Connecting the Dots: a Camping to Connect Recap
With the current polarized state of the world, sometimes the most revolutionary act can be found in reconnecting; with self, others, and the natural forces that unite us. This philosophy, along with the need we saw to address the issue of nature deficiency in urban youth, inspired us to create the Camping to Connect Initiative.
Since 2018, we have taken several groups of young men on rights-of-passage excursions, in which they learned about leadership, mindfulness, masculinity, brotherhood and most importantly, the outdoors.
The beginning of every trip goes like this: we arrive, drop off our things, and begin our first grounding exercise. It involves taking off your shoes and socks, and standing in the grass barefoot. As simple as it sounds, a considerable amount of our participants are usually terrified of the idea (nevermind the fact that they live in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the US), and cringe at the thought of a bug touching their feet.
While they may begin the experience almost kicking and screaming, by the end of the trip we have to drag half of them back home, as they keep asking us why can’t we stay a little longer, or when can we bring them back. I smile at this, knowing I was part of a transformation that cannot be undone by time, or space.
Oh, and yeah, while doing our barefooted icebreakers, we really break it to them when we collect their cell phones and sealed them in a box for the duration of the experience. We won’t confirm nor deny that tears have been shed.
Camping brings with it a true sense of nostalgia for me. The sights, sounds, smells and potential risks of the outdoors have brought with them many lessons; some of which I’m only beginning to truly understand. Learning to be comfortable with being “different” was one of them.
Besides removing their shoes for a moment to touch grass, and technology for the weekend, the next big surprise we had for the participants was a 2 miles night hike, where they got to try the hiking gear provided by the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth opportunities program and the amazing headlamps provided by Biolite. At the top of a mountain, we stopped to take it all in; the view; the stars; the loud sounds of birds, crickets, and other creatures, filling the night with a song. Nature was calling us out. Andy Isaacson, one of our facilitators, asked to turn off the headlamps. A bit of fear started to set in. But we were together, and everything was gonna be alright. Our racing hearts started to slow down when, with headlamps still off, we did a breathing exercise. This showed us all the value of mindfulness meditation, when in the middle of fear and adversity.
A frustrating reality of our current society, is that many citizens cannot--or simply refuse to--take time out of their lives to spend it in the woods. While the experiences contributed directly to my growth and made me “interesting,” not everyone I grew up around knew what to make of someone who looked like them knowing how to tie knots, build fires, and whittle; some didn’t care, or respect it.
Sounds a bit like life, doesn’t it?
The scouting lodge was hardly a mile from my house, but it may as well have been a different world. Almost everyone in my neighborhood looked like me. Almost everyone in my scouting troop did not. Almost everyone in my scouting troop had been on a plane, played a sport that was considered “white boy shit” (i.e. not basketball, football, or track), and had both parents in their lives in some capacity.
Many of my neighbors had never been on a plane (or more than 10 miles from home), and it was a ubiquitously understood fact that black boys in South Florida played football, and weren’t super close to their fathers. It was a first glimpse into life in the middle of the venn-diagram; a space I feel far more comfortable navigating, because I spent years learning to find my way.
While on our 6.6 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, we allowed the young participants to “get lost” with us, then let them find their own way back on course. They had to trust their own instincts - as well as each other - and it was one of my most fulfilling experiences as of late.
I know that I could not have done this without the experiences of being “the goofy lil negro with the Boy Scout uniform who be camping and shit” (may photos NEVER surface). Now I get a chance to give that same experience to someone going through the same thing; an experience I can’t put a price on. I was reminded that through the superficiality, we’re all just tryna find our way… no shoes required.
Please share the news; we’re accepting applications for our Camping to Connect Initiative. Interested young men from the New York City metro area can apply here to enroll.