In Mind, In Country
The Life of an Expedition Journal
By Worth Allen
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
What is the purpose of keeping an expedition journal? Perhaps journals allow us to remember a trip's happenings and details, things that would gradually fade from our memory without a journal to remind us. Perhaps we want to write everything down so that we will be better prepared to share our adventures with friends and family back home, or so that our kids will some day have an idea of the things that we did when we were their age. Once every four or five years, when sentimental rains fall on a cold Sunday afternoon, we open up our tattered little books and smile or even laugh out loud at memories long forgotten. The words on the pages, simply black and white descriptions to everyone else, recreate vivid, live images in our minds. Images of scenes that will never be recreated for anyone who was not there, conversations that will never be understood by anyone who did not participate in them, and emotions that can never be described to anyone who did not feel them. In this sense, journals become very personal literary photographs; after all, most of us even put them in the same cabinet or drawer as our trip photo albums.
To me, however, none of this carries much weight. The importance of a journal is not found within its ability to satisfy our sentimental yearnings, has little to do with its success in keeping memories alive, and has absolutely nothing to do with other people. To me, the journal is most important while the adventure is still unfolding.
During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I left my comfortable little university in the mountains of North Carolina and traveled to . After a couple of weeks wandering on my own, I joined up with NOLS and embarked upon a semester of backpacking, sailing and cultural immersion. In the beginning, I struggled. Although the physical aspects of our days came very easily to me, I struggled to adjust mentally. While trips through the West and Alaska had taken me out of my comfort zone before, I had never faced this many unknowns. I knew no one, had no idea how to communicate in Swahili, and had only a vague idea of where we were heading-a far off mountain that could not be seen because of the maddening thickness of the forest that we were bushwhacking through. "We often found the route of least resistance by crawling on our hands and knees, an act that becomes really arduous in itself with seventy pounds on your back," I wrote in my journal.
Knowing that I would not be able to see any of the comforting smiles or familiar voices of home for several months to come, Michael Stipe's lyrics rang more true than ever before:
|"My hands are tired, my heart aches
|I'm half a world away here
|My head sworn
|To go it alone...;"
It was during this period that I forged a strong friendship with the little leather notebook given to me by a well-traveled cousin in anticipation of this journey. I began writing in this journal in much the same way that one talks to the family dog, choosing to ignore the prevailing wisdom about brown leather books and Golden Retrievers being unable to talk back.
Using this journal as a sounding board for my struggles, I began to see the potential benefits of short-term hardships. One evening, after hiking in a cold rain all afternoon, I realized that, "If I can become com-fortable living in a downpour out here, then rainy days in civilization will never again be an annoyance." Awakening the next morning to the familiar pattering sound of raindrops hitting nylon, I smiled. Finding out that I was pleased to hear the rain, my tent mates almost gave up on my sanity. Nonetheless, after thinking about what I had written the night before, I realized that the clouds were giving me a second chance to prove that I could indeed be happy in adverse weather.
Realizing how much my perspective improved that day, I set a goal in my journal the following night. "From here on out I am going to turn the tables on one hardship every day. Whether serious or trivial, every difficulty has some sort of positive flip side. I need to find the good and then record it here every night." The journal became a means of holding myself accountable to a goal that was all too easy to shrug off.
Some nights I took full advantage of that provision in the original goal allowing for trivialness. "If I can appreciate raw dough and stale cheese, half-warmed over a sputtering Whisperlite, then the Brick Oven Pizzeria back home will be truly divine!" After a certain point, the altitude and temperature of Mt. Kenya precluded almost all mammalian life. Searching one evening to fulfill my goal, I noted that "although we are seeing very little animal life these days, there is a lot of zebra crap..."
Other nights the topics were more serious. "Thinking about silly disagreements with my roommate at school. I know that if I can get along with a tent mate whom I am walking next to all day, cooking next to in the evening, and sleeping next to every night, then staying on good terms with a roommate or coworker will be a cinch." Several nights later, after an uneasy afternoon spent hiking without really knowing where we were, I reminded myself that "If I can become truly proficient analyzing topo-graphical wilderness maps, then city maps, with their well-marked streets should never be a problem."
NOLS students quickly realize that dealing with simple viruses becomes a completely new kind of challenge when living in the wilderness. On January 26th, after battling the backdoor trots the previous night, my journal reflects the hope that "I don't have to get out of my sleeping bag and leave the tent during the middle of the night. I can think of better ways to spend the 2 a.m. hour than sitting on the far ridge, huddled in the blackness, wind, and cold, wondering how many more times I am going to have to do this before the night's end." But even this had an upside. Having grudgingly devoted so much of the previous night to the study of Mt. Kenya in the dark, I was able to observe "the ridges and valleys of the mountain, illuminated only by the moonlight, exuding a serene aurora of peacefulness and calm. The occasional noises from unfamiliar animals, accompanied by a softly howling wind, lent an uneasiness to the air and contributed to the feeling that one did not belong."
While involving contrasted details, the challenges of the n coast still revolved around the consistent theme of learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. After one particular day of classes in the sweltering heat, I realized that "If I can learn to take notes amid all the distractions inherent to a field classroom, then concentrating in a college classroom or business meeting will be so much easier."
