Duty Calls

In The Wilderness, No One Can Dry Your Socks But You.

By Kevin Franklin

EVELYN, ONE OF the students on this four-day backpack tour of the Rincon Mountains, is on the ground next to the creek. She's holding her ankle. The pained expression on her face and the jumble of rocks along the streambed tell the whole story.

I drop my pack and dart across the stream. Trip leader Jen Bonini and science teacher Tracy Gallo are already by Evelyn's side. Bonini, also a science teacher, determines nothing is broken. But the ankle is swelling. We carry Evelyn across the stream and into camp.

Review Everyone in our little band of St. Gregory students shows concern, but Evelyn explains her ankle twists easily. We decide a day of rest and a couple of long soaks in the ice-cold stream should makes things right. The minor nature of the accident is fortunate. We still have a steep, five-mile hike on our way out of the Saguaro National Park wilderness.

But if things had been more serious, the group would've been forced to handle it. That's part of the deal with wilderness experiences: You have to make do with the current situation, not the ideal one. If the weather turns foul or someone suffers a serious injury, it's up to the group to find or invent a solution from available resources. Even if you carry a cellular phone, you still need to know what to do until help arrives.

I remember an emergency evacuation in the Chiricahua National Monument, when a woman in our group broke an ankle. It was getting dark, and the mountainous terrain precluded the safe use of a helicopter. So we carried her out on a gurney.

If you've ever tried to carry anyone on a gurney, you know it's not easy, even in the best of conditions. Do it over three miles of rugged country and you start to understand what people mean when they say "iron will." Our little band of rangers and hikers took turns during the exhausting procedure. By the time we were out, we were completely drained. But we learned a lot that day about teamwork, commitment and determination.

In our modern culture of conveniences, we rarely need to worry about our own comfort or safety. There's always the plumber, tow truck or policeman to fix our problems. Many of us rarely make our own food. We're not unlike hyper-specialized ants.

But in the wilderness, all of these responsibilities come rushing back. Each person might be called on to provide first-aid, comfort, or a hot meal. It teaches us to be human beings again, instead of automatons. It's a lesson worth bringing out of the wilderness.

After we cook our dinner and determine that Evelyn's ankle is indeed on the mend, it starts snowing. Our camp sits at an elevation of 5,300 feet, but the snow cover makes it seem more like a mountain in Colorado. The students retreat into their tents. I look around and see uncovered backpacks catching, and melting, snow.

I walk over to the sealed tents and explain to the expressionless nylon wall that if the packs get wet, so do the dry clothes in them. If the clothes get wet, ultimately so will their owners. Since there are no dryers and no malls near our camp, it's up to each member to keep his stuff dry. The half-hearted few are sufficiently rousted out of their tents to deal with yet another problem.

One small step for dry socks, one modest leap toward responsibility.

Next week: Out There Guy outsmarts van-driving coyotes. TW

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