Fall Sunday: White Rim Redemption

Fall Sunday: White Rim Redemption

As a mom, I plan outdoor adventures for my family all of the time. It’s usually last minute, with most of the necessary gear and ballpark directions to guide us to our destination.

But, as a teacher who also leads outdoor trips, I plan differently. With a team of colleagues, we plan a daily itinerary, determine trip goals, make curricular ties, anticipate risks, detail medical plans, identify evacuation routes, and create contingency plans — and then contingency plans for the contingency plans.Daily lesson shot-2

And so it went this fall. I was back in the role of teacher/outdoor education leader at the Telluride Mountain School planning to co-lead the upper school students on their fall outdoor education trip: a 5-day/4 night Moab/White Rim mountain bike excursion.

Together with my colleagues and the students, we had reviewed the itinerary, packing list, safety protocol, menu planning and student leadership roles. We were ready.

But, at one of the last trip meetings, I realized we had overlooked one essential item.

“There is something you all need to add to the packing list,” I announced. A pause ensued. We had rechecked the list three times. It included everything from spare tubes and sketch journals to rain pants and socks.

“Make sure to pack a disco shirt,“ I said.

A few students laughed. A few others looked doubtful. Those who know me best, wrote it down. My colleague, and Mountain School art teacher, Craig Wasserman, adamantly nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, disco shirts,” he repeated.

Standard backcountry protocol mandates waiting to break out the disco shirt until toward the end of a trip (although there are plenty of exceptions to this rule). It’s like the chocolate stashed in the bottom of your pack. If pulled out prematurely it might not be appreciated, or worse, it may be misunderstood as brazen or overconfident. Done correctly, it’s a key celebratory move signifying a trip’s success – not just logistically, but holistically.

The previous fall, Wasserman and I had led the White Rim – a 100-mile, mountain-bike trip in the backcountry of Utah’s Canyon Lands National Park. The road is a primitive two-track atop a sandstone foundation millions of years old, and cuts above the Green and Colorado Rivers meandering through mystical red rock formations. It’s Middle Earth, an amphitheater of red rock, a maze of unfathomable geology. It’s big, bad, bold.

But, on the last trip, we never got to break out the disco shirts.

We didn’t make it to the last night. Instead, due to abnormal heavy rains and flash flooding, we hiked the students out of the canyon. We made the right decision and demonstrated the hardest lesson of the backcountry – knowing when to walk away. We used our contingency plan, but we didn’t finish the trail.IMG_2337

We had been thinking of repeating the trip for over a year. And, so had the older students who were with us. In fact, it was on the bus back from the White Rim in 2013 that the students vowed they’d come back in 2014.

And I vowed that we’d make it to the end and wear the disco shirts.

Then finally in late October, the trip was upon us. We loaded the 22 bikes and caravanned to Moab where we spent our first day staging the trip. We shopped at City Market, camped near the trailhead, shuttled the extra vehicle and bike trailer to the end of the trail, and packed and repacked 92 gallons of water, two cook stoves, four coolers, three dry food boxes, 10 tents and 22 duffel bags, sleeping bags and sleeping pads — all into two Suburbans.

And then, suddenly, the students were on their bikes. They descended down Mineral Springs Road deep into the canyon — to Middle Earth – that place below the top rim and above the canyon bottom.droppoing

And it’s there, on the trail and in the canyon, where the magic happens.

It’s there where the fastest, oldest riders choose to ride at the very back of the pack, for an entire day, to help the slower riders. Where freshmen recite Edward Abbey under the stars and where a 15-year old certified wilderness first responder shares his medical knowledge.

It’s there where students laugh because they’re happy, look each other in the eye, cook dinner, clean dishes and lay back, perched on a red rock canyon rim, looking out at the distance because there is nothing else they have to do in that moment, but wait.

It’s there where an art teacher can teach an outdoor drawing lesson and no one looks at the clock. A math teacher can lead a reflection on leadership. It’s where students can be honest. Where a reluctant freshman can find a spark and relentlessly pedal 1200 vertical feet to the rim of a canyon faster than anyone else.


It’s there where lessons aren’t measured by the Common Core; deeds aren’t evaluated by grades; and the day isn’t controlled by 45-minute blocks.

In a society in which students lose themselves in high school, it’s there where students find themselves.

And, this fall, it was there, in the middle of the Utah desert on the White Rim Trail, where Telluride Mountain School high school students donned disco shirts.

Then danced under the stars.


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