Experiential Learning

I am sitting in a coffee shop in southern Salt Lake City passing the time before my afternoon flight home. I just completed a week of backpacking in the Maze district of Canyonlands National Park. I am writing this piece to share some stories of my adventure, and hopefully convey the peaceful state of mind that I achieved after six days in the wilderness. Yet, as I reflect on the experience, the idea that keeps coming up is that this story is as much about learning as it is about the outdoors, adventure and meditation.

I can remember back twenty years ago when I was hiking with some college friends in the White Mountains. It had rained on us climbing Mt. Madison and two of my friends twisted their ankles on the rough terrain. They decided to spend the following day at camp recovering. I instead ventured a trail run across the ridge to Mt. Washington and back. Somewhere along the way, I ran into a European woman who was a visiting professor of molecular biology at a local university. As we were talking I somehow used the term study in a way that slightly offended her. She had completed her doctoral work and was engaged in professional research. She was no longer a student who “studies”. To be honest it was most likely a language misunderstanding. But it also stuck with me because of the way the adult experience is so often kept separate from the learning experiences of children. Words like professional and work are used to maintain that distinction and disconnect. With that story in mind, I shifted my thinking to a week earlier.

I walked up the five steps outside the Hans Flat Ranger Station at exactly 8 am when they are scheduled to open. The night before had surprisingly brought a dusting of snow which decorated the roof of the station and blanketed the surrounding landscape. I opened up the door and walked in to meet an upbeat, solidly built Ranger in uniform. She efficiently issued my six-day backpacking permit for my trip. As she reviewed my intended route she told me, “be careful because the Maze District of Canyonlands is the most remote part of the lower 48.” Having driven on a snow-covered dirt road for 46 miles with a rented passenger vehicle I was not going to argue with her. She also told me that I could explore Pete’s Mesa because it is reported to have bighorn sheep. Given that this was the only route recommendation she made, I decided to attempt to add that stop to my already packed itinerary. My six-day route was ambitious in terms of mileage and terrain. Over the course of my route, I planned to descend into and climb out of numerous canyons. Sometimes the route would be guided by a suggested dotted line on the map. Some of the challenging canyon exits or canyon entrances might also include cairned paths helping me find the easiest point of ascent or descent. Other times I would have to make my own way through uncertain terrain and the possibility of backtracking was significant. This area of the park is probably called the Maze because you can reach a dead end and have to retrace your steps in search of another option. Traveling off-trail is a unique experience because of the uncertainty. You never know if the effort you are putting in is going to get you to the planned destination. In fact, the process of finding a route becomes the destination. This mindset along with many of the other mindsets that accompany a backpacking trip of this kind is very different from my day-to-day experiences living in New York City. It usually takes some time to adjust at the start of the trip. On the first day, my mind is constantly racing from one idea to the next. I find myself mentally making checklists of things that I need to consider for the trip. Also, my brain is flooded with things that I will have to do when I return home. By the second day, much of this mental chatter has washed away leaving behind a calmer mindset that allows me to enjoy every aspect of the world around me. I can feel the cool wind on my neck, while seeing the sun rise in the East. I can notice the shape of clouds and what that might mean for the afternoon weather. I can see the subtle color gradations of the rock that will help me navigate up a canyon slope. Even more important I become acutely aware of my own body, what I need nutritionally, how I can maintain temperature, and the complex interplay of my muscles in controlling my movement. It is this feeling of calm and connection, which I seek out during these trips.

Six days in the wilderness is also a powerful example of being unplugged and I benefit from this significant change to my routine. I start to notice a lot more about my surroundings and lose the urge to check email. At night I get to experience a quantity of stars unavailable in my own light polluted metropolis. However, one technological tool I do rely on in the wilderness is the GPS tracker on my phone which I use to plot my position over time. This was incredibly useful when I reached a canyon dead end because I could retrace my steps to all the places I had already been finding new routes along the path. It is amazing how you can get mixed up in the canyons and not be sure which way you had come. Another tool I carried was a Garmin In-Reach two-way satellite communication device in case things got dire and I needed to make an SOS call. Luckily I did not have to use that one.

At the end of day one, I had a serious descent into the canyon below the Maze overlook. There were some steep scrambles which luckily did not have much exposure. It was a good thing that I packed light or I might have been nervous descending foot and handholds on the limestone face. To be honest I was still nervous and needed to psych myself up for some of the descents. On one I even went ahead without my bag to make sure that the route was doable before braving it with 25 pounds on my back. I can see why they recommend bringing a length of rope for lowering packs and might consider bringing it the next time around.

On the second day, I was walking along a trail called the Pete’s Mesa route noting the exciting opportunity mentioned by the Ranger. It led up and out of the canyon in which I had spent the previous night. The views at the top were amazing, looking out at the surrounding landscapes of slick rock, red stone, and endless canyons. I saw levels of sedimentary rock in beautiful colors that had formed up over millions of years only to be eroded by subsequent millennia of water flow. The landscape connected me to a very detailed history of geological change. Every footstep is a deepening of this connection. Each canyon feature, each rock face, and even each grain of sand were formed by a multitude of consequential events. Walking through this landscape you can feel the power of geology flowing through your body. And that geology specifically impacts my experience leading me on certain routes, and sometimes blocking my way. The geology created the scenery all around me that fuels my hiking motivation. For example, at one point I looked at a side canyon starting 200 feet up the lower canyon wall. I realized that the tributary that created the side canyon was once at the same level as the river that carved the main canyon I walked along. But the side river stopped flowing long before the lower canyon river so that the lower canyon continued to erode the additional 200 feet to the level I currently walked. Realizing that every detail of the surroundings has its own complex story to tell is an awe-inspiring fact of the natural world.

