I’m not much of a Vermonter. I hardly ever ski, value the indoors more than the outdoors, and steer clear of most Vermont-y adventures. Yet this week, something must’ve stirred within me because I suddenly became adventurous. Crazy, I know. Every year at my school, about 50 seniors participate in SLAM, a leadership program aimed at helping freshmen adapt to the high school life. On Wednesday, all 50 of us gathered to spend two days together for a retreat to kickstart the year.
One of the best places in Vermont to go for team-building is Northern Lights Rock and Ice, an “outdoor challenge” facility with rock climbing walls, a ropes course, and miscellaneous team-building activities. While I despise heights, I always seem to be pressured to do something or another that ends up with me almost crying. With these nightmarish experiences in mind, I spent Tuesday night as an insomniac with extreme anxiety. By Wednesday morning, I was ready to go, mostly because I would be seeing some friends after an entire summer. But once we got to the ropes course, every fear within me arose again. I am deathly afraid of heights. To put things into perspective, I can’t climb a ladder. When I was young, I used to avoid every monkey bar, roller coaster, and [insert tall structure] that I could, but I would say I’ve lived a pretty eventful life thus far. While I am absolutely content cheering from the sidelines with the utmost pep, somehow teachers always find a way to give me grief about “stepping out of my comfort zone” and “taking challenges beyond the classroom.” Our Northern Lights instructor even went as far as to say that not taking the challenge of climbing the 40 foot (yeah, keep reading that number) structure would mean living a sheltered life in the future. Somehow I don’t equate climbing a structure to making new friends or getting a job or enduring ground-level challenges. Anyways, pity party over–I spent about three hours stealing glances at the 40 foot structure and calming my nerves. The last time I was at Northern Lights, I chickened out from the ropes course, but the time before that, I actually completed it—and it was one of the worst experiences of my life (plus I think I made one of my classmates deaf from screaming in his ear for so long). But standing there, in front of 49 of my classmates, as a 17-year old, I just couldn’t justify not taking a chance. I knew I would hear about it for the rest of the year.
For the three hours before the 40 foot ropes course, I very carefully avoided the other activities–such as jumping off of a tall pole with five students belaying me–and mentally prepared myself. When we finally got to the course, I gave myself a dramatic lecture about broadening my horizons and doing this for my future as a journalist and something about college acceptances. At this point, I’m pretty sure I was trying anything to convince myself. With these compelling thoughts in mind, I climbed the rope ladder up to the course, careful not to let my foot fall through the holes, looking straight ahead and definitely not downwards. When I got up there and tied myself to the safety rope, I did a victory dance before realizing that I had about four more obstacles to overcome before reaching freedom. For the next few obstacles, I regretted everything. I regretted my lecture, I regretted being convinced, I regretted actually getting up the net ladder. The first big obstacle was the “Earthquake”, which consisted of ten hanging (and wobbling) bars you had to cross over as a team. Every time my team of five put forward a foot, I hung back screaming, “Wait, wait, wait I’m not ready!”, which, eventually, caused my teacher to lose her balance and fall (thankfully being caught by the safety rope….don’t worry, we were all connected to a wire….did I forget to mention that?). She laughed it off, but I was humiliated. They finally got me past the 10 bars, with a lot of consolation. The next obstacle was the worst by far– a tight rope going across two platforms. I knew I couldn’t do it. I got half-way through, ditched my partner (who I was supposed to be supporting), and hugged a pole in near-tears saying “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” I don’t really know what I expected everyone to do–were they supposed to get a crane and pull me off? I’m sure at that moment, that would’ve been the preferable option. Seeing that I was the last one, the instructor came to help me, after letting me struggle for a few minutes (all part of “taking a challenge”). I finally crossed the rope with my eyes closed, tightly holding on to him. It wasn’t my brightest moment. Thankfully, the penultimate obstacle was a choice between yet another tightrope (which some people did blindfolded…are you crazy?) and a bridge. Needless to say, I chose the latter, and actually ended up booking it across in excitement that I could do something. When I got to the end, I was eager to take the zipline back down. I had no hesitations jumping off the structure onto the zipline—just closed my eyes, counted to three, and went for it. When I touched the ground, I remembered why I hated heights in the first place.
