When I first started college, I was ambitious. I was going to major in Computer Science, double major in Biology, and do it in three years.  I never actually got to take that first Bio class but I was still going to double major, this time in Accounting.  It turns out that accounting is really boring.  Okay. So I’ll stick with Computer Science and do it in three years. Which means I needed to take 20-21 credits a semester – which is a lot, and I was going crazy with all the work.  I suddenly understood why people looked for easy A’s.

Then I heard about Phys Ed courses.  Only one credit, but they were easy.  In the Fall I could take skiing.  During Christmas break we would go to Canada for a week and ski, and I’d earn a credit.  It was fun!  For another credit, I could take more skiing in January during Intersession, the period between Fall and Spring. In the summer I took Tennis. In the Spring I took Fencing.  Even one credit at a time adds up.

Then a three-credit course caught my eye – Wilderness Survival!  Now, I’ve always been interested in my own survival.  I had never been in the wilderness, but I thought I should take this class, you know, to increase my odds. Unlike the other courses, it met as a class, but was still fun. Over Thanksgiving break, we had to go to my teacher’s acreage in upstate New York  to demonstrate what we’d learned.  We were allowed to bring a sleeping bag and some clothes.  No tent, no foam pad, nothing else.

I borrowed a sleeping bag and went. That first night we’re paired up, me with a guy who is quiet, but nice, and then we’re given boundaries within which we can make camp.  We gather firewood and make this big fire. We get in our sleeping bags and it’s toasty.  No problem – we got this!   

…Until the fire goes out.  Then I wake up and I’m cold.  I am shivering. My teeth are chattering and I know I should rekindle the fire.  But that means exposing the top half of my body to even more cold, and no way I’m willing to do that.

Lucky for me, my buddy has awakened and is also freezing, and is willing or desperate enough to try to start the fire. But he is shaking so much that he can’t light the match. It isn’t happening. He finally gives up and we put on every piece of clothing we have. Even with a sleeping bag between us and the earth…the earth is very big… it feels like there is nothing between it and our bodies.  It feels like the earth is trying to suck every ounce of warmth out of us, and it’s succeeding.  We want to get together to hold our body heat in. But now it’s windy and we need to shelter behind the tree.  This means settling into the troughs between the big roots, but they’re too narrow, so we have to separate.  We do and, amazingly, we sleep. 

I wake up. I don’t open my eyes, but I can tell there’s light. There’s something on my face. I try to brush it away, but it’s still there.  I open my eyes and it’s snowing. There’s this blanket of snow over everything.  I’m just a lump in the landscape. In that moment, there is incredible joy–because I’m still alive.  I’ve survived the night and this is awesome.   

It gave me perspective.  Hey, as long as I have shelter, clean water and food, everything else is gravy.  I am swimming in gravy and didn’t even realize it! Who cares whether I finish college in three years or four?  

But what I loved most about that night, why I still go out into the wilderness…although it was harsh, it was also incredibly fair.  It didn’t care if I was male or female, poor, rich, black, white, gay, straight – it treated us all the same.  And in this world, that is a rarity. 

©2018 by Chris Spengler

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