The freshmen of PA-64 met Saturday at a raucous “pump-up” rally in Dillon Gym.
Their hometowns stretch from Potsdam, N.Y, to Wuxi, China. There are math whizzes, varsity athletes, and aspiring policy wonks. At the start, they are strangers. By week’s end, they’ll be a cohesive group, bonded by shared experiences. That’s the goal, at least.
Outdoor Action leaders work with a variety of tools to build a sense of purpose and unity, including camping lessons and an endless array of icebreaker games. But on this trip, the most useful tool is a relentlessly positive outlook. When faced with negatives, Ousterhout and Kitchen rely on the subtle, euphemistic refrain “not ideal.” Opening a trip with a wet tarp is not ideal. The three rounds of lightning protocol were not ideal. Five hours of sleep? Not ideal. But you wake up in the morning, cook breakfast, and get back on the trail.
That seems to be the itinerary for Monday, and by lunchtime, the group’s spirits are as high as they had been when they stepped off the bus from campus a day earlier. Eating a lunch of tortillas filled with peanut butter or tuna (and in some cases both), the students nearly forget the long night.
But a few yards down the trail, Ousterhout and Kitchen receive news of another “not ideal” situation in the works. On their OA-issued satellite phone, they read an emergency text message informing them of heavy rains approaching — three to six inches expected in the next two days — and they call the campus-based support center to arrange evacuation plans.
The next 24 hours are filled with bad luck. The group’s low-lying campsite proves unfit for camping, so the students are shuttled to another, well after dark. They hike for 45 minutes, guided by flashlights and headlamps, taking a wrong turn into a streambed. (In heavy rain, trails and streams often look alike.) When they finally reach the next site, they find another OA group already settled in the wooden shelters, so PA-64 sets up its nearly dry tarp at about 11 p.m. The students hang food in bear bags after midnight, get a few hours of sleep, eat breakfast, and then hike back to the road to be evacuated.
Half of the group leaves in a shuttle van Tuesday morning, expecting that the worst is over. But as the others begin to board their van, the campers hear a loud crack and see a tree trunk falling toward them.
Just before the tree shatters the van’s rear window, Jeff Kessler ’15 pulls a student shuttle driver away from the falling trunk.
A branch hits Wander on the back, and Kitchen, who is sitting inside the van, immediately thinks the vehicle has been struck by lightning. But no one from PA-64 or the other Princeton group waiting at the same site is seriously injured.
Within minutes, the freshmen are joking about their brush with death. When they eventually rejoin their trip-mates — emerging from state police cars and brushing the glass from their backpacks — they tell the story with an enthusiasm that Kitchen says is emblematic of an endearing group trait: “looking at the absurdity of our situation and laughing at it.”
For two days, while the freshmen wait for a bus back to Princeton, Kitchen and Ousterhout lead activities at a hotel in nearby Gettysburg, Pa. The surroundings are more comfortable than a tarp tent, but there still is room for bonding. The group even makes use of its trail food, cooking a Wednesday-night meal of bulgur wheat with peanut sauce on camp stoves in a parking garage next to the hotel.
“They were trying so hard to continue the outdoor experience,” Olivia Howard ’15 says of Kitchen and Ousterhout. “I’m glad they didn’t give up.”