Coming Full Circle

By Staff Member, John Watkins, 1967-1974

Fifty one years ago (!), I received a phone call from a man named Lance Lee. I was 16 years old and living in Chapel Hill, NC at the time. He asked, “How would you like to have a scholarship to go to Colorado Outward Bound this summer?”

I immediately said, “Uh, no, thank-you. That doesn’t sound like me (I had heard the stories about Outward Bound).” At the time, I weighed about 90lbs, had never been above 3,000 feet, nor past the Mississippi River. I couldn’t imagine hauling a pack that weighed almost as much as I did up 10,000’ peaks in thunderstorms or snow.

To this Lance said, “Well, it’s too late. We already got you a scholarship, and this is the deal: once you go, you can pay it forward by working with us to build the new base and headquarters for the North Carolina Outward Bound School.”

What could I say? I hesitated, but finally agreed. My mother worked for the North Carolina Fund, an early experimental anti-poverty program in Durham, NC, and as it turns out they had offered some spare office space to Lance Lee and some others to use as their official office while they worked to create the newest Outward Bound School. My mother, being a single parent, wanted me to have some positive adult male influences in my life and so she used to invite interesting people over for dinner on occasion. Lance Lee and his cohorts had come for dinner several times and I had listened silently as they discussed their plans to build the new school. My guess is that my mother was worried about me (for good reason), and had secretly made these arrangements with them to take me in hand and do something positive with me.

Reluctantly, I headed west that summer by bus, alone, three days across the continent, truly unprepared for what lay ahead at the Colorado Outward Bound School. I had neither decent high mountain clothing, nor even boots, but, like many other scholarship recipients, I was given a pair of boots once I arrived. We were told to then soak them overnight in a bucket of water and then wear them until they dried in order to break them in. I cringed on the bus ride from Denver up into the mountains as the young logistics person detailed to round us up, told us harrowing stories of adventure. Once we arrived, I met my instructor, Jed Williamson, with whom I am still in communication with today. In we dove, and I’ve never looked back.

Outward Bound changed my life. It taught me how to live. It gave me a philosophy and an approach to real learning. It headed me off into a lifelong career in experiential education and the power it can have to foster deep and powerful learning moments for students and teachers alike. 

Lance Lee became a mentor for me as a young man desperately in need of an adult male role model. His almost unattainable standards for living an engaged life slowly seeped into me. And his belief that all young people could stand tall and be successful was immediately apparent when I visited the base camp for the new School. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere and there was no electricity, a gravity-feed water system, an outhouse of sorts and some canvas-walled tents on a rickety platforms, he had convinced a rag-tag collection of the Department of Youth Services best, me, and many others that the work we were doing was worth it.

That summer, we cleaned off rocks for climbing practice, we made trails through the woods, we built a small damn and a pipeline along a mountain stream so we could have a place for the “morning dip.” In the fall I returned home to go back to school, but they continued on. They lived there all winter; Lance found an old man from nearby Morganton who knew how to build post and beam buildings and rock fireplaces without electricity or large machinery, and they built the first lodge, looking out over misty Appalachian mountain ridges undulating into the distance.

I joined to help when I could and the following summer (the first summer of NCOBS in 1967), I became a full-time staff member working as a “sherpa,” the all too-important name they gave to a young man who drove a supply run to Morganton a couple of times a week and cleaned out chemical toilets. I remember Lance making me cut my hair that summer (he cut it on the walkway around the outside of the building), saying that none of the mill town people who lived in Morganton would think much of the new organization up on the mountain if a shaggy-haired kid was its main representative in town. I adored being there.

I would not say that those first courses resembled exactly what I had come to understand was the mission or actual course experience of an outward bound school, but it was a start! I went back to work with NCOBS (and other Outward Bound schools) for a number of seasons before 1974, when I moved to Vermont to run a small farm and outdoor experiential education program outside of Putney. My life as an educator grew out of these early teaching experiences, the teachers who were my mentors and colleagues, the students who challenged me so wonderfully, and the land. Everything I do now with adult learners, derived in some way from those early experiences and inspirations. Now, here we are 50 years later, amazing! It will be an incredible symmetry to come full circle and connect once again with the tradition, the organization, and the people who so profoundly have influenced my whole career.


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