The Spell of Wilderness
Perched on the edge of Australia's Blue Mountains, there is a cinema that shows only one film. It tells the story of the Wollemi pine, one of the world's oldest trees and long thought extinct, but discovered majestically alive just 15 years ago. Wilderness is a spell that is easily broken, the film's narrator intones, urging a careful stewardship of this lost and found relic that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Across the continent, in Broome, Western Australia part of the Kimberley region depicted in the epic film Australia small groups regularly gather at the headquarters of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to begin the adventure of immersing themselves in the wilderness, and they are extraordinarily careful not to break its spell. Often, they are searching for something they cannot define, and, magically, they often find themselves.
Such was the case for Environmental Studies major Jamie Trombley '11, who last summer suspended life as she knew it in the United States and headed to Australia on an 80-day backpacking, sea kayaking and sailing program with NOLS. She came back certified as a Leave No Trace master educator, but her time Down Under has certainly left deep traces on her life.
It's not even so much that it was Australia that she went to, though she says the island nation will always have a place in her heart as the first place she's visited outside New England. No, it's that in the wilderness in her days of fasting and exploration, in both her solitude and in the community she found with her fellow adventurers she found herself and a new path to follow in life.
Sometimes You Have to Leave to Know What You Have
Jamie, who grew up in Warner, N.H., just two exits down the highway from Colby-Sawyer College, has loved the wilderness for a long time. A good student who ran cross country and was active in her high school's outdoor programs, she always appreciated educational opportunities. Yet, school required too much time indoors, passively learning about things for which she had little passion. College, she hoped, would be different if she were able to go. Attending college, like surviving in the wilderness, was never a sure thing.
In Australia, Jamie recalls walking through the Outback and thinking, This is beautiful, but where am I going to find water?, only to come upon an oasis minutes later, complete with a waterfall. In high school, she remembers hoping to be the first in her family to go to college and wondering how to pay for it, only to receive the gift of education as the recipient of the Grace Hanlon Scholarship. The scholarship, provided by anonymous donors, provides tuition to Colby-Sawyer for graduates of the local public high school, Kearsarge Regional High School.
Like hiking in new boots, though, it took some time for Colby-Sawyer to feel comfortable. As a first-year commuter student, Jamie found it difficult to live at home with her family and their many animals while trying to find her place on campus.
Last year I didn't stay on campus at all. I was pretty isolated and didn't really know how to interact or get involved. I wasn't meeting people, Jamie says. Then I did NOLS and I came back to Colby-Sawyer and joined the cross-country team. I met people, and it encouraged me to get more involved. Now I'm making friends and it's good. This feels like my real freshman year, and I have a more positive attitude toward college in general. I think about who I would have been if I hadn't done NOLS. I think about how miserable I could have been for four years. I would have stuck out college because it's an amazing opportunity and my family's all proud of me and stuff, but now I'm doing more than just sticking it out I'm really making the most of it.
Learning Down Under
Jamie made the most of her time in Oz, too. She and the 11 other students in her group, nine of whom were male, ranged in age from 18 to 23 and came from all over the United States. They took 16 semester credit hours of biology, environmental ethics, leadership techniques, skills practicum and risk management.
NOLS is a school, it's not just a bunch of kids walking around the bush, Jamie says. We'd hike in the morning and then have classes during the hottest hours. We had assignments and presentations to do, and the whole time we were learning wilderness first aid. When we were sea kayaking we'd pick a new leader every day and he or she would have to navigate us to the next island. Our rations were resupplied every nine days, and we had to find the van based on coordinates on a map. Our survival depended on paying attention and learning.
We learned all about bush tucker (the native herbs, spices, mushrooms, fruits, flowers, vegetables, animals, birds, reptiles and insects that can be consumed) and how to survive on that. We were in cook groups and had to make dinner, so we learned how to use the camp stove. Sometimes we played Iron Chef to keep things interesting. For sailing, we learned all about our boat, the 52' schooner Pindan.
In the parched landscape, she also learned that skinny trees don't offer much protection from stampeding feral cattle; that when told to look for crocodiles while swimming, look and look carefully. She learned that Leave No Trace means even drinking the water in which you boil pasta. That people do get lost in the Outback. That three months without a shower can make you look and smell pretty gross, but you won't care. That you don't need as much clothing or food as you think, but one must have chocolate at all costs. And, that as new as the environment may seem to a traveler, the Lost Generation and many others have known the land intimately and hold unfathomable knowledge of the place. Learning from the aboriginal community about their past, and Australia's past, was emotional and important, Jamie says.
I like NOLS as a school because they had us work on personal and academic things. They push you in ways you want to be pushed. We met with our leaders to talk about what we wanted to work on, like being patient, and they'd help you when they noticed you being impatient, they'd call you on it. It was so personalized, and in an out-of-the-classroom setting. That's why I like the Environmental Studies major: we're outside every day and learning about things I feel are relevant.
A New Direction
After 80 days in the bush and a tearful farewell to her fellow travelers in an overwhelmingly crowded airport, Jamie had to re-enter a noisy, populated world that expected her to shower and wear deodorant and shop in overflowing grocery stores. After weeks of silence from home, there was constant communication from friends and family, and an old life to resume, though with a new resolve.
NOLS made me a positive person, made me realize I can enjoy what I do and that I don't have to do stuff I don't enjoy, Jamie says. I came back and changed my major to Environmental Studies, and over winter break I earned my Wilderness First Responder certification, so now I can lead groups in the wilderness. That's kind of my plan for the summer; I've already gotten a job as a hut keeper in the White Mountains, so I'll either do that or work for the Student Conservation Association, I haven't decided yet. SCA would probably send me out West and I'd be in charge of a group of high school students, teaching them 'Leave No Trace' and working on a community-based project.
While in Australia, Jamie made a list of things she wants to improve about herself. On the flight home, she read over that list and realized she'd already started. Though she hasn't yet converted her car to run on bio-fuel, she can cross off her intention to earn Wilderness First Responder certification. Also on her list? Working for NOLS after graduation.
Ideally, I'd like to work for NOLS and travel wherever they want to send me, though I really want to go to India, Jamie says, her voice drifting off to yet another continent. I want to work for NOLS and with youth. I definitely want to go abroad, but eventually I want to settle down and have my own farm. That's the plan.
But for now, because of NOLS, I'm so much more relaxed; I used to stress out so much more. Now, if I don't get something done, it's my fault but it's not the end of the world. I'm a happier, more positive personI'm doing what I want to do. It's good. I like where things are going.