Nine of us showed up, with nothing in common except a desire to be outdoors, play a little, see what Southeastern Outdoor Women meant by “Outdoor Group Challenge Day.”
All we were told was that the day had been designed to encourage physical and emotional support for women to explore abilities together. There was no introductory lecture, no line drawn between the leaders and participants. Two organizers spelled out the terms of each challenge. They would not make suggestions in problem-solving but would contribute muscle power.
From preliminary small talk, I knew our worldly roles were extremely varied. There was an undergraduate student, a secretary, a school teacher, a vitamin salesperson, a pediatrician, a professor, a social worker, a writer, a picture framer. We did not appear to be a group of athletes; we were all shapes and sizes, there were more than a few grey hairs among us, and I suspected a sedentary lifestyle was as familiar to most of them as it was to me.
We began with a name game, sitting in a circle in the sun. “And after your name, say what you’d like to be when you grow up.” I learned names slowly and fantasy roles quickly. “I want to be a child when I grow up,” quipped one. “A dolphin,” said another. A tennis star, a horticulturist, a clown, a magician.
I knew why I’d come; why had they? I had come because what dexterity, agility, and joy I’d discovered in my body, I’d discovered alone: bareback on my horse, galloping down a dusty farm road, our bodies fused and glowing with perspiration; skiing downhill, the speed blinding me, the instinctual bodily balance thrilling me as I bore down on the hill, leaned into it.
But in groups, I often imagined I was “too small,” “too weak,” and mysteriously shifted from being a confident child to a comically coordinated adult, aging and anxious, more aware of what I couldn’t do than what I could. I was secretly sure I’d “hold the others back.”
I knew why in part. There were no “girls’ sports” where I grew up, except basketball, in which I had no interest. When I was forced to play, I collapsed opponents by inducing hysterical laughter with my erratic overreach, bounding leaps beyond the ball — a human yo-yo with silly putty control. I was more intimidated by the possibility of getting hit in the head with the ball than the sound of other children laughing at me as I cowered on the court, hands over eyes.
Competition was everything in a required college volleyball course, and the team leaders openly glared at my embarrassed withdrawals, frantic efforts at last minute heroics, blasting the ball out of bounds with an unfocused show of brute strength. After class, I always threw up, felt clumsier, guiltier, more inept and more resigned to investing in prettiness instead of practice.
A camping trip in 1975 was the clincher for my anxiety about “holding others back.” I went backpacking in the North Carolina mountains with three men friends, one of whom was highly influenced by a wilderness survival course he’d just finished. He was our expert, our unspoken leader, and when I tired more quickly than the others, he made a point of belittling “the limits we imagine we can’t break through.” By the end of the trip, I’d developed a severe chest cold, fever and exhaustion, and he had developed a disgust for me and my “complaining,” as well as a disdain for the other two men who did not take themselves as seriously as he took himself. I vowed never again to get involved with any of these self-serious outdoor types. Unfortunately, I not only kept that vow but never went backpacking again. And I felt the loss, was ready to reverse it.
Southeastern Outdoor Women was a made-to-order remedy for my desire to compare estimated strength with actual strength, not as a test but as a beginning. I was ready to risk a little dignity, find a real limit, admit tiredness and not feel ashamed, experience some brand of bodily joy I’d never tasted because I’d never tried. I wanted to do more than admire my muscles in the mirror, do more than mental meditations. Where was the monkey in me?
Our first task was small: the size of a cinderblock. The challenge: to get all nine of us on the cinderblock, with no feet on the ground, for five seconds. Aimed at the self-serious adults in us that wanted a “real” challenge, this task was accomplished easily but unveiled the importance of balance, weight distribution, and the interdependence of our shared body, “the group.”
The second task was more frustrating, brought out our strengths and weaknesses. We were to transport all nine women across a ten foot stretch of ground, with a total of five feet and four hands touching the ground, no more. This required us to conceptualize a complex structural solution, communicate it, and then have the physical strength to pull it off.
I assumed this was possible, but scheme after scheme failed. One woman wondered out loud what was wrong with admitting it wasn’t possible. Another worried that we were straining our backs. Everybody was at least a little discouraged.
An informal diplomacy tempered frustrations. It became apparent that how we arrived at our solution was at least as important as the solution itself. For any solution to work, each of us had to listen well, think clearly, be willing to support and test someone else’s idea even if it seemed implausible. Most importantly, each of us had to believe in the possibility of success.
A clumsy beast of human wheelbarrows with one-legged support-people carrying passengers on their shoulders finally hobbled across an interminably long ten foot stretch of grass. It wasn’t the structural solution that interested me, it was the unspoken unity that found itself, with chaos and confusion an intrinsic and comical part of its rhythm.
