This summer, Gustavo Garcia climbed mountains. He went whitewater rafting, backpacking and hiking. He spent 24 hours alone in the Sierra backcountry, sleeping under a small tarp, fighting the urge to pee until the sun came up so he didn’t have to navigate in the darkness.
But in his 40 days with Adventure Risk Challenge, the teenager’s scariest moment came during a game called “big rock, little rock,” in which participants were asked to announce their biggest problems in life and then metaphorically chuck them off a mountainside. The little rock left behind is a memento that’s meant to remind you of what you’ve overcome, but not to be weighed down by it.
Garcia, 17, of Merced, was ready to commit to the physical challenges of the outdoor-education program, which targets underserved youths in California and merges wilderness experiences with literacy and leadership lessons. He wasn’t afraid of heights or bears as were some of his classmates, but he still was fearful.
“It mentioned in the packet that you’d have to open up and express yourself, and I thought, I can’t do that,” he said. “What I was scared of the most was having to open up.”
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Garcia joined 11 other students for the summer course. Many of the teens have grown up on the outskirts of Yosemite’s beauty without ever entering the park. The program pushes them to their physical limits, and then teaches them how to deal with those struggles.
I see the wilderness and outdoor adventures as a venue for personal and interpersonal growth.
Sarah Ottley, Adventure Risk Challenge
Last month, as the program was nearing an end, the teens got to take a real shower, put on nice clothes and have pizza and soda for the first time in more than a month. They were hungry for more details of the outside world, only getting glimpses of their regular lives in letters from friends or from running into someone on one of the trails. What is “Pokémon Go”? Why is Kim Kardashian mad at Taylor Swift? What is Brexit?
They mourned the loss of their iPhones, which had been taken from them the moment they signed up. (One girl had pretended to talk and text message on a piece of rectangular cardboard as a sort of coping mechanism.)
They talked about the things they missed the most about civilization: Instagram, makeup, “Teen Wolf,” Spotify. But they all agreed they would miss their time at ARC once it was over. And like Garcia, it wasn’t their physical feats they would remember most.
“For the first time for a lot of these kids, they’re getting a chance to express themselves in a safe spot. They’re building trust with people they don’t know, which is really tough. I don’t think any of them have been in this type of supportive space, in this type of intentional community,” said Mandy Beatty, course director. “I see changes in them by day five. They start being able to express their feelings and have hard conversations and not be afraid by a challenge, but embrace it.”
As part of their final task, the students were asked to write and perform a personal poem comparing themselves to something in nature. For some of them, it was their hardest mountain to climb.
Linda, the Tuolumne River
On a hot day in July, Jose Aguilar’s teeth chattered like he was freezing cold.
“This is just awful,” the 16-year-old from Delhi said before tying a red rope around his waist and rappelling nearly 200 feet down Turtle Rock, near Bass Lake.
Linda Yang, a 17-year-old student at Edison High School in Fresno, was the first person to cheer him on.
“You can do it, Jose. You’ve got this,” she said. “Don’t let your dreams be dreams.”
Jose listened. So did I.
Despite being a decade younger than me, Linda was the one who convinced me, too, to rappel down the rock – my first and likely last time. She has the kind of demeanor that makes you think it’s going to be OK.
This isn’t a typical summer for Linda, the youngest of 15 siblings. Usually, she’d be helping her family on the farm, harvesting bitter melon and long beans in the heat. This summer, she’s taking time for herself.
“I’m realizing how precious everything is. You think about it, and every little thing matters,” she said. “This is about getting out of your comfort zone and adapting.”
Linda drove people to tears when she performed a poem comparing herself to the Tuolumne River at the Sierra Vista Amphitheater as part of the program’s wrap-up celebration. She spoke candidly about her loneliness inside a large Hmong family, her brother’s drug addiction and how while she’s always there for others, they’re not always there for her.
“I am home to many healthy green plants and big trees. I am home to my friends and my family, however, as time progressed, I noticed less and less birds. Trees started to fall and plants started to die,” she said on stage. “My brother became one with the bark beetle. As it slowly devoured him, he forgot I was near.”
Her classmates in the audience gently snapped their fingers each time she read a stanza that made her choke up with emotion – a sign of their support.
Prisila, Nevada Fall
Prisila Gonzalez knows she needs to learn how to trust.
As she was climbing, the 17-year-old from Atwater had to be reassured that the rope wouldn’t break – that no one would drop her.
In her poem, she compared herself to Yosemite National Park’s 600-foot waterfall, Nevada Fall. In her natural state, she’s safe and serene, but she’s easily influenced by her surroundings and quick to rage.
“When I start off, I’m still, but I end up down the wrong path,” she said. “The boulders that are holding me back are my friends.”
Gonzalez has worked hard to get her record cleared, attending drug programs and a continuation school after, she says her, friends put weed in her book bag without her knowing.
“I talked to a lot of judges and was drug-tested and arrested,” she said. “I told them it wasn’t me, but they didn’t believe me.”
Gonzalez says her time at ARC has forced her to think about what happened and to re-evaluate her friendships.
“I just don’t want to be around that – around those friends anymore,” she said. “I’ve made new friends here.”
This is really what ARC is all about – not the impressive expeditions, said executive director Sarah Ottley. The program was founded near Lake Tahoe in 2004, and the Valley’s Yosemite-based program started in 2009, focusing on empowering young people and gearing them toward college with the help of a supportive environment and an adrenaline rush.
“It’s less important that they say they backpacked 60 miles. I don’t care as much that these students ever go rock climbing again in their life. This experience helps them to learn about their own fears and their perceived limits vs. their actual limits,” Ottley said. “I see the wilderness and outdoor adventures as a venue for personal and interpersonal growth.”
Gus, a Ponderosa pine tree
When Garcia finally gave in and opened up, he really opened up.
In his poem, he compared himself to a Ponderosa pine tree because he admires its layers of bark, which he compares to puzzle pieces.
“We all have layers and layers of things that we hide from others. If you chip off one piece, there’s another piece under it,” he said. “I’ve always kept those layers to myself. It’s very difficult for me to express my feelings and emotions, because where I’m from, my family and our culture, you’re just taught to keep it bottled up inside. You never show any signs of weakness.”
But once the people at ARC had convinced him to step out of his comfort zone – once he had days without a shower and dangled from a mountaintop – talking about his personal life didn’t seem so bad.
He wrote about feeling lonely as a child, as his immigrant parents spent their days as almond farmers and their nights exhausted. He talked about his shame of growing up poor – of his fascination with middle-class families and two-story houses, and how he loved traveling up and down stairs at his friends’ homes because in his eyes, stairs were a luxury.
“A lot of times we couldn’t afford toys, so whenever we went to the grocery stores, I would take the twisty ties from the bread and make them into figurines and pretend to be someone rich and happy,” Garcia said.
“To share that, that was big for me. I really pushed myself to try to open up to people and show them my vulnerabilities and be OK with that,” he said.
As for that intimidating game of “big rock, little rock?”
“I still have that rock,” he said. “I’m taking it home with me.”