Later in the morning, I spotted the Pete’s Mesa land formation that the Ranger had referred to. It looked like a forty-foot thick slab of flat whitish limestone masquerading as a convoluted island in the sky atop the steep-walled reddish canyon slopes. Above this slab, I could barely make out greenish-brown pastures of soil and spiky shrubs purported to house big horned sheep. I thought to myself, “How can I possibly get up there? I really want to get up there.” I scanned the edge of the mesa not seeing any breaks in the outwardly sloping rim. Having no rope I assumed I was out of luck reaching that Eden. And even if I had carried rope I lacked the rock climbing skills to ascend a pitch like that. But I remained persistent. I decided that I would try to get up there despite the fact that it appeared impossible. I explored one side canyon that took me toward the Mesa landing within striking distance of the coveted slope. But alas I reached a dead end with impossibly vertical walls all around me. My rule when hiking alone is to not climb anything with exposure. Even with an SOS button in my bag, I did not think getting hurt would end well for me.

Using my phone GPS I backtracked to another canyon route trying to ascend the Mesa from the Eastern side. Again I got to an impossible slope where I could visually see a slope up to the Mesa. Looking around there was some broken rubble towards the top. But the pitch was close to 75 degrees and there were many places where you could fall all the way to the bottom of the canyon. I skirted the edge moving North East, But as far as I went I could not see any way to ascend to the elusive pasture. Looking at the time of day and the distance I needed to cover for the trip I decided to forgo this attempt, dashing any hope of achieving my goal. I still had a jam-packed trip of challenging hiking and exploration ahead of me. There was a lot to look forward to.

I crossed through more canyons rising to an overlook of the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers obtaining an incredible view of the entire Canyonlands National Park. I then moved south to explore a fun rock formation called the Doll House. Finally, I crossed West through a large open canyon. I explored multiple side canyons and found some exits all on my own which made me feel like an accomplished explorer.

As luck would have it, well some luck and some long demanding days of hiking, I arrived back below the Maze Overlook with an extra half day on my hand. I knew I was within striking distance of Pete’s Mesa once again. I looped around to its north side following Horse’s Canyon. I then followed a long unnamed side canyon on the northwest side of the Mesa. I rose through a field of boulders that reminded me of the talus fields of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. I was breathing hard due to the challenging foot placements, from pulling my body up rock faces and finding a route up a quite steep slope. Peering at the top I could not see any way to get on top of the mesa. All I could see was endless vertical rock curving around the Mesa slab. I decided to persist nonetheless hoping to at least get a spectacular view from close to the top of the Mesa. I climbed up another 1000 feet and was pretty much out of breath when I spotted what strangely looked like a small chink in the armor of the cliffs. I climbed up further and it continued to look promising. As I climbed the last 200 feet I could not believe that I was going to achieve this. The final bit was a bit tricky in terms of pulling myself up and finding holds that were totally secure. As luck would have it there was a ledge close to the top so even if I slipped a bit I would only fall a few feet. When I heaved my body onto the top of the Mesa I quickly stood up and was amazed. It was so beautiful up there.

The landscape was so different from what I had experienced over the last five days. Also, the fact that I had somehow made this happen through willpower, knowledge, and careful decision-making made it that much sweeter. I spent an hour exploring the top, rising to the highest overlook, and experiencing incredible views of the entire Maze district. I think the sheer visual beauty will be something I will always carry with me. But more important than the sensory exhilaration was that I had just undergone a monumental learning experience.

Every step of my incredible journey represents an aspect of all learning experiences. I had to come into the experience prepared. My preparation was physical in the form of exercise, developing muscles, and preparing my cardiovascular system to function over the course of a fourteen-hour day and deliver tremendous energy in ascending steep slopes. The physical also included the development of specific skills such as finding foot placements and choosing appropriate routes. The preparation was also intellectual in the form of knowing how to manage my water, maintain body temperature, and navigate an unknown landscape. I knew my gear and how to use it for the necessities of survival. I knew what to pay attention to, what to monitor, and how to manage the multitude of information available. It is funny because my diagnosis of attention deficit disorder as a child made me feel disadvantaged in terms of distractions and staying focused in a classroom context. But on this wilderness adventure, I can hardly imagine a more successful temperament than what I brought to the table. The intellectual preparation goes beyond specific skills and competencies. I was willing to try paths that seemed hopeless just because it might be fun and the journey was worth the effort. That kind of outlook is what tends to lead to every worthwhile learning outcome. That is the work of learning and it can be so incredibly rewarding. Finally, the experience was more than sufficient preparation. I grew as a person on the trail. I figured things out and made sense of the landscape. I had to put key pieces together to succeed. And the connections I made are elements I can hold onto and leverage on future trips. During this adventure, I integrated the past and the present to make important connections.

As I sit in this cafe finishing up the last sips of my cappuccino I have flipped my entire perspective. The world of learning and intellectual development is not a niche activity that is restricted to schools or specific parts of our lives. It is the sum total of everything valuable that we do. Sure I am thankful to have seen the top of Pete’s Mesa. To feel on top of the world looking down and knowing that I was the only one up there. But the real exhilaration was the learning that will always stay with me.

If you teach children and have seen that glean in their eyes when they have accomplished something and know that they did it themselves, then you know of what I speak. There is nothing more self-affirming than that moment of accomplishment when you pull yourself on top of a slope that you had never imagined possible. I was so proud of myself lying on the hard limestone, but I was also in the back of my mind wondering what goal I would tackle next.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

Greg Benedis-Grab

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exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge