Arizona in July is, monsoon season. We had gotten a taste of what these intense summer storms were like during instructor development, but on the first night of our backcountry portion, when a storm rolled through, a fear still shook through me with the blasts of thunder that rumbled underneath my sleeping pad, and I sent prayer out into the universe that we would all remain safe throughout the trip. Knowing the level of fear that I was experiencing during the storm, I thought about what fears the participants might have, not only about the storms, but also about pooping outside, or carrying a relatively heavy pack, or being seen vulnerably. Our instructor team broke everything down when we first arrived into the backcountry, including how to poop in the woods of course.
It wasn’t until a trauma tree exercise that I facilitated that we saw into the depth of what our participants were going through. The trauma tree is a creative tool that allows us to examine the way that our past experiences affect us. Each part of the tree (the roots, trunk, leaves, branches) represents something different, and eventually, it is easy to see the connections between our defenses and our trauma.
The group was really honest, and as every individual shared, my heart swelled with empathy. We took it slow allowing space between each share, watching participants offer one another hugs and gentle pats on the back. We learned the stories within each person. It was inspiring. I am continuously impressed by what humans are capable of enduring emotionally. Some of the girls did not even realize what emotions they had been holding onto, hiding, and running away from. Vanessa expressed that she had never let herself grieve her father’s imprisonment and later death, because she thought she had to look strong. Soul journey was the first safe place that she had found, outside of her mother’s comforting arms. Throughout the trip she began learning how to self-sooth as the emotions came up, and we offered her tools she could practice with.
There were many challenging parts, as there is with any backcountry expedition, not only physical like the storms, injuries, logistics, but also emotional and mental. We supported students in pushing themselves to persist in the most difficult of times. Taliyah, who on day-one broke down in fear of not being able to accomplish the hikes, placed one foot above the other, holding onto my hand as I stood sturdy above her on a steep slope that had accidentally taken us off course, firmly assuring her that she could do it. I watched the determination, frustration, and fear on her face as she conquered the footsteps that would teach her what strength she had.
We witnessed as leaders stepped into place offering a vulnerable connection and shoulder to lean on. We saw Maira, the quietest of the group, showing her personality for the first time, bubbly discussing her liking for Braving the Wilderness, during a check-in, which I had lent her for one of the solos. We saw impressive creative depth come out through making earth art as Mylin told us what each rock and flower represented in her display.
- Sage Narbonne