It's hard to encapsulate such a wondrous four day journey in the span of an email but we'll do our best to offer a thorough summary here...
We began our trip Sunday morning in San Rafael with a proper circle of parents, leaders, and young men (no longer will I refer to them as 'boys'). I appreciated our circle in which we all witnessed one another in offering our wishes and prayers for the voyage into the wilderness. There was a slight change of plans to report regarding location as a ranger station in Oakhurst changed it's hours last minute making getting a permit for the chain lakes of the Sierra National Forest nearly impossible without radically altering our plans. It turns out this was a great blessing both for timing as well as for the well-being of the guys. Our location couldn't have suited us better, whereas our original plan certainly wouldn't have allowed as much spaciousness.
We piled in our cars, the six guys riding in the van with our beloved elder, SK, and S and myself in S's truck-- ourselves up front, and everyone's camping gear in the back. The trip across California was smooth and easy. We stopped for lunch in sparse shade at a park in Oakdale, CA where the temperature was in the 100's. I noted the level of ease the guys have with each other at this point. They sweetly reminisced about shared experiences and memories together over the last 2.5 years. I thought their dynamic seemed ironed out in a way, with their various roles complimenting each other well without anyone being overtly dominant or conversely, quiet and to themselves. They went to a local restaurant to use the bathroom and walked out looking like strangers in a faraway land. Indeed, we were a long way from Marin in many ways.
We got to the crabtree trail head (see photo) with little problem after about 3.5 hours in the car including getting a permit at the Pinecrest ranger station. The drive was beautiful. We slowly ascended up to the mountains with amazing overlooks of gorgeous tall trees and mountains stretching endlessly into the horizon. The sky was clear with temperature in the high 70s/low 80s. We had a quick check in as to how everyone was doing. We then oriented our crew around the landscape, made sure they had water and sunscreen, reviewed hiking wisdom, and reminded them to stay within sight of the group. And with that we were off. We quickly passed over a bridge raised over a beautiful bubbling brook of clear pure mountain water. We continued ascending the first part uphill on a fairly dusty path. The air was thinner than usual as we were at about 7500 feet high. I wondered if anyone would struggle too much, but all in all the guys did just fine. We took our time, stopping rather frequently for snacks and water. These breaks continued to allow for good stories to be shared among the group and deeper layers of connection as we journeyed deeper into the forest. After about 1.5 miles we came to a beautiful overlook known as Pine Valley. I'd guess the time was about 4 pm and the afternoon sun was setting in. It was really gorgeous as we all marveled at the forest to which we were going to call home for the next four days. There were stretches of rock, trees, valleys, and mysterious meadows within the mountainous landscape. S's knowledge of trees, plants, landscape, and wildlife is such a blessing and gift that he shares with us, as he did as we gazed out over the peak.
We continued on our way. Off in the distance we heard some mysterious 'music' and low and behold were greeted with a pack of cows trotting through the woods with cowbells. Apparently the park allows them to graze there from time to time. Then we stopped for some general education in regards to noting trail markers as a few of the boys went the wrong way through a watershed. Fortunately, they didn't get too far before we could call them back. We were soon at camp lake which was utterly beautiful and allowed for us to have our first swim of the trip with a few of us jumping in to refresh ourselves after the walk, while others hung around the rocks (see photo). The water was perfectly cool and the surrounding space was really something else. We pushed on and got to the epic bear lake around 6 or 7 as evening was coming. The sun was setting over the high rocks around the lake. Such an amazing spot to land with relative ease. Just a 3.5 mile walk or so to relative isolation in the wilderness. What a treat!
The guys got situated, pumping water, as I prepared dinner for the evening-- quinoa and bean burritos with guacamole. Once we were fed, it was getting dark and we all leaned back to enjoy the epic stars. S, a man of much knowledge, used his laser pointer to highlight many of the constellations in the galaxy that evening. And we also witnessed several shooting stars that night stretch across the sky. Temperature was just right-- probably in the mid 50s or so. We stretched out around our site on the granite slab and soon drifted asleep. As most of us awoke at one point or another throughout the night we were witness to the moon which was so utterly bright that one had little use for a flashlight in finding a place to pee. The sheer brightness of the moon made getting back to sleep a bit tricky.
