In the early daylight hours of September 3, 2017, 650 first years, 200 leaders, and I trickled off campus to begin our five days of Outdoor Action. We were joining the ranks of thousands of other first years who had done Outdoor Action since the early 1970s. Around that time, the United States had seen an explosion of interest in spending time in the outdoors. The Dean of Students Office at Princeton proposed a pre-orientation “group wilderness activity,” hoping to make the transition to college easier on first years. In August 1973, Princeton sent out eight incoming first years with several upperclassmen leaders as a trial-run. The following year, “Outdoor Action” became an official pre-orientation program, and only one year after that, Princeton had developed its own self-contained training program for leaders that remains in place to this day.
That September morning, the class of 2021 began yet another cycle of Outdoor Action’s project. I stood in a Princeton parking lot with a forty-pound backpack, three liters of water, and nine members of my group, G14, trying to figure out how I would carry all that, trying to remember their names. A bus would soon drive us to a little slice of the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap, where we would be backpacking and canoeing for the rest of the week.
A few hours later, the Outdoor Action groups had been scattered across the mid-Atlantic to make their way along various trails in the vast network that unfurls quietly across the US. It was sunny but not uncomfortable. G14 pulled our packs off the bus, reorganized, refilled water bottles, and shared “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” which we were learning to call gorp. “Alright,” said Payton, one of my leaders. “Let’s go. Packs on.”
We were quiet that morning; I spent the time fidgeting with the straps that cut into my hip bones and shoulders, watching the ground in front of me so I did not trip, wishing I could be looking up. I did when someone saw a bear, and caught a blur scrambling down a tree trunk and hurdling away from us into the woods. We looked at each other. What “gorp” started, this finished. A brief but striking fear, smiles of relief, a story to be told. By lunch we were discussing “Game of Thrones” and collectively laughing at the bags of salmon that proudly proclaimed that they contained “Chicken of the Sea.”
Putting away our utensils, redistributing the food, separating the garbage from the compost, I started to appreciate the intricacy of the planning that went into this trip. The majority of students in my group—and, I later learned, of the participants of OA in general—had never slept outside before, did not own equipment to bring with them, and needed a huge amount of education in basic outdoors skills, like putting up a tent or lighting a stove. There were leaders who had to be trained extensively in how to do educate us, how to deal with rain, or heat, or injury, or illness. Moreover, Princeton’s is the largest outdoors orientation program in the country. All 650 participants were in the outdoors, for five days, all at once. Why did Princeton go to all the trouble to make Outdoor Action happen?
On the second morning, as we hiked, I spoke to Payton about the origin of the trails we were backpacking through. When I thought about my classmates all trekking miles along so many trails, the American outdoors felt full of interconnecting footpaths and campsites. I was curious as to their origins. Payton told me that the parks were sectioned off during the second industrial revolution, 1860s-1890s, and that the trails were cut out and marked largely by the Civilians Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Why, I asked him, were all these areas sectioned off and carved up? He thought for a few moments and then said that he guessed one main reason was to preserve the worldview the transcendentalists created in early 19th century.
That weekend, when I had internet again, I checked the National Park Foundation website. Payton’s proposition was confirmed: At the top of the Mission & History section is a quote by John Muir, disciple of the transcendentalist intellectual tradition: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” This “uniquely American idea” of preserving “our most magnificent and meaningful places for the purpose of public appreciation and recreation,” in the words of the website, has changed somewhat in character since the mid nineteenth century, but never really diminished: In Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (1996), Christopher McCandless adventures through the American west and Alaska, and meets death alone in the wilderness. He was hugely influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau. And this was my summer reading book in 2014, serving as an introduction to my high school English class on the transcendentalists. The American outdoor experience narrative survived the years, refusing to become an anachronism.
I thought perhaps Princeton might fit right in to that tale, supplying just such an experience to first years to connect them to their landscape. The person to ask was Rick Curtis ‘79, who has been running Outdoor Action for 35 of its 42 years and is responsible for making OA the largest outdoor orientation program in the country. When Curtis came back to Princeton, he was planning to organize OA for just one year before getting a PhD in clinical psychology. “But,” he said across from me at the round table in his colorful office, “I enjoyed more the teaching and facilitation side of things. This was educational in nature instead of therapeutic in nature.”
