Forty-four eleventh grade students at The Athenian School in Danville recently completed a 26-day course called the Athenian Wilderness Experience. This graduation requirement is intensely challenging, both physically and mentally. How do the students prepare, and is it enough? Here are thoughts from Dylan Smock who recently returned from Death Valley.
How are you preparing for AWE, both physically and mentally?
I've been trying to eat better. I was in the AWE conditioning class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We hiked with backpacks filled with sandbags on Mondays and Wednesdays and ran on Fridays. Mentally, I haven't done much.
Do you feel you were well prepared for AWE?
We woke up to snow one morning. It's pretty intense to have snow in the desert. The weather is bipolar there – so hot during the day and so cold at night. You have to be prepared for anything.
I think AWE went really well and I had an amazing time. I did as much preparation as I could have. It comes down to whether you're ready for the trip mentally. Yes, I was mentally prepared. I tried to come in with the least amount of expectations so the trip totally exceeded my expectations.
What are you most looking forward to?
I want to have a group in my grade that I feel connected to because I haven't felt completely close to my class.
Did you enjoy your group, and do you feel closer to your classmates?
Before we left for Death Valley, the instructors divided the students into four groups. I feel a lot more connected now, especially with the group I went with. It was fun to see everyone and share stories even though we (the four groups) went different ways in Death Valley.
What concerns you most about going on AWE?
I've been backpacking many times before and feel comfortable with it. I'm more concerned about others in my group and how they'll do on the trip.
How did your group do in the wilderness?
Everyone in my group did well. We got lost a few times on independence (a 14-day period when students travel on their own with the instructors 20 to 30 minutes behind). Our instructors had to step in and help. And that was frustrating. We were going off the directions because it was a tough navigational day, and we were running out of water. We didn't make it to our campsite so we had to find another flat, elevated location.
What can't you bring on AWE that you would like to have?
They told me I can't bring a pocket knife and I usually bring one on backpacking trips.
How did you do without the pocket knife?
I was told I shouldn't bring a knife but they let me, and I was glad I did. It had really nice scissors on it that were very helpful. I used them for cutting tape and moleskin (a soft material used to support blisters).
I wish I had more Cliff bars.
How do you think you'll do on AWE?
I think I'm going do well. Jason Ham (the AWE co-director) told me I'm one of the most prepared people. Mainly I'm concerned with how I'll be able to help others who are struggling on the course.
How did you do on AWE?
I was definitely prepared physically and did well. I learned the most about communication and dealing with the rest of my group. It was difficult at times. We would call a group circle and bring up what was causing the problem and talk about it and try to deal with it. One time it was a super tough navigational day. A lot of people were snapping at each other and we had to call a group circle.
What would you like people to know about AWE?
The most important part it solo (a three-day three-night individual experience within a defined boundary). It seems like the most intense thing I can think of. It's part of Athenian and the whole wilderness experience.
Did you enjoy solo?
I fasted during solo to make it more of a challenge and it was pretty intense but definitely worth it. I got a lot of time to think about myself and what I want to do and how I want to go about it. I wrote a five-page food list for when I got back. It was all I could think about. I tried to meditate.
How has AWE changed you as a person?
I feel less shy. I feel like I can speak up, which I couldn't do before, and that's very useful in life.