There was no noise in the next task, no verbalized solutions, no bickering, no exuberant cheers. Our goal was to get all nine women, leaving no one behind, over a rope stretched between two trees at a height of about five feet, without anyone touching the rope or uttering a word. “The plan” rushed in like water released from a dam, clues and suggestions quickly and eagerly understood through mime postures, a game of charades. Like magic, we went over the ropes, one after the other. Afterwards, we were self-confident, eager for the next task, jovial, affectionate, and unaware of what lay ahead.
“The Wall” was in a nearby forest off Duke University campus, a fourteen foot fortress built for one exclusive purpose: to challenge would-be climbers. (There was nothing interesting on the other side.) As we approached it, the laughter died down; everyone eyeballed it, tried to assess the situation.
This task was in a different league altogether. The preceding ones sounded feasible, at least. This one looked impossible. We were to get all nine women over the wall without using the sides for footing or handholds, without using any ropes, and without leaving anyone behind. The strategy was to build a human pyramid for a long-legged and strong woman to spring from, to get a grip on the top of the wall so she could pull herself up and then pull up everyone else.
None of us were extremely tall, and the distance from the top of the pyramid to the upper ledge of the wall seemed ridiculously great. For almost an hour, we rearranged ourselves, shuffled bodies, discovered which parts of the back were strongest, who could safely tolerate weight and who couldn’t, who had a fear of heights and who didn’t. We took on roles accordingly.
I was the first to try to jump to the upper ledge, my feet on the shoulders of a woman who stood on several other crouching women. The team under me felt like jello; how could I possibly jump very far flat-footed? “Coming down; I can’t!” I scrambled down, someone else tried, went up, came down with the same glum face of defeat.
We held a meeting. One woman felt strongly that we should give up. We’d tried everything, it just wasn’t possible to do, for this group anyway. Everyone listened, understood the logic in quitting, but why not try one more time?
It wasn’t clear what was different this last time, but somehow one woman leapt from the top of our pyramid and got a tiny handhold on the upper ledge, hanging by her fingertips. We shrieked in an explosion of surprise and excitement under her, urging her on as she dangled above us. She slowly and laboriously pulled her weight up, as every woman watched.
With a person above to grasp the hands of climber, the rest was a cinch. The next woman to reach the top was the one who’d been sure the task was hopeless. As she helped pull each of us up, she asked urgently that we trust her grip, the success of our task unexpectedly and powerfully hers.
I wanted to do more than admire my muscles in the mirror, do more than mental meditations. Where was the monkey in me?
Next was an obstacle course, a “Ropes Course,” twenty-five feet off the ground, sturdily built in some old trees on the Duke campus. All day I’d been hoping for and dreading danger, a private communion with vulnerability that called for every extension ladder of the psyche.
From below, the ropes looked easy and safe. The trees were budding, about to burst with their greenery, the sunlight flirted with the wind, with our excitement. A forgotten memory bubbled up of a spring day when I was four, too young to have a fear of falling, and with no forethought shimmied up a ten foot pole to see what the inside of a birdhouse looked like. My body had known what it could do, instinctively. Clinging to the top of the birdhouse, I saw over the hedge for the first time, over the back garden, beyond my tiny territorial boundaries, and felt an ache to live forever. My mother found me, cried out, incredulous, “How did you get up there?” “I clumb!” I said, confessing to wings, to an awakened world.
This memory fueled my eagerness, admitted a rush of adrenalin, making it difficult to listen to our coach who explained equipment and procedures. This coach and four others stationed in the trees had been trained by Project WILD — Wilderness Initiatives for Learning at Duke. A student-controlled program, Project WILD was inspired in 1972 by the Outward Bound School, a national outdoor adventure program.
We donned helmets and harnesses like those our guides in the trees wore, listened to last minute instructions. “There is no right or wrong way to make your way through the ropes. Be creative,” suggested our coach.
One by one, we left the ground, with plenty of space between people to avoid pile-ups. Halfway up the ladder, we practiced falling, and the illusion of ease began to evaporate. Jumping off the ladder by choice was more difficult than I’d guessed.
But the first event calmed me, and the safety cable my harness was clipped to looked like it could hold a two-ton cable car. I easily inched my feet across a twenty foot-long tightrope, my balance securely anchored by ropes on either side, for handholds.
I felt giddy but tested by the time I reached the next event, the “Commando Crawl,” a single rope, linking two trees about fifteen feet apart. A woman coach at the end of the bridge merrily told me to “come across any way you want to. You can dangle from a handhold or come across on your stomach with your feet locked behind you on the rope.” I’d seen the woman before me go across on her stomach but how did she keep herself from falling upside down? Could I avoid being face down? I did not want to have to stare at the ground below, which seemed nostalgically solid, cruelly distant.
