a race either. This is something for you to feel connected.”
Which I of course scoffed at again.
I tied my blindfold underneath my pony tail and waved my own hand in front of my face to make sure I couldn’t see anything. The light in front of my eyes shuttered too much as it skipped between my fingertips, letting me know I would be tempted to peer through the thin fabric and cheat. I closed my eyes, promised myself that wouldn’t happen, and took so many deep breaths that didn’t help prepare me for what was going to happen. I kept thinking about how stupid I would look, gaggling about the forest even though everyone else would be blindfolded as well.
Nothing could have prepared me for the feeling I got when that first drum beat sounded.
Boom. It echoed, all around the A-frame. It made every nerve on my arms and the back of my neck awaken. I could suddenly breathe, more fully and deeply than ever before—it was the most surreal feeling of calm I had never experienced in my life. It felt like electricity running through me in cool rolling waves.
I counted seven beats, timing my breathing with each one until I decided to stand up and start my challenge.
At first, I tried to walk on two legs, with socks and shoes on, but I kept tripping. Dirt dug underneath my fingernails and the fear of taking a tree branch to the cheek or eye bubbled up in my chest. Without thinking twice I tugged my socks and shoes off, leaving them behind. It didn’t matter anymore; I would find them later. I didn’t want to let my fears ruin this feeling.
I lowered to all fours, feeling my way through the forest, gliding my hands and knees along the moss, wood, and dirt. Elated with the feeling of it, I started to cry into my blindfold. The feeling of cool dirt in my palms reassured me it wasn’t disgusting anymore. I combed moss between my fingers, and bonked my head on a log. I used my sense of touch to feel my way over or under. I felt bark on the arches of my feet. I started to move at this incredible pace that wasn’t too fast, but made me realize I didn’t have to see to know where I was going. It was so amazing, that I am positive I will never be able to replicate this feeling again. Realizing this makes me sad, but to have felt this wave of relaxation and exhilaration is indescribable too.
The hand on my shoulder came too soon. I was smiling so widely it hurt my cheeks as I tugged off my blindfold. I watched as the rest of my classmates felt their way through the forest in complete silence, probably feeling the beat of the drum in their sternum as they got closer and closer like I did. Maybe they matched their breaths to it too. Some still tripped over logs, and smiled when it happened, never getting frustrated once. When everyone finished and the drumming stopped, we sat in perfect silence for a moment longer.
“Can we do that again?” one kid said. We all laughed. The guy with the drum smiled and nodded his head back toward campus.
“Why don’t I show you what else we have for today?” he said, and we all nodded. We gathered our things. I picked my socks and shoes up from where I left them, and went barefoot the rest of the day. Fears of cuts on the soles of my feet and bug bites were diverted. I fell in love with nature all over again.
Katie Hankinson is the Senior Editor at Sonderers Magazine. She is the author of two unpublished books (she’s working on it), as well as a freelance journalist, photographer, social media manager, and student. Katie currently attends school in her home state of Colorado for English and Linguistic Anthropology.