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Experience + Reflection = Meaningful Experience

We are with a group of students in the Uinta mountains south of Evanston, Wyoming, settling into the Bear Claw yurt. We skied in three miles with backpacks, too short for some of our group, but a comfortable stretch for our novice skiers.

The cooking group is inside getting the food ready, and most people sit on the bunks, talking or reading or writing in their journals, mostly talking. Because there isn’t room enough for all of us, some will sleep outside (me included, because I can’t sleep in the sweltering yurt, heated by a wood stove).

I stand outside watching Jake build a snow cave, which he’s digging into a high drift of snow. A group of three young women are also building a cave, tramping down a foundation for the wall, piling up the snow and tamping it down with their shovels.

What’s happening? I’m not talking about the physical actions of building caves and cooking, but what’s happening inside the students? Affecting what’s happening inside is the reason we brought them up here.

Not much later we hear a “whump,” and Jake stands in the ruin of his cave. Almost two hours after dark, the three women finally crawl into their cave, dragging their pads and sleeping bags inside.

Again I ask, what’s happening? What’s in Jakes head as he lays out his pad and sleeping bag in the trench he dug where his snow cave was? What’s in the heads of the women whose cave is standing?

I don’t know, and I won’t know until I talk to them or read their writing.

I claim that they don’t know either. They may think they know what their experience means, but until they talk about it and write about it, they know only superficially. And what they think they know will change through time. As Theodore Roethke wrote in his poem “The Waking”:

I learn by going where I have to go. . . .

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Writing can help us come close to knowing what happened and is happening between our ears. Jake’s journals and essays are a map of his changing thinking. Not long after the experience, Jake tried to describe what happened in his head before his cave collapsed:

Smugly, I looked at my pile of snow. I had done all my research on the internet properly and so my experience of building my first real snowcave was turning out well. It only looked like a low-lying lump of snow piled on a crusting top layer of snow, but I had picked the best spot: a snow drift amid the pine trees and aspen skeletons where the snow drifts had already collected three feet of snow for me. I was so impressively competent: "having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience”(

I looked over at the snow cave in construction by the enterprising women from my class and chuckled. They had picked a low valley in the snow and now had to work furiously to make the five-foot pile. Though I wouldn’t say it out loud, I subconsciously acknowledged that they were inefficient and incompetent. I had finished my pile by myself before the four of them finished theirs. I was the winner in this competition of outdoor skills.

His second reaction (as he stands up after his cave falls on him):

First breath: fear. Tested the pressure on my back, curled up in protective fetal position, and open my eyes. The terrifyingly black I expected isn’t there.

Second breath: frustration. I stood up, letting chunks of collapsed ceiling roll off my back. Why did my snow cave fall down? Where was my outdoor competency now that Staci, our classes’ hardcore outdoor superman, told me, “Funny, I’ve never had a snowcave collapse on me. I guess the snow just wasn’t packed enough.” I compared my failed project to the girls’ which sat quite sturdily down the hill from mine and almost complete , glowing smug angelic snugness from head-lamps through airholes—in a spot I had thought was inferior given it’s lack of snow because, being so efficient, I had picked mine where the snow was deep and I had five feet of snow though I didn’t know that I needed five feet of thoroughly packed snow which I apparently did not have given the crumbled state of snow chunks that lay at my feet. Competency my foot.

His reaction the next day:

Learning from my mistake, my second snow cave was packed. Thoroughly packed. As soon as I got into camp, I found a deep snow drift and piled on snow, but this time I walked and skied and jumped all over that pile of snow until I was utterly sure it was going to stay. I focused on my own snow cave and I didn’t compare.

Sleep in a snow cave (built according to Staci’s command with burner etc.) Comfortable. A sense of accomplishment. Sleeping in the optimal position. Pulling the mummy over.

A couple of weeks later:

I was writing a witty, thoughtful, delightfully insightful and beautifully written essay about our trip to the Uintas mountains, but I kept constantly running into a little fault that hid in fringes of the paper and maimed my essay’s development so excuse me while I abandon the old essay for a while and address this personal problem head on and beat it to pieces.

Something from the next draft:

Bentley told me that when you create an essay, you must accept the fact that you might fail. I cannot accept that fact. If I’m failing, I’ll stop writing. Here, I’m done. I can’t think of anything more to say so I’m just going to stop now. Here. After this period. AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. THIS IS SO INSANE!

Let me take a step back and explain something outright. This mess that I will choose to call an essay is a direct example of what I want to get across to you: I cannot cease to self-analyze because I’m terribly caught up with the appearance of what you will think of me and what I want you to think of me and what I think of me and what I want to think of me. I want to think of me as great though I have already admitted to myself that I am not. However, if it wasn’t for this essay, you wouldn’t know that so I could still try to play you to think I was great. I bet I wouldn’t succeed. But I don’t give up.

I feel like I’m a fairly competent writer when writing about things from a perspective that limits or eliminates my voice, but trying to place my real thoughts, perceptions, and self-reflections into a paper drags a whole bureaucracy of PR filters that constantly screens these words to make sure that only the good or the controlled bad—the tragic flaw of a hero—gets through to the reader. But usually nothing is good enough to be written so my essay just stutters to a halt, unfinished. Even right now, I’m not sure this is unfiltered—the beast of self-contemplation has already been dragged in with all it’s baggage—but I’m trying. I’m trying, class, to be as honest as I could be about myself.


Perhaps what I just said is disingenuous because it’s a little bit of hyperbole: I cognitively recognize I am ordinary. The facts that point to it are unmistakable. But something very real in my natural, inherent assumption to judging has kept me from ever finishing an essay. It’s possible that I’m being too hard on myself. After all, this is a common vice many people struggle for years with. A lot of people have told me that, but I’ve shrugged it off. What do they know about it? I won’t accept their low standards.

Well, I think I busted this essay to pieces, but surely there are some seeds of greatness somewhere planted in it because, even after all of this self-awareness of my judgmental and proud character, I still have the secret hope that I’m an amazing writer/person/hero (more amazing than the person next to me at least). Hopefully the proceeding pages have had the therapeutic effect of breaking my disability to accept failure, to accept the ordinary. Now hopefully I can rise from the ashes, that I can be whole and go forth and write that absolutely astounding essay I know I have inside of me.

The class is over, Jake has left school and will be living abroad for two years. But this experience is still in his head, and he may still be working it over. Could all this work of self discovery been done through merely thinking? I think it’s improbable. Maybe through long conversation? More likely, but his sense of others watching is so powerful that I wonder how he could have come to private clarity without writing.

While I don’t know how well other media such as sculpture, dance, or painting would have worked to facilitate his making of meaning, I do know that writing was one medium that worked. The evidence is in the sentences and paragraphs. While I or others can speculate that meaning would have been created anyway, what I do know is that writing in connection with outdoor experience works.