When I flipped through a catalog and chose my month-long Student Conservation Association trip back in 1993, I don’t know exactly why I picked the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I’d never even heard of the place. It was tiny–only 30,000 acres–and far from Seattle. My dad, who’d gone to college in Colorado, told me to rank it #1. Being an eager-to-please 17-year-old (don’t laugh), I did–over Wrangell-St. Elias, Haleakala, North Cascades. Over bayonet peaks and stone-cold glaciers. Over the flashy names, the million-acre spreads, the glory parks.
When our group met in Montrose, I had a new purple pack to match my new lease on life. The other kids didn’t know my latent nerdiness, my self-consciousness, my perfectionist streak. They were different, and I could be, too. Jon was a Korean, Princeton-bound senior from Brooklyn (Brooklyn!). Raphael, a Hispanic class clown from Boston. Austin, a six-foot-four farm boy from Pennsylvania with forearms the size of Duraflames. And Emily and Mary–I don’t remember where they came from, but one was an aspiring member of the Indigo Girls and the other wore ironic postal uniforms.
Louisa was our leader and token adult. Or more precisely: our adult and token leader. Mid-breakup with a woman back in California, she was useless. Each morning when we hiked from our backcountry campsite past the visitor center to our trail project, carrying pulaskis with Travolta swagger and basking in the curiosity of tourists, Louisa stopped at the payphone and sent us ahead. While she ruminated, gazing over the canyon rim, we built steps and wore dorky construction helmets and stank. We made up songs while we shoveled, then napped on each other’s bellies. In the evening, we cooked pasta and ate amid cheatgrass. Come nightfall, we climbed the ridge and lay under sifted-sugar stars. Sometimes, Louisa would treat us to milkshakes, but it only earned brief and reluctant respect: We learned to lead ourselves, and we finished that trail. Looking back, those four weeks felt like an eon and an instant, as if time had shifted slightly, the way it always does when you disappear into wild places.
It was the best summer gig a kid could have. SCA combined wilderness with hard work and a level playing field: We wore the same T-shirts and khakis, just two sets, and dug in the dirt for eight hours a day. We all had greasy hair, days of dried sweat on our temples. We all slept outside and woke up to an ever-unexpectedly beautiful place. And we all scribbled brave new ideas on our blank slates. As a high school kid, with high school insecurities, it was freeing. Fifteen years later, it still feels like some of the freest I’ve ever been.