Nearing the end of the semester, I acknowledged that "…memories about simple comforts such as being clean are starting to seem attractive. Having lived underneath permanent layers of sweat, dirt, and now sand for over two months, I am ready for a shower and to be able to see my skin again. However, the simplicity of living this way is appealing. There is a sense of security involved with knowing that you are going to wear the same T-shirt and pair of shorts everyday. I like not having to even think about combing my hair, shaving, or doing laundry. I don't have to pick out clothes to wear every morning and nobody cares if I smell awful-in fact, I would probably be considered suspicious if I smelled good. Not having to think about any of these things allows everyone to move past the superficial shells that we usually present to the world and focus instead on more important things."
As dramatic as it sounds, it is not a great stretch to say that the journal helped turn my semester around. It provided an outlet where I could clear my head each night, which allowed me to start the next day with an open mind and a clean slate. Any frustrations that built up during the morning or afternoon were locked into the journal each night and left there in the same way that one puts college textbooks away in the attic. They are there to learn from and refer back to occasionally, but not to be brought out everyday.
When I wanted it to, the journal could be an interested friend who was eager to hear about the new adventures that each day held. My tent mates had been there and seen the view from Pt. Lennana, 16,330 feet atop Mt. Kenya, but since the journal had chosen to remain in camp, it was patiently waiting for me to describe what the summit felt like. "Exposed on a rock pinnacle over 16,000 feet, the peak was bitterly cold. The merciless wind seemed to be constantly switching directions, without ever showing the slightest sign of abating. The noise from the wind was deafening at times. The inside of my nose burned with each intake of the cold air and I could not feel my hands. Just to make it interesting, the altitude added a slight feeling of lightheadedness to the mix. In the same way that a poverty-born entrepreneur has a deep appreciation of his assets, these physical discomforts-combined with the preceding weeks of toil-magnified our substantial reverence for the scene surrounding us. With the expansive African plains filling the foreground, the view seemed to stretch all the way to Mozambique below us and the Middle East above us."
The journal felt the awe in my handwriting as I tried to describe looking up at a giraffe for the first time, feeling more than seeing a lion throw his head back to release a guttural roar, and the sheer helplessness of being charged by an elephant. A faint scent of dried sweat still emanates from the discolored leather. I like to think that it represents the adrenaline seeping out of my hands as I wrote about diving out of a charging Cape Buffalo's path or sinking into ever deeper quicksand-like mud on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. The simple white pages bear the calmness of penstrokes applied shortly after poling an ancient sailboat into a tiny Muslim village at sunrise, as the call to prayer was being sounded through bullhorns.
More than anything else, the journal held me accountable to myself. When you are aware that no one else in the world knows of the goals that you have set, then you are equally aware that the failure to attain your goals will go unnoticed and have no consequences. It becomes very easy to come up with justi-fications for failure. However, upon telling a trusted friend, the goal enters another dimension. To avoid losing any of this friend's respect, most of us would pour extra effort into the attainment of our goal.
Accountability becomes a dilemma when we consider that one of the classic attributes of any NOLS course involves being thrown into a challenging situation with a group of complete strangers. Without the fear of losing respect, and lacking the trust or comfort of an established ally, goal setting becomes a lonely task. Thinking about fulfilling your goals at this point becomes even more daunting.
This is where the journal came to the rescue. Knowing that any trusted friends I had were half-a-world away from , my journal stepped up and filled the void. It became an extension of myself, banking on my self-respect to be more influential than that of anyone else. As an extension, the journal knew me as well as I knew myself-literally. If I ever recorded anything that I knew was less than the full truth, the journal also knew. Always wielding the threat of a guilty conscience, it let me get away with absolutely nothing. Before long I found myself striving to make this little leather book proud, for I knew that if this could be done, I would make myself proud as well.
Upon returning to the States, as part of a futile attempt to graduate from college on time, I submitted an edited version of my journal to the college Dean. While I was simply wrapping up a few hours of honors credit, the Dean and University Reading Committee had other plans. The University published the journal, In Mind / In Country, and went a few steps further by making it required reading for all 1,200 incoming freshmen. Contrasted with more well known authors and titles, such as the previous year's selection of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, the University hoped that students could better relate to something written by one of their own. By exposing them to ideas that had never before crossed their threshold of reality, hopefully these freshmen would realize how much more than grades and basketball games the next four years could hold. Through reading about the experiences of someone only a few years older than themselves, hopefully these students at a small, isolated college tucked away in the mountains of rural Appalachia would recognize how limitless their opportunities really were.
My journal was vital to me during my time in -it was a stern motivator, a sympathetic friend, and a safe refuge. For a class of college freshmen just starting an adventure of their own, it morphed into a source of encouragement urging them to think outside the traditional boundaries of an undergraduate education. Hopefully one of these students will be motivated to take a semester off, engaging in travels that challenge and excite him or her. And just maybe, that student will keep a journal that not only helps him through his experience, but also manages to inspire the next class behind him. When this happens, I will have made my journal proud.
Worth Allen currently works as an intern in the NOLS Alumni and Development department. He recently graduated from Western Carolina University, where his honors project was published as the book, In Mind, In Country.