Stories from the Field

The Magic of the Armstrong Scholars Experience

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In retrospect, the process of this year’s Armstrong Scholars adventure was unexpected. Back in January, it didn’t occur to us that the record-breaking snowfall of winter had anything to do with Armstrong Scholars in the summer of 2023, nor did we think the personal challenges we were facing as individuals had anything to do with it, either. Time goes quickly from January to July and eventually adds up like a confusing math equation, bringing us to almost two weeks before the trip and a change in trip leaders, a route that doesn’t exist, an injury with no healing date and a few Scholars needing to pass up the opportunity. On paper, the process leading up to this trip was, yes, dramatic and different. However, looking back it doesn’t seem dramatic at all. In fact, it seems like everything was right and happening and true. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

We began at Crane Flat where we met our team of 11 Scholars, embracing the awkwardness of being in a new place with new people and the thought, "What am I getting myself into?" What some of us had yet to learn at this point is that there is freedom in the unexpected. We set out from Deer Creek Camp Trailhead in the southern part of Yosemite National Park with these 11 Scholars, giddy, jet-lagged and still bright-eyed, along with three educators—yes, three. You see, as soon as we saw uncertainty and unpredictability show up more and more often, we began to invite her as a friend to the table. 

Armstrong Scholars 2023 cohort
Armstrong Scholars 2023 cohort

Gabrielle (Gabs) was still uncertain if her injury would heal or get worse during the trip, so Yosemite Education Manager Kim Laizer, for the first time ever, accompanied us as a third educator on the trip in case an evacuation needed to happen early on. We were able to have Kim with us for two days and two nights, sharing her wisdom, songs and joy with the Scholars who quickly saw her as a wise mentor. We were grateful to have a friend of Joie’s share her story to a group of Scholars around the Joie candle at an evening “GRANITE” meeting (a nightly ritual of lighting a candle and having intentional space to talk, share and bond) in the backcountry. During that meeting, the night sky sprinkled rain on us just enough to introduce the magic of Joie and Armstrong Scholars to our group. And this is where it got interesting. 

Armstrong Scholars 2023 cohort nighttime hangout
Armstrong Scholars 2023 cohort evening hangout

In the early days, Kiera, hearing nervousness in voices, tried to ask the right questions to evoke some connections. We tried to imagine what it might feel like in another week and even questioned how to facilitate an experience that would be fulfilling. We were soon reminded that it wasn't up to us. The wilderness would do the work. The Scholars were open to it, and so naturally, little by little, a group of 13 strangers became a family.

It could be said that magic is a running theme of Armstrong Scholars, and Gabs witnessed it first-hand the morning after the light rain when she was able to tell the group she was staying to co-lead. Gabs’ foot was healing—and there was no way she could pass up the opportunity to lead with Kiera and the 11 amazing individuals on the verge of growth and discovery…never!

Armstrong Scholars 2023 practicing sunset yoga
Armstrong Scholars 2023 practicing sunset yoga

From then on, we took challenges as they came to us, embracing them like an old friend, especially those emerging from the recent winter. Creek crossings were triumphed over by our physically and mentally strong team. Injuries marked us with memories and allowed some of us to return to the group after medical evacuations and stay for what we came for. Magic spells sent us up mountains as well as Taylor Swift’s album Speak Now, sung by lungs huffing and puffing and not giving up. New navigation skills moved us through snow-covered trails as well as burned and vanished trails. Mental resilience allowed us to enjoy the views with one thousand mosquitoes flying in our faces. Our team held each other accountable and held each other lovingly in times we were welcomed to grow. 

The group felt depleted on the seventh day as Resupply Angels hiked away carrying our trash; they also took with them one of our teammates, Helen. A couple days prior, Helen had earned a wound in a battle with a granite slab right before lunchtime—some people take dehydrated peanut butter and jelly tortillas very seriously in the backcountry. Helen needed a professional assessment of her wound, so we said goodbye with hopes of her return. 

Armstrong Scholars with Resupply Angels
Armstrong Scholars with Resupply Angels

Resupply restocked us for another week on trail, but it had drained our social batteries after having pushed ourselves physically in the previous week. We called the group together for a morale-boosting surprise and an Armstrong Scholars tradition: SPA DAY! Huddled under one dromedary, we took turns under a tiny stream of river water—we were living in luxury. Even though it requires patience in waiting your turn and walking to the river to repeatedly refill the “shower,” the gratitude for that luxury is more evidence of the magic created in the backcountry. We cherished the feeling around camp that evening. As Scholars painted each other's nails and gave card readings, some cried and processed real pains with the group. Then naturally, the conversation flowed back into a state of laughter. 

You’ll be crusty and stinky and dirty as hell, but nothing compares to the great big swell of your heart as the days crawl on by, filled with sweetness like a slice of pie. Gulp life, be loud, fart and be proud. You are a part of this family which grows roots and sprouts, just like a tree.
Bea, Armstrong Scholar 2023

When speaking of magic, the trek through a burned forest comes to mind. The backdrop is a forest scorched a couple years ago, now growing new life in what was once an understory. Now it’s the only story; a fragrant and colorful one consisting of lupin, pennyroyal, firecracker penstemon, mountain pride, fireweed, mariposa lily, columbine, prettyface, trefoil, geranium, monkeyflower and mule’s ears, to name a few. Both songbirds and birds of prey moved between burnt trees, and we hiked miles through the forest in the heat of the day. We breaked on the side of the trail here and shared a moment when we needed each other the most. Tears and challenges were shared and the storm clouds began to accumulate overhead as a hummingbird hovered over the group for a few seconds—hours in hummingbird time. To beat a storm, a team has to come together, and that’s exactly what we did. Our feet hit the trail after this cathartic break and began up a mountain. We swear, Taylor Swift songs sung from our group scared that storm away and sent it elsewhere. We made it up the mountain on what felt like the longest day and filled our bellies with curry lentils and laughter that night. That’s a glimpse of the magic. 

I think we are living the definition of Gulp Life, and I think Joie has already inspired us all so much.
Natalie, Armstrong Scholar 2023

On one of our final mornings in the wilderness, we were down to ten Scholars. We set our alarms for 3:30 a.m. and began our walk up the Clouds Rest trail. Constellations were clearly displayed against the black of the night sky. On our approach, our headlamps became less critical as the rays from the sun teased their entrance to the east. As we left the dirt trail and transitioned across the thin walkway of granite to reach the summit, some held hands to push past their fear of heights and others scrambled on with eagerness. We reached the top of the mountain around 5:40 a.m. and sat to greet the day—our eyes darting back and forth over the Valley below. On one side from where we perched was the Clark Range, the Sawtooths and Tenaya Lake. Turning our heads to the other side, Tenaya Canyon and the distinct shape of Half Dome gleamed before us. The daybreak greeted us with a beautiful collage of colors as our backdrop to Yosemite Valley. We watched, we journaled and we sang:

I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter, and you can't take my dreams away without me watching, no, you can't take my dreams away without me fighting.

Of course, magic doesn’t come easy. It comes from intentional individuals who make for a strong team. Ours was just that:

Amalia, Cuddlefish
Audrey, Happy Camper
Bea, Redwood
Cheri, Share-Bear
Helen, The Magician
Kristen, South Sister
Mica, Fluffy
Natalie, Eighty
Olivia, Step-Up
Samara, Whisperlite
Sienna, Bones

With love, 
Kiera & Gabs

Armstrong Scholars 2023 cohort on Cloud's Rest
Armstrong Scholars 2023 on Cloud's Rest
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