Leaning Toward Less
Last week I stood with six high schoolers in a musty cabin in Ely packing for our trip to the Boundary Waters. Well, I should say re-packing. Our guide, employed by our outfitter, barked out his approved packing list and would not let us put a single item in our shared Duluth packs without his approval. He already had our trip route in his mind, filled with long, technical portages. Everything we brought we had to carry between the eight of us, along with our four canoes. He was not the kind of guy who was going to let us double back and take two trips. So from his perspective, it was easy– take what you need to be safe:
Two sets of clothes and shoes- one wet and one dry
A sleeping bag
A sleeping pad
A water bottle
A paddle and life vest
Deodorant? Extra socks? Shampoo? Nope, nope, and nope. They said goodbye to their beloved phones for the week. They felt vulnerable, putting a lot of their trust in a man they had just met. They had no idea where they were going or what their next meal would be. Some of the high schoolers were thrilled, others were skeptical. In the end he let us bring a book, a pack of cards, and fishing poles. We set out together, and it didn’t take long on the water for them to marvel at the scenery, admire the clear water and get hushed at the sight of loons.
Day after day we ate together over a fire we built ourselves, we slept wedged together in our tents, we switched up partners to chat with on the canoe while finding our paddling rhythm. We huddled together in the rain, pushed each other through long and technical portages, shared books and hammocks. We fished and played cards, hiked and created inside jokes. Napped. We encountered the a peaceful joy in the sunsets. We encountered calm in each other.
I had been waiting all year for this trip because I knew the conditions were ripe for encounter. It’s not every day that you get access to a high school student for six days with no technology and nowhere in particular to be and with work to be done and adventures to be had together. I had been trying my best to encounter these young people in fits and starts. In the wilderness, our time together was easy and light. It bound effortlessly. By then end of the week, there was deep recognition and respect between us. We all showed up– really showed up– to play and pray and work and rest together. There was nothing, and then there was something, and that something was very good.
I know from experience that there is a connection between our sparse packing list and the quality of connection we had as a group. But I never get tired of watching young people make that connection themselves. The young man who loved his phone the most was the most reluctant to return to it. The young women enjoyed not having to worry about make-up and noticed what it felt like to leave their tent in the morning without anyone even noticing what they had on. Even as an adult, I always love putting myself in settings like this with less amenities and less pressure for stuff, where the culture supports simplicity and we can enjoy being stripped down to the stuff that keeps us safe. The centripetal force of society pulls us toward more. None of us are immune to it. And I make a point of stepping away and into a different culture at least once a year to remember the freedom that comes with less. With less packed, there were less distractions, and it was easier for us to get at the heart of the matter. I remembered, again, where my self worth comes from. It’s equally simple and profound. I am then renewed and rejuvenated headed back to my normal with the commitment to lean toward less and to playfully pursue what is, indeed, enough.
When we returned to Ely, we showered and ate a great meal. We reunited with the other groups of eight and shared stories. And after a weekend of more physical labor as a service project, we got back on the bus to head home. We again had our cell phones and extra changes of clothes at our disposal, but the ride home felt significantly different than the ride north. There was a comfort, a quiet, calm confidence in the group that can only be earned by living with less so that we may have more meaningful encounter with nature and each other.