I inched out from the platform head first, my hands clutching the rope so tightly they began to ache immediately. My body was one contracted muscle, glued to the rope; my feet desperately struggled to find a balance as they twisted around the rope.
The safety cable could have been nonexistent; I was as afraid of falling ten feet as twenty-five. The rope quivered like a vibrating rubberband, set off by my trembling. I hung in space, afraid to go backwards or forwards, wanting to scream, shutting my eyes to avoid my stomach’s swooning, set off by an enormous emptiness below.
I was an infant, clinging to an umbilical cord, and the stark truth of this world was that there was no one to clutch, cling to, no one to reel me in, no one to rescue me but myself. So I clumsily conceived a new self, one that did not need to design an intellectual wall of insulation against this vacuum. I found myself on the other side, looked back at the brevity of the Commando Crawl, and wondered, how could so much happen so fast?
I was an infant, clinging to an umbilical cord, and the stark truth of this world was that there was no one to clutch, cling to, no one to reel me in, no one to rescue me but myself.
Every event that followed was radically different, required a unique approach, made you think for yourself. I entered each with lessening fears and a broader base of play. Nothing surpassed that simple terror of the Commando Crawl with the one lone rope. One event consisted of three ropes which became progressively further apart, another consisted of only two ropes, and another was a wooden balance beam, which felt stupidly safe in its density, a syrupy lollipop in the middle of a long fast.
Resting between events on a wooden platform, I watched the women ahead of me and behind me. We were working in silence mostly, as we fumbled with fear in our own ways. I was approaching the last event, felt the daylight waning, wanted to linger on the ropes, not lose this bond I felt with the other women as I watched their faces stripped of self-conscious features, their grip on reality simplified to the ropes. I turned to the coach beside me, said I didn’t want the day to end. “And by the way, how do we get down?”
“There’s a swing,” she said, and as she pointed to the tree at the end of the last event, an ear-splitting scream pierced the silence and I saw a woman hurtling through the air, at the end of a long cable that seemed to swing from the heavens, an enormous pendulum that hypnotized the rest of us. As the swing slowly came to a rest, the face of the figure clinging to it looked drugged, dreamlike, drained of every emotion she’d ever withheld. Through the day she’d been soft spoken, gentle and strong; her scream cut through every surface image I had of her, and what was left was as naked as her face was now. She slowly got off the swing, still dazed, turned to look at us with a peculiar smile, the words shaken out of her. I knew it was great, that I wanted it.
I finished the last event, found the departure point for the swing, a wooden seat attached to a tree. A woman coach sat above me, assumed I was afraid, spoke soothingly: “Let yourself fall, don’t fight it.” She unclipped my safety harness from the cable and explained that she was going to clip me to the swing, and when she did, she would let me go, and the swing would pull me off the seat. “I’ll wait until you’re ready,” she said.
I thought of every time I’d flown in my dreams, wondered if I were dreaming now, and if I could wake myself up before I fell. I began to tremble, heard myself cry out in a deep nervous voice to a friend, “Come over here, I’m about to die!” I laughed, she laughed, I whispered, “I’m ready,” and was sucked off the seat, snatched into space, the ground racing up at me, gravity is God and I am dying and WHHHHHOOOOSSSHHHH I am saved, swooped up by an invisible bird, rocketed into the sky, I am weightless, nothing but wind, a blurred being, and Oh God it’s over, the swing is stopping.
I wished away the hands that reached for me, bringing the swing to a halt. I was drunk with death, having glimpsed some other world of living that can’t be captured, or controlled. I walked off on rubber legs, my cheeks damp with tears, my everyday defenses swarming around my head like gnats, waiting to light; they felt fragile and foolish, and fear suddenly seemed friendly, a necessary teacher, an unnecessary delusion. All that was real was my own bulky weight; my body was no longer an appendage but an adventuring animal I won’t forget.
Southeastern Outdoor Women was founded in October 1980 by Carol Giordano of Durham, N.C. who wanted to organize trips for women to enjoy outdoor adventure, be challenged under safe circumstances, find their limits, make new friends and pick up useful skills. Fifty women support Southeastern Outdoor Women with membership dues ($5 a year), and receive the monthly newsletter which announces meetings and trips, and workshops on everything from bicycle maintenance to flora of the North Carolina mountains. For more information call (919) 682-6753 or (919) 489-3797, or write Southeastern Outdoor Women, P.O. Box 3474, Durham, N.C. 27701.