According to Honors College tradition, incoming Templeton freshmen will move into their dorms early–this year, on Saturday, 20 August. Over pizza that evening they will meet each other, student and senior staff, and Brian Williams, Dean of the Templeton Honors College. After a night in a strange bed, an early breakfast, and devotions, everyone piles into vans for the eight-hour trip to Forked Lake Primitive1 Campground in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.
After unloading, we hike and canoe to our campsites, arriving just before dusk, tired and grimy and faced with three tasks: pitching tents, collecting firewood and starting a fire, and cooking dinner for more than forty people. We then settle down for five nights and four days in the wild.
The itinerary stays pretty much unchanged: Monday’s breakfast conversation revolves around the loons in the night; Tuesday entails an all-day hike in the High Peaks region (returning after dark); Wednesday & Thursday are devoted to swimming, canoeing, napping (lots of this), food (lots of this), and conversation, including a daily seminar; and Friday is filled with packing up (in the dark), hiking or paddling back to the vans, and another eight-hour drive, arriving back on campus in time for a pizza dinner, preceded or followed by showers and the relief of being clean again. On Saturday tents and gear are checked and repacked, left-over food distributed (and eaten), and equipment returned to storage for next August. And at 8:00 a.m. Monday, sixty-five or so hours after getting back to campus…classes begin.
Thus every freshman begins his or her time as a member of the Templeton Honors College.
Why do this? Why take such an expensive trip? Why ask alumni to donate a week of vacation time? Why haul forty-plus people, six canoes, and a ton or so of food, equipment, and matériel hundreds of miles there and back again for a few days “away”?
We might ask the same question of anything that is not “necessary.” Why take food out-of-doors in order to cook it on a grill on a hot, muggy summer evening when it could have been prepared more quickly and conveniently in the air-conditioned kitchen? Why use a hand tool rather than a power tool? Why do anything that is less efficient, more expensive, and more tiring than just doing it the “normal” or “usual” way? Why ADK?
First, we could claim the benefits of the “Three-Day Effect,” a well-documented psychological benefit of time in wilderness.2 But “ADK” (as our trip is affectionately known) was going long before this effect was recognized.
Secondly, there is a camaraderie that comes from four days of sharing the miseries of cold, wind, and rain (at least once per year), of struggling up and back from Mt. Marcy (highest peak in the Adirondacks) or Mt. Algonquin (shorter but steeper, and far more of a scramble than a hike) together, of talking in hammocks, tents, or around the fire, along with sixteen hours squashed into vans. All of this makes a cohort out of what had been merely a group.
Then there is the silence of device-free living (mobile phones are for emergencies only), and of being thrown back on the resources of one’s inner person, the group, and the created order. The latter especially tend to focus rather than distract, as when a student and I spent an hour using a star chart to find constellations that are lost in the glare of suburbia.
Fourthly, ADK offers the kind of leisure described by Josef Pieper3—not the “leisure” of “taking a break,” but instead the opportunity to understand one’s self and the way things are that comes from time spent truly “away.” Coupled with several group “seminars” about learning, wisdom, and life coram Deo, this quieting of our hearts prepares us well for what can be the maelstrom of freshman year.
Finally, ADK entails celebration: hanging the kitchen tarp well (at last!), swimming back and forth across the lake with a (new) friend, making it back from a long day’s hike in the mountains, and—as we learned a few years ago—the celebration of sitting around the campfire under a tarp on a rainy evening, making up and singing silly verses to a sillier song, knowing that in the morning, rain or shine, we will roll out of bed to pack up and head for “home.”
All of this, from the moment we leave Eastern’s campus to our return, becomes a four-day lived parable—a reminder that nothing is more important than the people whom God brings into our lives, and that our common prayer, conversation, work—and the friendships that they foster—will get us through what lies ahead, by the grace of God. I would not miss this for anything.
1. In case you are wondering, “primitive” means that the campsite is accessible only by foot or boat (canoe, in our case), and has only a picnic table, fireplace, outhouse, and bear box.
2. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/eco.2014.0043 (accessed 20.VI.MMVII).
3.Josef Pieper, Leisure—The Basis of Culture (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009).
Fred Putnam is Associate Professor of Bible & Liberal Studies in The Templeton Honors College. His interests include lexical semantics, hermeneutics, metaphor, early music, Ankersteinbaukasten, and pedagogy.