I stand on top of Table Rock just as the sun rises and enjoy seeing the mountain’s shadow stretch off to the west across Linville Gorge. Looking at the woods and mountains around me, I reflect on this special place, the people who have worked here, and the program that has had such a profound impact on my life. Countless lives have been transformed here, and now hundreds have gathered to celebrate and honor what happens in this wilderness setting.
Fifty years ago, a small group of men and women established the North Carolina Outward Bound School and built its first base camp directly under the tower of Table Rock Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest, overlooking the nearby town of Morganton. Outward Bound, perhaps the progenitor of all outdoor adventure programs, was founded during World War II by the German Educator Kurt Hahn and uses the natural environment to provide challenging experiences that help build self-confidence and a strong ethic of service.
I realize that I am not returning simply to a place, or a school, or old friends and colleagues. It is the nexus of all three that gives such deep and rich meaning to our shared experience. And, although OB courses have been run in such non-wilderness contexts as cities and bomb shelters, the natural world provides an apt lens through which to view and understand how profound this experience has been for all of us.
The mountains of North Carolina are beautiful. Though they lack the open vastness of the Rockies and the exposed summits and severe weather of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the southern Appalachians stretch out rolling and green as far as the eye can see in some directions. Cliffs abound, and countless small valleys, or coves, cut into steep hillsides. Summer provides plenty of rain, which encourages dense growth of laurel, rhododendron, and other vegetation. Streams cascade down slopes and join to form wild rivers. Forests are filled with animal life, most benign but some dangerous, such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. Flowers bloom on trees and woodland floors. In short, it is an ideal place for an Outward Bound course because of the natural challenges present and because life is so rich, varied, and beautiful here that it cannot be ignored. It presses in on you and triggers an acute awareness of being alive.
Life is about growth and renewal. At one extreme it is about survival; at another, it is about thriving. Thriving as individuals, and as species. What better way to think about Outward Bound as a program? OB is a wilderness school, but it uses the outdoors as a medium for personal growth. Skill based activities such as cross country navigation, camping, rock climbing, and whitewater canoeing all serve to challenge and provide opportunities to learn about oneself and working with others. Discussions help students reflect deeply on their experiences. And this explicit seeking of depth and meaning, rather than focusing on the activities as simply recreational pursuits, promotes individual growth and compassion for others. The whole purpose of the Outward Bound program is to help individuals and their communities thrive.
I am amazed at the vitality, level of caring and compassion, and overall depth of people who gathered last weekend. Though many of us show the growing infirmities of age, there was yet a powerful physical presence projected by all; a determination to express and live life as best one can in the world through our bodies. Table Rock is a rugged place, yet those who came, however freely or encumbered they moved, were without complaint and even seemed to shed limitations a bit as if stepping back into some magical place of their youth. Spirit and heart were completely undiminished by years. There was a palpable energy in this gathering of people who shared a common purpose and set of values. And this spirit and heart remains dedicated to serving others. Just as I was aware of the plants and animals around me overcoming innumerable obstacles to survival, shouting out in their very presence a celebration of life, so too did I feel a palpable sense and celebration of life in our reunion gathering.
There is another aspect of our community that reminds me of the regenerative capacity of the natural world. Staff from all generations were present. Some of the very people who founded the school attended the reunion. They instructed students, and mentored less experienced staff. These, in turn, went on to have their own impact on others. Some students became instructors, inspired by their experience. Some instructors became mentors to other instructors, and so forth. There were innumerable stories recounting these lineages. I reconnected with my own mentor there, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me was to be able to thank him in person. I heard of those founders who encouraged him, and think of students who I may have helped somewhat in turn. I saw children of recent staff climbing on a nearby slab of rock, harnessed and helmeted, beginning their own life journeys, unaware that they are the youngest generation impacted by that handful of visionary founders. Just as generations beget generations, so too are ideals and values passed on.
One of the most moving stories shared during the weekend was from a woman from New York City. In the early 90’s she was a high school student in the Bronx who was selected to take part in a six-week program at NCOBS that combined literacy development with OB activities. The program was heavily subsidized, but families were asked to provide $50 as a sign of their commitment and investment. She did not have the money, and sadly shared her disappointment with her guidance counselor. The counselor reached into their wallet and produced two twenties and a ten dollar bill and handed them to her. She attended, and now is the principal of a school in the Bronx that just received a reward for excellence. Seeds planted in love and compassion can yield the same in bushels full. It is the natural cycle.
We are all part of the natural world, and this world carries much wisdom. At North Carolina, it provided a special place for a remarkable group of people to do extraordinary things. I am thankful beyond measure to have been part of it. I only hope that I can pay forward a fraction of what I have received.