“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anyone else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”
— Wendell Berry
I’ve heard this quote before every Davidson Outdoors Summer Odyssey session I’ve ever led.
This time it’s the beginning of my seventh and final Odyssey session, my last chance to be part of this incredible Davidson experience, where incoming first-year students spend five or eight days in the outdoors, paddling on the French Broad River or hiking to Max Patch or participating in service projects as they get to know their future classmates.
In the moments before we meet our new students, all Odyssey leaders gather in one room to hear this one quote and give each other the DO-prescribed 12 hugs a day (for growth). It is our last moment of stillness before the session begins.
When Berry describes the loneliness of being in a new place, he describes the Odyssey experience as well as the first-year college experience. Odyssey students arrive asking two main questions: Do I belong? And if so, how? They often know only what others have told them about the Odyssey and about Davidson. Now, they are experiencing it for themselves with these questions in the back of their minds.
I remember my own loneliness of asking those same questions when I got in an Odyssey van for the first time with seven other students and two trip leaders I had just met.
As we crossed the rural North Carolina landscape, more familiar to me than to others, I began to find common ground with the other students: a shared love of science-fiction with one and an interest in plants and ecosystems with another. As the trip went on, I became more and more familiar with the trails we were biking and more comfortable taking on big roots and getting rained on. I also continued to discover unexpected shared values and interests with the other students with whom I would spend my next four years at Davidson.
It is this comfort in a new place and discovery of shared experience that I always hoped my participants would find on the Odyssey sessions I led. What I had not expected, however, is that the sentiments expressed by Berry in this quote are also ones I’ve found in becoming a leader.
Leading is often a lonely role, but as I led more and more sessions, I became comfortable in a position of leadership and discovered the balance between being a figure of authority and being vulnerable with my participants. That balance turned the often-lonely experience of leadership into one that both eliminates loneliness amongst my participants but also between myself and my future fellow students.
Now, as I leave behind a summer with Odyssey and Davidson College and head to Costa Rica to start a year-long position with the School for Field Studies, I hope to bring a familiarity with the discovery of new places and people with me, so in the places I find myself in the future, I too can cease to be alone.