We were all humbled, not so much by malevolent do-or-die boot-camp schemes and challenges to test us, conjured up by demented Outward Bound staff members like Freddie LaNue, Davey Borden or Al Ferraro. We were humbled instead by coming face-to-face with self-imposed limitations we had unwittingly placed upon ourselves the result of years of comfortable living and predictable lives. Now, faced with adversity in what seemed to be authentic life-or-death situations, we suddenly became acquainted with our flabby self-resolve and unflattering timidity.
We didnt like what we saw.
And sometimes when we looked around, we didnt like what we saw in others. Their inability to cope embarrassed and shamed the rest of us.
Like the initial day of a four-day trek we took in small, six-person teams. This was our culminating event, the penultimate challenge. Do this successfully and you could move on the stage two of the training.
The idea was simple:
- Carry everything you need on your back.
- Use the geological contour map provided.
- Stay off roadways and stick to trails, following the route marked on the map.
- Sleep wherever you can.
- Eat sparingly, as only half-rations are provided.
- On the fourth and final day, be at the finish line.
We were on our own to read and interpret the maps, follow the trails, stop and sleep when we needed to, and make our final destination on time. We were warned not to solicit nor accept local hospitality of Puerto Rican farmers and others we might come across, though we were to seek their permission if for instance we wanted to sleep in their tobacco barn or use water from their well. As one last touch the staff provided us enough food (Army rations) for normal meals for two and a half days, even though we were to be gone four or more days. The idea, they explained, is that since most of the world goes hungry most of the time, we should know from firsthand experience what its like to really be hungry.
Nobody said anything about drinking water, although we each carried a canteen wed filled at camp strapped to our canvas utility belt.
The tropical heat and humidity was terrible that first day, and our course was strenuous: up one hill, down another. Soon we were all tired and sweaty, drinking greedily from our canteens.
One of our group members seemed more frightened and panicky than the others. Slightly overweight and woefully out of shape, he complained loudly, expressing doubts about this whole journey. These quickly turned to self-doubts about his own ability to survive four days of this.
Soon he began panicking about having enough water.
Sweat-soaked with manic, darting eyes, he begged water from each of us, greedily drinking from our canteens until hed emptied them all. We shook our heads in despair as he sank deeper and deeper into a panicky funk. Clearly, he wanted out right now.
Before our eyes he began to lose rationality. He was weeping and babbling uncontrollably. Now we were concerned for him. He was incoherent, quickly going out of control
There was no way to communicate with the camp staff. The only checkpoints were certain unnamed intercept points, one each day along our route at which members of the staff would secrete themselves and, unobserved, wait for us to pass. We wouldnt see them, but theyd see us.
It was at the first of these points that we stopped and shouted to our hidden observers that we had a problem on our hands. In no time at all our panicky and terminally thirsty group member was quietly plucked from our group by a concerned staff member. One moment he was with us, the next moment he wasnt.
The rest of us continued on, conserving our rations, quickly learning how to track elevations indicated on the map and relate them to the hilly terrain we trekked. Always looking for navigational confirmation and aware that other teams were stumbling through the Puerto Rican backwoods like us, we quickly learned a few Spanish phrases to try out on farmers wed come across:
¿Donde es los otros Americanos? Where are the other Americans? Occasionally they would point and chatter in rapid Spanish, and instantly we knew we were on the right track.
We managed to survive. The only cheating occurred when, sleeping on a meadow near a farmhouse one night, the local farmer sent his small daughter out to us with a Thermos of hot Puerto Rican coffee, which is really a mostly-milk mix. He urged us to at least move into his barn under shelter. We refused, but we thought wed create an international incident by refusing the simple act of kindness and hospitality represented by the coffee, so we accepted the coffee and shared it among ourselves, savoring it ceremoniously almost like taking the sacrament at communion service in church.
The farmer is still probably still shaking his head, wondering why these five strange Americans ended up sleeping on the meadow on his farm.
At the end of the fourth day we crossed the finish line, joyous and proud, dirty and sweaty, hungry and thirsty. The staff was there to cheer and greet us.
But not our terminally thirsty teammate.
He was gone, back to the mainland, his dream of Peace Corps dashed forever.