When I asked him whether he thought OA was a continuation of that particular American outdoors tradition, he thought that to some degree it was. “I look at my own experience as a freshman on OA as a transcendental experience for sure. I had never done anything outdoors before, and then I loved it. I loved being there, I loved being disconnected.” There are two or three “Nature and Mindfulness” trips each year trips, he told me, that seek that sublime experience directly. “Certainly that philosophy is very important. We want people to value the outdoor experience. I think everyone can gain something in terms of this relationship with the outdoors. But it is definitely not our primary goal. What we’re mainly trying to do is to make effective teams that are self-contained in the outdoors.”
I thought back to resting one afternoon in the red light that filtered through the tent that we, G14, had put up together, realizing as I was lying there the utter practicality to which we had been reduced. Our well-being was intimately bound to the immediacy of the solutions to the problems we faced. By the end of the first day, we could all speak the same language, and by osmosis had learned that the most important thing we could do, here and now, was seek the small satisfactions that would benefit the group: opening that knot on the bag of barbeque sauce, spotting a loose branch and re-pitching the tent. We learned to put “smellables” (food, toothpaste, Purell) in a large sack called a “bear bag,” which we would hoist into the air with a pulley system so that bears could not get to our food while we slept. Once, trying to string up the bear bag, Payton said, “In an ideal world, it would be five feet from the tree. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a very real one.” Another night, the crash of a branch falling had woken us up. Over breakfast (oatmeal and gorp, always), Payton said, “It just goes to show: if a tree falls in the forest, you definitely hear it.”
And this pragmatism breeds earnestness: because our concerns were decidedly primitive, there was no sullenness, boredom, ill-feeling in this quiet time between pitching tents and dinner; no eye-rolling, bad-mouthing. We cooperated by necessity. I nodded at Curtis. I knew exactly what he meant.
The reactions to the challenge we faced in real-time—those were not far off from my hypothesis. Thoreau’s Walden is, after all, at least partly a manual. But if the real point of OA is cooperation, we were far removed from the essence of that transcendentalism. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman: they were champions of individualism, of thinking for yourself. Those are the contexts in which we recognize their most memorable quotes. Famously, for example: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (541).
Our goals, on the other hand, were explicitly communitarian. The contrast between their self-involvement and our mutually dependent human community could not have been more pronounced. The trip was full of people. Our most homespun particularities would illuminate the dusk in the woods like lanterns as we sat together after dinner.
Curtis told me that when OA was optional, 90% of participants opted in because they had heard it was a great way to meet people. They were not coming with the outdoors as their primary motivation. “This philosophy: It’s there, it’s important, but in the end of the day, it’s ancillary. The most special thing about OA is that you have to turn to one another, because you have to stay warm, you have to stay dry, you have to eat, and you can’t do any of that yourself.”
What was “transcendental” about the trip was the firm designation of Outdoor Action as an experience. As much as we remember their individualistic epigrams, we remember Emerson and Thoreau for their odes to experiential existence. “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” The philosophers were indisputably individualists, but they were individualists not so much as an end in itself, but as a means to unadulterated experience.
Yet when I reflect on it, the experience of OA that was available only via the community we built. I remember crouching in lightening positions in a thunderstorm, ten of us in one tent, one leader’s water bottle wrapped in a head lamp diffusing the blue of the plastic dimly onto our faces. And then the stunning catharsis when, 36 hours later, we woke up to sunshine. It was almost biblical; Noah’s story felt absurdly personal for a few moments. I have felt nothing as quiet, serene, otherworldly as setting up camp in the newborn shade, with the river swimming under a gentle cloud of mist, water rising instead of falling. We had no dove with an olive branch, but we had these jumbo-sized worms, bloated with water, that enthusiastically surfaced in the dirt, which is almost the same thing.
Thoreau’s classic description of to the benefit of seeking experience is as follows: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” On OA we replaced his I’s with we’s. Instead of learning to self-rely, we learned to rely on each other.