I literally had to fight off the moms to keep their younger daughters from coming on the first real backpacking trip exclusively for young women, it was so popular. “The vans can’t hold any more!” I protested. “But there is an extra pack! My daughter can share with these other girls,” a mom countered. “But there is nothing to put IN it,” I had to explain. “No food, no tent, no sleeping bag, no headlamp…but the main reason is she is too young. Please sign up next year! We don’t want her to have a miserable first experience.” The moms were not satisfied; we were forced to flee.
In the end, 22 ladies between the ages of 12 and 19 spent three days in the wilderness of Toro Toro National Park, and after the first 100 meters of backpacking, the girls began to ask what sort of military punishment camp this was. Several encouraged me to raise the minimum age to 14. But as the whining subsided, they settled in to the trek, and 8 kilometers later, they rolled into camp, none the worse for the wear. Most were amazed they got this far, and wondered how it happened. Day two was similar. We even had one girl crying as she reached the edge of the canyons under the burning midday sun. But she made it.
We slowly upped the ante as the girls became aware of their own capacity and relied on God and each other to go farther and complete ever more difficult tasks. The descent down the canyon wall placed many of them face to face with genuine fear, and at the bottom we discussed the different ways to express it and control it. Some had nightmares after crawling through caverns and shrieked at the idea of being left alone in the dark. But after some recommendations on how to carry the packs and a challenge to stay ahead, most girls became accustomed to the weight and fell into a good pace. I overheard one of them say with a laugh on the ride home that she used to complain about carrying her books to school.
Day three saw 20 young ladies rappelling down a waterfall. I was duly impressed by their willingness to trust the guides and the gear and to walk off the ledge backwards. We discussed who and when to trust others during the camp closing, and then had each girl explain her camp experience in one word. “Spectacular. Tiring. Amazing,” came the responses.
At each stage of the camp, the girls were anxious to know how they were measuring up with the boys, who did the same route a few days prior. In all honesty, they hiked every bit as strong, were better at keeping to the schedule, accepted every challenge given them, and got more out of the debriefs and devotionals than their brothers and friends. Not to say that the boys didn’t have a great experience! One guy, physically disadvantaged, showed up the rest by hiking as fast as his legs would go, and consistently made it to camp before others who were in better shape and taller than he. Another, nearly paralyzed by caution as he descended the canyon wall on day two, appeared in the line to rappel down the waterfall. “I want to face my fear,” he explained.
One woman stood out during the first of our three camps. Accepting the challenge to mount a bike almost for the first time, she showed the boys what courage looked like. After falling several times, she kept getting back on the bike, refusing to give up, and showing us all what determination looks like. After a nasty spill that cut her face, she continued to exhibit a joyful attitude that amazed and shamed me. She was clearly infused with the Holy Spirit in a way that demonstrated she has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12-13).
This season’s camps were a major challenge in terms of logistics. Managing three camps of 30, 20, and 27 people stretched our ability to facilitate meaningful learning experiences and individualized attention for all. But thanks to our numerous and talented volunteers, we pulled it off! They carried extra weight, shared in the suffering of the campers, led devotionals and contributed their observations to the chats, and spoke words of life and encouragement along the way.
There is an interesting association of terms in English and Spanish that reveal the meaning behind the practice of encouraging another person. In English we say “encourage”: literally, to give courage to another. In Spanish, we can say “animar”: to animate or give life to something stopped or dead, or “alentar”: literally to give breath or vigor to another. All three terms capture perfectly what we do when we come beside someone who is struggling, offer to help them with their burden, and speak words that will infuse the other person with the determination to finish the task.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2). I got to see a lot of that happening over the past two weeks. Both as younger, stronger boys came back for struggling hikers and carried their loads to camp, and when our women leaders shouldered their burdens alongside the girls, and hauled themselves on all fours up the steps, forcing themselves to take that next step in order to be an encouragement and an example for the girls. It has been a joy for me to witness and experience this ministry expanding to include new groups and new volunteers. I have been able to take a step back and watch the Lord at work through others, strengthening and healing people through adventure.