Middle-school graduation for a dozen students last week spanned five days and 40 miles. It included blisters, poison oak, pouring rain, a bear sighting and facing fears.
For eighth-graders at the John Muir School in Ashland, this backpacking trip on the Rogue River Trail was a fitting culmination of childhood.
Muir was formed in 2006 as an arts and science outdoor magnet school within the Ashland School District. This trip, the school's fourth annual, was envisioned as an alternative to a traditional graduation ceremony.
"I think a rite of passage should be an opportunity for empowerment, self-reliance, building their self-confidence," says Marcia Ososke, Muir teacher and trip organizer. "I want them to be ready to take that next step "… this helps them make that transition in a measurable way."
On Monday, May 23, the students left their parents at the Grave Creek parking lot and headed into the Wild & Scenic Section of the Rogue River. On Friday, they were picked up at the Rogue River Ranch, transformed.
The pivotal moment on this trip was the solo hike. In the tradition of the vision quest, each child hiked the final five miles alone, spaced 20 minutes apart to avoid contact.
The purpose of the solo, says Ososke, is learning to deal both with the unknown and with the fear of the unknown.
"It's a chance to process, to truly plug in. Most people don't take time to themselves," Ososke explains. "We go from one moment to the next without realizing it. That time should be built into our day, should be encouraged, to process, to sing, talk to yourself, whatever comes to mind."
To prepare for the solo hike, the group engages in two exercises. The first is a release.
"We go to Inspiration Point and take a minute to summon all this stuff in our lives, from divorce to a family death," says Ososke. "Then we scream and yell and get it out and let it go. Part of their rite of passage is knowing that they're safe and that no matter what they're dealing with, it's easier if we deal with it together."
Next is the "Fear Circle."
"We anonymously write down what we're afraid of, help each other with those fears, support each other without teasing. (We discuss) everything from rattlesnakes to cougars to falling off a cliff or being alone," Ososke says.
For one student, being alone in the wilderness brought out the unexpected.
"During the solo, in the silence, everything that happened in my life came back to me," says eighth-grader Colin Malcolm. "It was emotionally exhausting."
Others broke through mental barriers.
"I was nervous before I started, I knew I could do it, I didn't need to freak out" recalls classmate Arianna Johnson. "In the end, it really wasn't that hard."
The trip is a culmination of another sort. Because of the outdoors emphasis of the John Muir School, hiking is built into the curriculum as early as kindergarten, when those small children hike up to three miles at a time. Each year they face progressively bigger challenges.
The graduating eighth graders regale the little ones with tall tales from their big trip. The journey becomes legendary.
"I've been waiting for this trip since I was a little kid," says Jaden Desmond. "We all became more of a family. It was amazing to see others grow as well as myself."
Over the years John Muir students learn wilderness skills, from fire building to Leave No Trace camping. When the five-day trip arrives, it's an opportunity to demonstrate what they've learned over many years.
The surprise for several students was learning skills of a different sort.
"At school, you only see people for a few hours then you go home," says Jane McDowell. "Out there we were stuck with each other for five days. You get to see people as they really are."
For classmate Kaia Bucy, letting down her guard was a freeing experience. She felt connected, she says, by "seeing everyone around you growing, but not worrying because you can be with each other and still be silly."
During all the focus on outside learning, much of the growth apparently occurred inside.
For more information on John Muir School, see www.ashland.k12.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=1225.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.