I'm back from retreat week in the desert … Joshua Tree to be exact. We got back last night, but I was just too freaking exhausted to post anything here. Fortunately, the school gave us Friday off so we could sleep in and I feel human again.
Joshua Tree is a beautiful and truly amazing place and my kids were phenomenal, but surprise of surprises … The desert is one hell of a dry place!!! The hiking that we did wasn't exactly the Bataan Death March, but neither was it a cake walk. Of the four day retreat only one was spent actually backpacking through the desert which doesn't sound like much at all. Consider, however, that none of my nine kids had ANY backpacking experience at all; that of the three boys and six girls in my trail group, the biggest kid was about 5' 6" and 120 lbs and the rest were barely five feet and between 90 and 105 lbs; and all of us had to hike CARRYING a gallon and a half of water, I'd say that on balance it was a pretty darn challenging trip for my kids' first times out on trail.
The scenery in the park is amazing, but for me the coolest thing about the experience out on trail is that we got a pretty nice group dynamic going. Each kid was able to choose a tent partner before the trip, but other than that the pairs of kids (and one extra young man) were only acquainted with each other so there was no "eighth grade drama baggage" that we had to deal with on the trail and they all took pretty good care of each other and got to know each other really well by the end of the week.
Even after seven years teaching them, I find eighth graders to be truly perplexing creatures. For people like me who enjoy observing kids, retreat week is my Gombe Game Preserve and I am its Jane Goodall (And yes, I do realize that eighth graders are not chimpanzees, but believe me when I say that they neither are they "normal" human beings like you or I either …). In my role as retreat primatologist, I am always reminded of how different boys and girls are at that age. For one, eighth grade girls (based on my experience this week at least …) are a LOT tougher and complain a lot less than eighth grade boys (though as a matter of full disclosure, apparently, one of the faculty members with another group had a good number of young ladies who needed a good amount of maintenance along the way).
Something else that continues to intrigue me year after year is how much better eighth grade girls listen than their male counterparts. Boys at that age seem to need to prove to themselves and anyone who will watch, that their spectacularly bad ideas just won't work before they'll accept that the ideas are just stupid. A prime example of this is that when the professional naturalist with years of backpacking, climbing, and general outdoor wilderness experience tells an eighth grade girl that she should probably leave her pillow, hairbrush, mirror, hair gel, extra shoes, and other misc. gear behind at base camp in order to shave backpack weight she'll do it. An eighth grade boy given the same advice will just sneak it into his pack (he's tougher you see …), then be amazed that the girls appear to be having a lot easier time hiking with their packs on than he … As an aside, on this point I decided that a little bit 'o struggle was good feedback for the young man about the importance of approaching a new task with an open mind so I didn't offer to take any of his weighty items, but please rest assured that I would probably have felt compelled to pitch in and take some of this stuff had I thought he was going to perish and become vulture feed without some assistance …
But I digress …
Finally, girls, even in the wilderness, seem to have to go to the bathroom in groups of no less than three (Some kind of genetic coding or something? … Safety in numbers? …). It's also funny, but it seems that after the girls learned that each individual had to pack his/her own toilet paper out in plastic bags, the girls perfected the art of peeing in the desert with out the need for paper–they called the methodology "shake and drip dry." But that is probably too much information … All that I know is that the implementation of the "shake and drip dry" technique cut the length of our bathroom breaks on the trail down by two thirds and at the time this was a very welcomed thing …
The rest of retreat was spent day hiking, climbing, and caving in areas around the base camp. We learned a lot about different cacti and animals and were fortunate enough to get to see a wild tarantula in one of the rooms of the cave we were exploring.
It was a great time. By far the toughest part of it all is doing without much water for four days. We had plenty to drink, but not enough to clean up and shower or bathe with so as a group we were pretty rancid for the three hour bus ride home.
When I got home I stood in the shower for what must have been at least a full half hour and it was nothing short of the most amazing shower I think that I've ever had! I absolutely LOVE getting out on the trail, but when it is all said and done, it sure is nice to come home!