Out into the Wilderness

In the weeks leading up to the Wilderness Retreat, I was a little nervous. I mean, sure. I’ve done this very retreat with Mr. Danish and Ms. Reno before. Only then I was 13 years old. And didn’t get winded walking up a flight of stairs. So the idea of schlepping a 40 pound bag of water and cooking gear up a mountain while also keeping an eye out for 21 sweet, sweet middle school students doing the same was a little unsettling.

I bought anything on Amazon that had the words “moisture wicking.” I packed and repacked my bag. I put a book in (because, as the librarian, I have a reputation to uphold) and took it out again. (Then, of course, I brought it anyway.) I checked the weather for Mann’s Choice, Pennsylvania religiously and reported bright and early at 7:00 am, coffee in hand, ready to chaperone this sweet tradition that has been a highlight of the ICS experience since 1995.

The first thing Mr. Danish tells the group however, is no amount of planning will ever be enough. There will always be some unexpected curve ball, something lurking around the switchback that you just didn’t prepare for. Therein lies both the beauty and the challenge of the Wilderness Retreat.

Some bad things I didn’t see coming include: the gastrointestinal issues following from eating too much chili, being nipped by a horse, promptly forgetting how to tie every knot Mr. Danish taught us, finding a worm in my pants (!?!), and perhaps most memorably, the literal deluge of rain that characterized the hours between 3 pm and 3 am of 8B’s Thursday in the wilderness.

Rain, worms, and churlish horses aside: the good surprises far outweighed the bad ones. I watched students carry one another’s burdens when backpacks got too heavy. I snapped photos of kids who initially said they were too nervous to repel as they stepped off the ledge and did it. I laid in a field beside students I treasure and coworkers I count as friends and looked up at the galaxies God created.
Now would be a great time for me to recount the campfire stories and theology shared by Mrs. Alvarado, Ms. Reno, Mr. Pinkley, and Mr. Danish. Those, though, are too special—a gift given, year upon year, to the eighth graders who get on the bus, cinch up the backpack, hike up the mountain and plop their tired bodies down on logs. These are discussions perfected over years of practice, tailored to the students sitting in the circle, and prayed over—that the word of the Lord would not fall on hard hearts.

But I will say this: I have never forgotten my first Wilderness Retreat as an ICS eighth grader in 2003, who thought I had learned all there was to know about God. Back then, all that stuck was how hard it was to make macaroni over a camp stove and how neat it was to have teachers tough enough to take our particularly boisterous class out into the woods for a couple days. As time marched on, though, I soon discovered that I hadn’t even scratched the surface on who God is, or on what cardinal events in my life He would use to teach me. So when the going got tough on my faith walk, I did what many young adults raised in church will do. I stopped, questioned, wandered, got a little lost.

For whatever reason, God called me back. I listened and stumbled and most likely took the long route but today I find myself surrounded by some of the same Christian friends and mentors I sat with around the campfire, employed at the same Christian school I once took for granted, working under the same Head of School who warned me all those years ago what going down the wrong path could do. I was overwhelmed with gratitude these past two weeks as I was reminded just how far God has brought my heart this past decade. How very, very lost I could have gotten had I not felt the stirring in my heart that I believe ICS helped pave the way for all those years ago.
I pray the same for the eighth graders who had the privilege of attending the 2018 wilderness retreats. That they felt how loved they were by their parents for providing them with this education and their teachers for facilitating this chance for them to grow. I pray that whichever path they are asked to travel, that they will do so with gratitude. I pray that they never make choices that lead them away from God. But most importantly, I pray that if they do make those choices, that they will recall this wilderness retreat, and remember the words of their Head of School: the most important step you will ever take is your next one, and it is never too late to turn back around.


Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
and He will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6