Looking and Seeing


Your head’s down but you know you’ll pick it up in a few minutes to look around, because that’s what you do. And when you do look up you’ll count; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. It’s something you’ve done so often and for so long, you sometimes don’t even know you’re doing it. It’s like blinking, it’s automatic. And as you look back down to move the lid off the pot, you think “good, they’re all here”.

To anyone else you’re just cooking, if boiling water is in any way epicurean, but you’re also counting and that’s the important thing. Your buddy Brad is doing the same thing—counting that is, and there’s a level of comfort in knowing that, because two sets of eyes are better than one.  You’re both also listening for any aberrant noise; anything out of the ordinary that you might need to deal with; the sound of danger, the sound of fear, or the worst sound of all, the sound of no sound. Mothers are familiar with the first two, anyone who’s spent time in the woods or the jungle understands the last one. So, for you, looking and listening will be two of the most important things you do for the next five days; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and a quick glance over to your partner to give and hopefully get, the “everything is okay” look. You’re comfortable but vigilant because after years of working together, the two of you function symbiotically and that’s a powerful asset to have in the high-risk business of experiential education.

You both learned how to look around, or I guess more accurately “view the landscape” a long time ago as lifeguards, when you were charged with protecting people from drowning or some other self-inflicted calamity, because of the way humans behave around water.

As a lifeguard you counted often, usually every three minutes or so, because you understood that someone floundering around in the water for more than three minutes, usually drowns. Your tools of the trade then where simple; a whistle, zinc oxide, a hat, and one of the biggest assets of all, your sunglasses. Sunglasses were your friend, allowing you to look right past the people with the need to chat, those who assumed you were simply standing around doing nothing. Those deep green, reflective lenses, allowed you to look right past someone, and with the slightest turn of your head, do your job; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten…you get the picture.  

Now though things are different. You’re just below the tree-line along a ridge trail in the White Mountains; sunglasses aren’t that important, and you’re counting less often; at ten or fifteen-minute intervals, because the calamity you fear the most in this situation is a fall. You count less often because you believe although falsely, that you have more control over this situation than the inherent danger associated with water, however wilderness backpacking and mountain climbing are just as dangerous, and probably doubly-so when herding a group of emotionally disturbed young adults who suffer with attention deficit disorders and by default, a misunderstanding of the importance of purposefully placing one foot in front of the other.


The ugliest fact about falling down is that there are two types; little ones where someone can break a leg, and big ones that we think about all the time but don’t talk about. Small falls can change a trip’s itinerary, big ones are nothing less than tragic. We strive for neither. Our biggest problem whenever we stop after a day of hiking is the feeling of liberation our motley crew experiences after shedding the backpacks they wore for seven or eight hours. With a burst of energy and a false sense of security they run around like dogs after a bone.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and this time you look over at your buddy and shake your head; it’s time to slow this party down. We expect these moments and always have a plan for them. This time we’ll engage the young lads in something they probably aren’t interested in doing, like pushups. The smart ones will get the message quickly, the others will do a lot of ground touching with their nose before they start to understand.

Our biggest concern when the sun goes down, is counting because you can’t count heads in the dark, and its pitch dark in the mountains at night, so we’ll be listening because even though we send our charges to bed, it doesn’t mean they won’t decide to prowl around. Our job then, will be to make them more afraid of running into one of us than falling off a cliff, and trust me, if they’re up and out in the darkness, they’ll run into one or both of us, long before they get the chance to exit into the abyss, and when we do meet, they’ll fear for their lives in a different way than ever before, which is a story for another time.