The Original AWE: Borrowed Boots, a Lost Sleeping Bag, and Lifelong Friends

In honor of Athenian’s 50th Anniversary, alumni Michael Connelly ’71 and Judy Goldberg ’71 wrote about their 1969 experience on what we now know as the Athenian Wilderness Experience.  

By Michael Connelly and Judy Goldberg

Michael (pictured above on right, eating):  What we now refer to as the Athenian Wilderness Experience, or AWE, was just plain Outward Bound when it first became part of the Athenian experience the year I came to the school as a junior in 1969.  That first year, the program was operated by staff from Northwest Outward Bound, in Oregon, in portions of the Sierras where many of them had never been before, creating unexpected challenges and a real learning experience for everyone involved.  Participation was mandatory, which apparently created an issue for some rising sophomores but was just part of the program for people like me who were new to the school. My arrival from Mexico City, where my family lived at the time, was memorable in a number ways.  The flight my mother had booked for me arrived in San Francisco, and I was shuttled by helicopter across the Bay to the pick-up point at Oakland Airport.  I’ve never been sure why, but the helicopter was of the large, green military variety and I soon realized that for all the other young men who were aboard, the final destination was not an idyllic co-educational boarding school nestled at the foot of Mount Diablo but Vietnam.

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Judy pictured in braids.

Once the bus had deposited all of us at the school and we gathered under the Oak tree to check our equipment before setting out early the next morning for Mono Lake, I discovered I was in unexpected trouble because I had no hiking boots.  I was a scholarship student and I had read in the materials we had been sent by Outward Bound that boots would be provided.  Of course, that referred to participants in the Northwest Outward Bound program, not Athenian students, and I had clearly misunderstood.  I told Leslie, my patrol leader, of my predicament, and she came to the rescue by lending me her spare boots.  That meant that I was not only well shod but the boots had already been broken in and I avoided the suffering that many of my cohorts experienced as a result of having brand-new boots.

Judy:  My anticipation of the Outward Bound experience was distinctively different from Michael’s.  I, too, was an entering junior at Athenian, thanks to the good fortune of parents who realized I hungered for a different kind of high school experience. I was a Bay Area kid, steeped in 60’s pedagogy (though a little young for true hippie identity) and an avid outdoor adventurer. I recall starting the “OB” adventure with some “attitude.” I loved back-packing and had gone on summer camp expeditions in the Trinity Alps of northern California for several years.  I looked dismissively at my fellow students as they struggled over decisions about packing and what to leave behind: make-up, extra clothes, beloved mementos, etc. This particular “letting go” was far from my non-materialistic sense of necessities. A backpack and an open trail were my métier.

So off we all went the next morning, gathering that evening for supper together by the lake shore before leaving on our separate patrols early the next morning.  Each patrol included a faculty member as well as the patrol leader so there were two adults ostensibly in charge of a crowd of unruly teenagers.  The Outward Bound folks had not, up until that time, had a coeducational program or one in which many of the participants (all those rising sophomores) already knew each other, so that was probably a good thing.

A number of patrols were scheduled to meet up again in Tuolumne Meadows.  We had significant difficulty getting there–including the loss of my poorly attached sleeping bag while crossing a glacier and a case of snow blindness resulting from our crossing it in bright sunshine–and arrived a day later than planned.  I will never forget our arrival, when Leslie settled us in the shade beside a cool mountain stream for lunch (have peanut butter and crackers ever tasted so good?) while she went off to find the others.  When she returned after scouring the Meadows for some time, she reported that we were the only ones there so far.  It turned out that all the other patrols experienced greater challenges and worse setbacks than we had, which in retrospect seems to have been one of the distinct benefits as well as difficulties of planning a program for the first time in terra incognita.

As our respective patrols set-out with backpacks laden with a shared food supply for 5 days, I recall taking a lion’s share, proclaiming “it’s not so heavy once you hoist the pack onto your hips.” I demonstrated by dragging the heavy pack onto a bent leg and swinging it over my shoulder. I imagine myself hitting the trail with a particular “see, no big deal!” flare. Our first hike was a series of steep switch-backs.  Not fun, but I knew a slow pace was better than the stop and start, huff and puff I saw from my whinier trail mates. I’m sure the patrol leader must have reminded us that we were only as fast as our slowest member. “Like that was going to build team spirit!  What wusses!” was probably ruminating in my inflated head. That evening, when we were setting up camp, I got my comeuppance.  Warned about bears, I decided to climb a tree to hang my (heavier than most!) food sack.  In one very unheroic move, I came crashing down from the tree limb and landed on my right knee.  It was bad. It swelled to twice its size and I couldn’t put weight on it. For the rest of the trip, I hobbled with a stick, trying to keep up with the rest of the group.

So how did I survive without a sleeping bag?  Leslie, who had done her own urban Outward Bound (including a solo) in the streets of Detroit saw this as a challenge for the entire group to solve.  So until the snow blind girl went home at the first resupply (in the early days, there were two resupplies until it was realized that one was enough) and left her sleeping bag behind, I slept wrapped in ground cloths between two other people in their sleeping bags. It worked, although my teeth would be chattering by dawn, and after that, I was certainly more careful when it came to packing my backpack.

One other story–while trudging up a mountain during an early season snow storm, I remember exhaustedly asking Leslie when we would finally reach the summit.  “Look up,” she said, “instead of looking at your (her) boots.”  I did, and there was the peak right before my eyes.

How did I manage with a badly sprained knee?  Well, I got encouragement and special attention from the handsome patrol leader which was a happy surprise.  And when asked if I wanted to go home at the same troublesome resupply Michael mentioned, I said “no way!” Had I left at that juncture I never would have been in the same expedition group at the end with Michael. It was in those high Sierra landscapes where we started what has now become a 44-year friendship; initially cemented by Michael plucking a fresh, white aster each morning for me to stick into my long thick plait.

Lessons learned?  The trail offers many transferrable analogies for day-to-day life.  “Keep on trucking.” “When you get to a fork in the road, stay high.” Clearly, this would be a popular choice for a 60’s gal! Another spin from Michael’s “look up” and appreciate where you are when you’re in the heat of an uphill climb is to “narrow your field of vision.” Mountains are never as big if you stay the course and go from step to step. Then, when you do reach that summit or pass, you realize it wasn’t all that hard after all.

Once it was over and we were all back at Athenian, I often talked to the friends from my patrol about our experience (and am still in touch with many people I met on Outward Bound to this day).  As I recall, most of us felt that it was an amazing, worthwhile and life-changing experience.  Except for one fellow, who was an excellent student and went on to Harvard, who said if he ever had to go hiking with a fifty-pound backpack again it would be too soon.

I’ve always wondered if he ever changed his opinion or still feels that way.