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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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Outward Bound Reunion

Up to my ankles in the Boundary Waters, I was holding the prow of a canoe so it wouldn't blow away and thinking how much I hate squishy boots. Especially when they're my favorite boots, like now, and they're probably ruined....

As if she'd read my mind, Katie Bartholomew, ankle-deep and holding two canoes, looked over and grinned. "Squishy boots!'' she said. "I LOVE squishy boots!''

Strange, I thought, how life eventually manages to teach you the lessons you missed when it tried the first time.

This lesson -- the wilderness version of the glass that is half full or half empty, depending on your attitude -- had taken 30 years to catch up with me.

In 1975, Katie had been my Outward Bound instructor in these same waters on the Canadian border, and I had been part of the outdoor school's first Minnesota program "for mature women" -- meaning anybody close to or over 30.

Three decades after the first trip - and now REALLY mature - seven of our original Outward Bound brigade had reconvened at Homeplace, the school's headquarters near Ely, Minnesota, for a reunion voyage: Bernie Murphey, Ellie Ogden, Robin Hasslen, Peggy Craig, Shirley Joy Shaw, Katie and me.

Outward Bound treated us like prodigal stars, albeit fragile ones. The staff even provided lightweight resin canoes in place of the heavy aluminum Grummans we'd used before. (And this time they didn't start the trip by marching us through a swamp of crotch-deep mud; nothing has ever been that icky since.)

I'd signed up the first time because I was about to spend a year rambling around South America. I was scared then, and I hoped Outward Bound would make me braver. Now, a lifetime later, I was hoping for the same thing. I had just retired from the newspaper job I thought I was born for, and I was scared all over again.

On our first morning back together, we stood in a circle at our campsite, surrounded by rustling fir trees, with bright blue water glinting in the background, and talked about our shared and separate journeys.

I was surprised at how many of the others used words like "courage,'' "bravery'' and "strength'' to describe what they had needed then and hoped for now.

"I want to be feeling that I'm strong and I can take care of myself,'' said Peggy. "It's almost as if it was the first time around.''

Between our two trips lay the landmarks of our adult lives -- careers, marriages, births, deaths, illnesses, divorces -- and all the readjustments, joys and griefs that came with them.

Now all of us were poised on the lip of another future. Age had put us there, and the question hanging over our heads had gotten heavier with the years: How are we going to spend the rest of our lives?

Not even Outward Bound, with its focus on facing fear and developing skills, can answer that question. But it helped. Both times.

For years, Ellie said, "I'd be in the middle of doing something tough and think, `Outward Bound helped me do that'.''

But Bernie and Shirley -- the women I had most often paddled with -- sounded as if they'd gained the most.

Bernie had been a hog farmer's wife in rural Minnesota. In her 40s and the mother of four boys, she signed up because "I just thought it would be so great to be with women for a change,'' she remembered. "It changed my life.''

Within a few years, Bernie divorced, moved to Minneapolis -- a city that up to then she'd been afraid just to drive in -- and started over. Now she was starting over again, facing the triple challenge of retirement, recovery from illness and moving to a new home in a new town.

Shirley had been 39 the first time, divorced, with four kids and a difficult choice to make -- finish college or get married again. "I thought, I need more courage.'' She got it.

She said no to the proposal, paid the Outward Bound tuition with her rent money, finished her degree, raised the kids alone and went on to found Rakma, an organization of group homes for people with Alzheimer's. Now she too had just retired.

That put all three of us, once again, in the same boat.

Our trips felt like bookends to me, bracketing my life, closing off the best part of it. "I don't know how to be this next person,'' I told the group.

Katie's response was as different as her take on squishy boots. "Not bookends,'' she said. "Jumping-off points.''

In the next few days, as our muscles got used to lifting packs and paddles again, our minds got used to our new realities. Now some of us needed physical help -- getting into and out of the canoes, over treacherous rocks, up steep portages.

And some of us needed help of a different kind -- a hug, a listening ear.

We leaned on each other more, asked for help more, combined our strengths more. And I, who had always loved traveling alone, felt a rush of relief and comfort from being in the group.

"The first time, we had to prove we could do it,'' Robin said. "Now we HAVE proved it, and we can just BE.''

Mid-trip, the wind picked up, rain thrashed us, and for two days and two nights we were pinned down on a high rocky shore, trying to keep the tents from blowing away. But that wind brought me another lesson. Or rather, brought one back.

For three decades, on trips to places from Easter Island to the Arctic Circle, whenever I'd felt scared or just reluctant, I'd always pictured canoes crossing a lake in a killer wind.

That visual mantra had been a part of me for so long that I no longer remembered where it came from. Suddenly, I knew.

Those had been our canoes, on a blustery afternoon near the end of the first trip. We had spent as much of that day as we could behind sheltering islands, but now we had to risk open water, and the wind was treacherous.

By then, though, we'd been building our skills and testing our nerve for nearly two weeks, and we were ready. Shouting between canoes, we discussed the risks, opted to go anyway, and came through safe.

Somehow, I'd associated that image only with travel. I hadn't thought to use it at home, let alone apply it to my future. Now, in the wake of the second trip, I do, all the time, in words I first heard on Outward Bound:

When in doubt, face your fear. Stay together. Ask for help if you start to capsize. And when the going really gets rough, turn the canoe straight into the wind.

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