New Geneseo students learn to trust themselves and each other as they go ‘into the wild’
Photos and story by Kris Dreessen
“There’s a degree of trust I have in nature. I lay still in mind and quiet in body, and take refuge in its wild independence and lack of obligation to me. I am sure my security rests solely on my shoulders. Truly, though, I know it is a matter of equilibrium. When I am benevolent to the mountain, it will return my gesture tenfold.
So I crush nothing. I never destroy, and I always thank it. I use footholds for only as long as I need them, and trust the ground will be there to catch me as I lay my next step. And I feel as though I’d be blind not to expect the same thing from school. Thus, I am determined to put in exactly what I wish to receive. If I care for it, it must care for me.”
— Adam Lashinsky ‘13
Adam Lashinsky wrote those words on top of Mt. Jo, a horizon of green, afternoon sun and Adirondack peaks before him. Around him, 13 of Geneseo’s newest students reflected on their own journey to the summit. Two days earlier, many of them had never climbed a mountain.
In three weeks they would enter their own “wild” — college. In Geneseo’s First-Year Institute, incoming freshmen challenge themselves, become part of a team, ease the transition of living on their own and prepare them to succeed at Geneseo.
With Adjunct Lecturer and veteran mountain guide Gary “Griz” Caudle ’70 and an upperclassman who has completed the First-Year course, they spend five days in the High Peaks Wilderness area, hiking, paddling 10 miles of ponds and rivers and carrying a 50-pound canoe on their shoulders between launch sites. Confronted with a 6-foot-tall web of rope strung between hemlocks, students collectively ponder just how you pass a person over the top, then safely hand them over. They explore writings of Henry David Thoreau and examine the lack of preparation that ultimately killed a young adventurer in “Into the Wild.” They relate how their actions will affect their success or failure at Geneseo and beyond.The experience is short, quick and powerful, says Griz, always with the same result: forced out of their comfort zones, students set a higher level.
“There’s a collective energy that the group can achieve whatever it wants to achieve,” he says. “They found comfort outside of their comfort zone. That’s what college is all about.”
Embracing that unknown is why Jon Webster chose the program and Geneseo over another SUNY college, where dozens of his high school friends are attending.
"I think that’s what college is supposed to be about, trying new things and being open to new experiences,” he says. “You miss enough of those experiences and you can be a drastically different person."
Marcie Longo searches words that her classmates are holding on their foreheads, as they try to arrange a sentence together, without talking. The sentence relates to Henry David Thoreau's essay, "Walking,” and prepares them to hike St. Regis with their eyes and mind open to nature and contemplation. The sentence: As you saunter in the wilderness, you find yourself, at the beginning of your journey.
"In my life there is never dark," living on the outskirts of New York City, said Julia Venditti, as students shared their reflections of the 3.5-mile hike to the St. Regis summit. "People don't wait or stall. They don't have time."
With Adjunct Lecturer Gary "Griz" Caudle '70, the students followed in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who encouraged people to master the "art of sauntering" — slowing down to relish nature and its finer details. Lisa Johnson, left, Adam Lashinsky, Sarah Spaker and Margaret Craft marvel at a serpent-shaped, chocolate-colored mushroom on the St. Regis trail on the first day of hiking.
"Nature holds no bounds except those created by man. The individual holds no bounds except those he creates himself," says Adjunct Lecturer Gary "Griz" Caudle '70. "The best place to learn the lessons of life is where life exists — in nature."
Griz shows Eli Aubain what High Peaks are visible to them from the summit of Mt. Jo.
Says Eli of nature's balance: "Humans try to be perfect and it doesn't work. Nature doesn't try to be perfect and gets it right on the first try."
Geneseo’s newest students give each other and Adjunct Lecturer Gary “Griz” Caudle ’70 high-fives to celebrate having everyone reach the summit of St. Regis as a team.
Many students had never hiked a mountain and had little experience outdoors.
Many find lifetime friends in the First-Year Institute, and personal skills they will use throughout college and their lifetime. Margaret Wedge ’08 found her “three best friends in the world” during the inaugural trip in 2005. The adventure taught her, she says, “to remember there is always something to reach for.”
She uses the lessons she learned on the trail, on the water and in the woods naturally, every day. “They become ingrained,” she says. “They’re in your back pocket. It’s a constant sort of growth."
Facing the same challenges in a new environment, "there are no facades," says Kelsey Bendlin. "Everyone's honest." Usually quiet and shy, she says she pushed outside her comfort zone during the First-Year experience. Here, Kelsey celebrates the team's triumph in handing her safely over a rope web in a team-building exercise.
