In my head I held the image of a map of Moscow, a red star on the farm-like buildings that housed the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute. Squinting at the blurry white street signs, I drove north along Polk Street, looking for Rodeo Drive, a Hollywood-sounding name for a very rural-looking place. To my immense relief I found it on the first try and pulled into a gravel drive. As I emerged from my car, I took a deep breath of fresh, rain-washed air, my face bathed in mellow light from the setting sun. Next to me, a red Subaru Outback stopped and a smiling, gray-haired woman unfolded herself from it, walking purposefully toward the open door of one of the nearby buildings. I followed, somewhat nervously. Inside the shadowy doorway I found a long table surrounded by chairs and topped with platters of cheese, hummus, bread and sliced peaches. Several women of various ages sat around the table, looking at a presentation screen on a wall.
I pushed past a shelf of stuffed owls to find my own seat. Almost immediately I was greeted by Caroline, the group's leader, a young twenty-something AmeriCorps member who had organized this trip as her civic project. Slowly the other women trickled in, greeting each other and chatting amiably. Most were middle aged; of the attendees, I was one of the youngest. We took turns around the table introducing ourselves and reciting the litany of our previous backpacking or camping adventures and talking about our favorite books. I gazed in turn at the women that would share my weekend, people who were strangers now but who, at the end of this trip would know each other better than many friends do. We would share food, tents, steep climbs and most all our writing, our inner thoughts and hopes and wishes and dreams poured out onto wrinkled notebook paper along a steep mountain trail.
Caroline took us through our itinerary, food list, packing list and all the myriad of other details we would need to know. The ten of us would split the load of group gear such as stoves and food. In addition we would carry tiny tents, layers of synthetic-fibered clothing designed to keep our body heat in even after it got wet from perspiration or rain. We would carry trail mix and extra socks. I planned to bring my tin whistle to play around the campfire.
When Caroline had finished her backpacking presentation, the two English professors took over and handed out sheet after sheet of book excerpts for us to peruse in the coming days. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading material, I was glad to learn that we did not have to get it all read before the trip. Glancing through the titles I saw a lot of outdoor themes, appropriate, I thought, for a wilderness trip.
My new packet in hand, I finished the last of my peaches and prepared to leave. My head was swimming with a caffeine headache (I hadn't had any coffee earlier, but over the weekend I'd had too much) and I still felt shy of my chattering trip-mates. Following one lady named Susan out the door, I made an attempt at a smile and a cheery "See you Thursday." Part of me bubbled with anticipation to hike with these other women, strong, independent women like myself who also loved to read and who weren't afraid to share their thoughts on paper. The quieter half of me was suddenly struck by the realization that this trip was far, far beyond my comfort zone. For someone who likes the familiar assurance of routine everything would be different. From food I probably wouldn't like, to the discomfort of sleeping on the ground to unfamiliar clothes and unknown companions, along with the homesick ache of missing my family, this would be a definite growing time for me. Still, the inner strength that forms the core of who I am felt sure and solid. I would be all right. I would rise to the challenge to push myself beyond what was safe and familiar into the exhilarating world of the unknown and there, on the top of the mountain, I would see the views that I had never seen before, the vistas that can change perspective on life forever.