Here’s my moment of deep reflection. In retrospect, I’m glad I completed the course. I will probably never ever (ever) do it again, but I can happily say that I’ve completed a 40 foot ropes course twice in my life. It’s a feat for me. I remember spending the rest of the day smiling, feeling accomplished, soaking in the success of overcoming a fear. In the end, my lecture worked. Maybe I won’t live a sheltered life after all.
After Northern Lights, we all drove up to the Monitor Barn in Richmond, a quintessential Vermont town with rolling hills
and a lingering smell of hay and manure. I fell in love with Vermont again, just as I always do when I step out of South Burlington. We spent a few hours hanging out in the Monitor Barn, during which many people volunteered to help cook our dinner (and did it quite well). We ate dinner all together, and I don’t think I’ve laughed that much with people from my school in a while. Once everyone was finished, people started to volunteer to pick up our plates, and for the first time ever, I felt a sense of community within our class. Eventually, everyone was helping each other, regardless of if they were friends or not.
After dinner, we went out to the lean-tos in the woods behind the barn. I never knew what a lean-to was before this, but it’s basically a wooden cabin with one open side. Half of the group nearly passed out upon seeing them, but somehow I found myself amused. When the sun finally set, we had a bonfire–I caught up with two of my best friends after a few weeks over s’mores and stories. In fact, I even tried to tell them a ghost story, but turned it into a classic Basundhara story and failed. Thankfully, my former calc teacher came to the rescue, and told the entire group stories that kept me jittery for the rest of the night. Before dispersing, he finally told us to close our eyes, hold our breaths, and listen around us because nature is loud. I felt inspired at the moment. The crickets were chirping, the leaves were rustling, the fire was crackling. We were in the middle of nowhere–literally–but we weren’t alone. I always feel like Vermont is special because of its natural beauty–something you don’t necessarily experience in a big city. I have dreams of living in a city one day, but I will always have Vermont in the back of my mind, and I will always prefer the sound of crickets to honking cars.
Before going to bed, my friends and I trekked to the barn to grab some stuff. On the way, the moon was impeccable, glowing above the farms and delineating the gliding clouds. I danced all the way there, content about life, content about being out there, content about my entire summer. Unfortunately, all this contentedness stopped when a frog jumped on me, and forced me to scream bloody murder, which led to a string of other screams. Everyone was on edge. That night, we went to our respective lean-tos. One of my friends and I planned on going star gazing in the field, but before I knew it, she was passed out cold in her sleeping bag. I stayed up for hours, unable to sleep with the sounds and bugs, listening to the nearby guys howling like wolves. I woke up the next morning to endless bug bites and a tremendously sore upper body. My friends and I trekked back to the barn, looking like zombies, but admiring the misty sunlit sky above the farm. I had barely slept the night before, but I felt reinvigorated. Is that what nature does to you?
Sleeping in the woods isn’t on my bucket list, but I wish it had been. I went into SLAM camp thinking it would be frustrating, or that our class would clash. But I couldn’t think of a better way to end the best summer I’ve ever had. This entire summer–this entire year actually– I have been talking about college and leaving and joining new communities, but the community I’ve grown up in has been one-of-a-kind. I whine about Vermont and the lack of change, but the truth is that my 12 years here have been amazing. It’s all so bittersweet. There were people I reconnected with who I’ve known for 12 years, yet haven’t talked to since middle school. I remember on Wednesday night, one of my best friends from my childhood and I told endless stories about the adventures we used to have when we were five or six. We laughed like we used to years ago, and remembered all of the times that had faded in our minds. And seeing us in that moment, you wouldn’t think that it’s been years since we’ve really talked.
South Burlington is a small community, but a valuable one. We’re all going into our senior year, and in a year, these laughs will be cries and Remember whens…? and soon enough, we’ll all be on our own paths. Beyond conquering my fear of heights for a day and sleeping in the woods, SLAM camp reminded me to live in the present for this year–for my senior year, as hard as it is to believe. Next year, I’ll be off at college, creating new friendships and embarking on new adventures, but until then, I have an incredible community around me, and years and years of friendships to value.
So here’s a toast…..to conquering fears, to taking chances, to nature, to community, to childhood, and, finally, to senior year. Let’s make it our best one yet.