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I had a young man who worked for me this past autumn and winter who was an incredibly nice, intelligent, and amusing college student with loads of charm. Everyone loved him and he brought joy to all of us who came into contact with him.
The young man in question had an opportunity to work in an Americorps program this summer and although I was sad to see him go, I was happy that he would have a chance to be a part of the program, which focused on the maintenance and expansion of wilderness trails all over the state.
His job seemed like heaven to me, a full summer roughing it in the wilderness while taking care of the hundreds of miles of beautiful trails in some of the most beautiful parts of the state. That may seem to rather like torture to some, but it's my idea of a great time.
In discussion with this young man prior to the beginning of the program, I discovered, much to my surprise, that he was very nervous about his summer adventure. It turned out that although he had grown up in Maine, what he knew about the less civilized parts of the state could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp. He told me that he had never seen Mt. Katahdin, much less climbed it, had never put one foot on the Appalachian Trail or had spent any time hiking the many wilderness trails that are pretty much everywhere. In fact, he had never even gone camping in his entire life.
Although he is not the first born citizen of this state that I have met who spent zero time enjoying its bountiful wilderness, it still amazes me. Two thirds of this place is wilderness and if you have never really spent any time exploring it that means that you have spent your entire life existing in a narrow corridor of real estate that extends primarily north to south and largely east of I95. Call me crazy, but why would you live here if you had no interest in two thirds of it? Why not live somewhere with more jobs and less winter?
Given this young man's previous experience it was clear to me that he was in for something of a shock. The first part of his summer was going to be spent way up in the north western reaches of the state within spitting distance of Canada and in some truly remote wilderness. He had a list of things he would need, which was very thorough, but no practical experience at all. We spent a significant amount of time discussing what he could expect but I knew that nothing would truly prepare him for spending a week at a time hiking through the wild with everything on his back and camping out in areas so remote that it is like stepping into a time machine and traveling back a few million years. In the end I told him several things that I knew he would find out for himself; A) The wilderness is called that for a reason. The remote parts of Maine are a far cry from Acadia National Park. B) He would be eaten alive by insects. Anyone who thinks the bugs are bad around places like Bangor have never spent any time where he was going. C) His first night in the wild would teach him that he had never truly experienced silence and that the first time he got a view of the clear night of a northern sky it would utterly blow his mind, and D) He might come fleeing home like a frightened animal after his first week, but if he stayed and toughed it out, he would not only have a whole new way at looking at the world, but he would come back a different person.
Six weeks into the program he had a week off and came to visit us. The physical change in him was remarkable. Gone was the skinny kid with the pencil arms and in his place was a young man becoming fit and hardened and strong. He absolutely glowed with the kind of radiance that comes from lots of fresh air and hard work. His eyes no longer had the dullness of someone who goes to bed too late and sleeps too long into the day. Instead, they were bright and clear with whites so white that they gleamed. It was a pleasure to see him so transformed.
He told me that when he was out in the wilderness he came to understand what I had been telling him.
“The work is hard,” he told me. “but the way I am tired at the end of the day is totally different and it feels good. The peace and solace is amazing and the first time I saw the night sky out there it nearly made my brain explode it was so amazing and so beautiful. You were right, I do have a whole new way of looking at this world and I am not the same person now that I was before.”
It's nice to be right – especially when it is in such a good way.
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