"Change is constant ... our faces, our friends ... All of this change is intimidating. The future looks daunting.” -Sarah Spaker ‘13
Sarah Spaker, front right, and Marcie Longo find their cadence paddling at the beginning of the day-long, 10-mile canoe trip that included four portages.
Julia Venditti wanted to quit the paddle at first, but finished, proudly. "What sticks with you is the beauty of things and the accomplishment that you feel, and that makes it worth it,” she said afterwards.
Jon Webster gets a helping hand balancing his canoe during a half-mile portage between launch sites. He had never paddled or hiked a mountain before. Lessons and insights mean more in this environment, he says. "You're in it. You're living it for a few days. It makes it much stronger."
"When I see all this, I'm seeking neither knowledge nor peace. My mind simply stretches like water filling its container — completeness without end.”
— Margaret Craft, First-Year participant, written on top of Mt. Jo
Her eyes closed, Jane Raffaldi walks across the lawn of the Adirondack Lodge following Adam Lashinsky's directions. Each partner led the other, to build trust. For a finale, Adjunct Lecturer Gary "Griz" Caudle '70, program founder and leader, let the students lead him along a quarter mile of trail following only their voices. A day earlier, students tested their trust by standing up in the canoes as their partners steadied the boats.
Course leader and Adjunct Lecturer Gary "Griz" Caudle '70 let students lead him — with his eyes closed— to the end of a path at Heart Lake. Lisa Johnson, right, gently talks him in.
Marcie Longo relates Henry David Thoreau's insights on living deliberately to her own journey atop Mt. Jo.
Over the five-day intensive experience, says Griz, the students' bond creates a powerful trait — synergy.
After graduating from a college, Christopher McCandless gave away or sold his possessions and went “Into the Wild” of Alaska to live off the land and challenge himself in nature. Ultimately, he died.
Sarah Shields thinks about his inspiration, preparation and consequences as she writes in her journal after hiking to the top of St. Regis.
“In less than a week I have become more confident and prepared for this new chapter (Geneseo) in my life. The four-day Adirondack Adventure has challenged me,” she says of the First-Year Institute experience.
A memento to the first 2009 session, the students all signed a mushroom, including nicknames they earned while on the trip, such as Sarah “Sunshine” Spaker, and Sarah “Jersey” Shields.
Two more sessions of 14 incoming Geneseo students, including one from Texas, followed them last summer.
Eli Aubain enjoys the feeling of weightlessness as he trusts his classmates to lift him up and hand him over a 6-foot-high rope obstacle during the final day of climbing and team work.
Adam Lashinsky stays “stiff as a board” so his teammates can pass him through a rope hole during the final team-building exercise. Everyone's voice was heard and students collaborated to work efficiently; in fact, they did it so well they started passing teammates over for fun, including Adjunct Lecturer Gary “Griz” Caudle ’70.
On the final night, the girls sing into their cell phones and make homemade music videos in the High Peaks Hostel dorm room.
On day one, students sat in a circle on stiff chairs, getting to know each other in conversation confined to Adjunct Lecturer Gary "Griz" Caudle's encouragement — majors, favorite sports and cartoons.
On the final night, students vowed to try and stay up all night to prolong goodbyes, made plans to get souvenir shirts and reunite on campus. When they finally parted, some cried, knowing they had found kindred spirits through each other's journal writings.
"I felt like she was writing about me," says Sarah Shields, of Kelsey Bendlin's entry about feeling fearful at times to express herself and reach out.
"I finally feel like I belong," said Marcie Longo, right, after a farewell group hug and a final team challenge to pass the hula hoop around the circle with linked arms. Trying to beat the clock are Jon Webster and Sarah Shields, center.
In three weeks, a new era begins. Students give everyone a hug before parting ways. Being together 24/7 and overcoming the same challenges drew them together, they say.
"The people may seem different, but we all clearly have the same fire. We all want to become something," says Margaret Craft. "There's this kind of energy."
Arielle Fleicher, right, hugs Marcie Longo goodbye before leaving. The group had already arranged to make memento T-shirts and reunite on campus before the first student and his parents drove away.
Teary-eyed, Marcie Longo, left, Sarah Shields and Kelsey Bendlin take a farewell photo as parents arrive to pick students up at the end of the First-Year Institute.
"I like pushing myself," says Kelsey of challenges, "and showing myself I can do it."