The next morning S and I awoke to discuss our plan to have the guys begin their solo that morning. We decided that we needed the day to prep them further and create more of a sacred space around their solo time. So we held Council with them explaining our decision. We let them express their feelings around this change of plans which included both relief as well as some disappointment. We had some breakfast, and then the crew enjoyed some fun time together in the lake (see photo). Later that afternoon we sent everyone out on a mission to find their spot and spend some time there journaling and reflecting. They came back and showed S and I where they had chosen to spend the next day. That night we made them dinner and then sat around the fire together. After some initial silliness the guys dropped in together around the weight of what they would be doing the next day. We held space for them to share their hopes and fears around the challenge they were about to undertake. We reflected again how they had been asking for this for the last year, and how the time had come for us to usher them into this space. We asked them to go to sleep in silence and instructed them to have everything packed at dawn to embark on their journey. They followed these directions without fail. In the morning, they were up and ready to go. We created a circle of pinecones for them to step into to mark their initiation into the unknown. We read them a fitting poem, and sent them on their way.
With the guys gone base camp was quite quiet. Elder SK, Leader S, and I talked about our time together, and also enjoyed our own alone time as the guys were away. We had two people briefly return to camp for some reassurance just as night set in. We took care of them and encouraged them to continue their journey in a positive way. I was so impressed that these guys spent 24 hours alone in solitude and silence, not to mention fasting. I think this challenge would be unfeasible for the vast majority of people in our culture regardless of age.
All six returned promptly the next morning right as the sun was coming up over the horizon. I was so touched to see them return in their various states. We welcomed them back inviting them to ground down in the pine cone circle and then offering a proper hug. We prepared them a few bowls of fruit to break their fasts and had an eating meditation together before they began. The boys were in a super positive state over all. We held a long Council around a morning fire to help them ground into their experience. We each asked a question of them and allowed for a round of council: 1) What was your greatest challenge and how did you deal with it? 2) What's one thing you learned about yourself that you didn't know before? 3) What are you bringing back with you, and what are you leaving behind?
The discussion was rich and profound leaving us all deeply touched. The guys spoke of learning about an unknown self-resiliency. They spoke of realizing how much more capable they were than they had realized. They realized how lucky they were to have their lives as they were, and expressed a desire to help our more around the house and spend more time with family. They expressed a strong desire to return to their spot in the future. And many, many other things that were a privilege to hear and reflect back.
We ended Council with some words of wisdom and explained the plan for the rest of the day. We would pack up, pump water, and be on our way. The guys, in spite of expressing their vast appreciation of our wilderness were also eager to get back to the modern world of hamburgers and milkshakes. They hiked quickly back towards the cars, stopping briefly for another swim in camp lake. We stopped again at the bridge above the bubbling brook with a few of us dunking in to refresh and held another Council. What's your favorite memory from our time together? A sweet reflection commenting on the camaraderie of the group and appreciation for the beauty of the place.
The trip back was somewhat eventful compared to getting up there. Along highway 108 there was a fire which required us to turn around and take a detour back. This threw a wrench in our vision to make the group's dream of in n out burgers a reality. Instead we came back along highway 4 stopping in Stockton, CA with temperatures well above 100. They enjoyed food at a popular fast food chain that will remain unnamed, and seemed pleased to have 'real' food again. We were back in San Rafael at 3:45 to enjoy a closing circle with you all, reflecting and appreciating the guys' accomplishments together.
I will always remember seeing the guys walk in at dawn after their solo time. I was really filled with pride for these young men. I have a feeling the experience will stick with them and fuel their goals for a long time to come. I felt great about the trip. Thank you deeply for your trust in us and what we do. It's an honor to work in this way with your sons.
We'll send out a schedule soon for our final season together this fall which will include our Marking Ceremony. Happy Summers to you all and looking forward to seeing you all soon.
With love and gratitude,
S, S, and SK