The summer before I turned 20, I worked as a camp counselor on top of Lookout Mountain in northern Georgia. I’m not sure what possessed me to do this because I’ve never been one to enjoy the presence of children. After watching me with her foster daughter who was about six-years-old at the time, even my mother-in-law recommended I not have kids.
Regardless, the summer of ’93 had me in cut-off denim shorts, hiking boots, and a boonie hat leading young ones from about the age of 7 to about 15 up down, and around the mountain. For the most part, we had a standard list of options, and on the first day, the kids chose from it and laid out a schedule for the week. One of the adventures was a predawn hike further up the mountain to a killer sunrise view. Yes, you read that right. Sunrise. And no, staying up all night to do the hike was not an option. Don’t think I didn’t think about it.
Only the most adventurous and optimistic groups of kids chose to do that hike, and even they started rethinking their options come the 4:00 a.m. wake up call. We counselors would prep as much as possible the night before, and in what seemed like the darkest, quietest part of the night, we would flip the lights on and do what it took to rouse them from their deep slumber. Those of you with kids will understand what we were up against.
Like a gaggle of zombies, we would all dress then trudge onward to the van that would carry us the five miles down the road to the trail head. All unloaded, accounted for, and only slightly closer to the land of the living, the two (semi) grown-ups went back over the plan: between three and four miles up (I can’t remember now exactly how far it was.) in the dark to the top, use your flashlights, watch where you’re going, listen closely for us in case of emergency, and most importantly, have fun.
Did you catch that? Three to four miles… up…in the dark… with kids somewhere between eight and fifteen years old.
Most of the time somewhere around the half mile mark the questions and whining started. At which point my co-counselor and I would remind them that they had chosen this activity; they had thought it would be cool and fun and interesting. We would dole out the perks of this hike as we went, saving precious nuggets for the hardest part of the trail. The promise of a stream crossing about half way along was mentioned early on. That they’d “get to eat a picnic breakfast on top of the mountain” came somewhere along mile two as they began to flag. We saved the idea that they’d get to climb a fire tower to go even farther up until that last push when the way became steepest, and they’re energy was lowest.
Everyone seemed to have different lows. The little ones inevitably failed to factor in that over three miles walked in the dark along a forest access road was boring since they couldn’t see past the weak, yellow beam of their flashlights. They always started questioning their choice. Even the bigger kids would start to moan and complain a bit by the time we got to that last push that was the harshest part.
We counselors, though, had traced that path many times. We didn’t need GPS watches to tell us where we were on the trail or light to tell us what hazards lay ahead, or what beauty. We knew from experience, and the campers had to trust us. Theirs was a blind path along a bumpy and difficult road, reward uncertain. We assured them that if they’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other, choosing to move forward instead of back, the reward would come. They need only take one step at a time and trust us. We had already walked this road.
I did this hike many times that summer. Not a single time did Mother Nature fail to deliver an amazing sunrise. Without exception, the campers came away from the experience with a new respect for themselves and for the opportunities that lay ahead of them if only they would keep going.
I learned a lot of lessons that summer, myself, but this particular option on the list of adventures for Camp Lookout gave me the one that seems to have remained most poignant: Even when you can’t see the reward, trust it is there, waiting to be revealed if only you’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction.