PSO offers three spring break trips to California

Tomorrow, 12 students will pile into a Puget Sound Outdoors (PSO) van at the crack of dawn to drive the 19 hours to Burlingame, Calif. From there, they will start a five-day backpacking trip in Death Valley National Park, the hottest and driest of all national parks in the United States. The craziest part about the experience is that for two nights of the trip, the campers will separate to adventure completely alone.

This spring break, PSO will embark upon three trips. The Death Valley trip focuses on giving students an opportunity to experience both doing a “solo” trip and seeing the beautiful, stark desert landscape of Death Valley. Another trip will drive down to the canyon lands of Moab, Utah, or if weather makes Moab impossible, they will stop in the rock climbing mecca of Joshua Tree, Calif. Finally, a third trip will be backpacking the Lost Coast of Calif., an area known for stunning emerald cliff sides and unpredictably rainy weather.

This is the first time in recent memory that PSO has sent out three trips over spring break. Last year’s spring break trip, which went to Yosemite and the coastal Redwoods, filled up the first day sign-ups were posted. This past year the club has seen an increase in popularity and has in turn increased the amount of trips it sends out on weekends.

The Death Valley trip has also been eagerly anticipated and all the spots were filled within the first two hours of sign-up. It attracted a diverse group of students, ranging from student PSO coordinator and experienced trip leader Anna Houston to freshmen  like Carlo Balleria, whose first and only backpacking experience was Passages. (Full disclosure—Carlo is my brother.)

Junior Alex Brush, who is leading the trip with senior Jennie Noreen, says that all of the participants are both experienced enough or physically fit enough to survive two days alone. Both of the leaders have been certified with Outdoor Leadership Experience.

As Houston explained, PSO trips are usually proposed by student members of PSO. “PSO is almost completely student-run. We are very leader-initiated, and trips happen when leaders come with their own proposals and ideas and work with our trip coordinators to make it happen. We’re a very unique program in that way,” Houston said.

Justin Canny, the Assistant Director of Student Activities for Outdoor Programs, believes that it is more important that trips are generated by the students themselves.

“Most of our trips come from the impetus of the leaders, because what they generate is often better than what I can come up with,” said Canny.

In addition, these spring break trips are meant to provide activities for a range outdoor experience levels. In the process, the leaders are able to gain more knowledge about how to lead certain types of trips.

“It’s a benefit for the leader to learn about how to do a longer trip. After all, planning for five to six days gives you the experience to do a twenty-day trip,” said Canny.

Brush was inspired to propose this trip to PSO because it mirrors his high school’s graduation ritual, participation in a program called Vision Quest. Graduates of Brush’s high school could elect to spend three days fasting in the wilderness and on the fourth day, return to civilization to receive their diplomas. The experience was extremely meaningful for Brush and he hopes this trip will provide other students a similar opportunity.

“Soloing is a unique experience for a college student or really anyone who is falling into a routine. It’s a time of self-reflection and truly living in the moment,” said Brush.

There are many safeguards in place to make sure the trip does not go afoul. Campers will have a set area to spend their solo time within and there is a low-tech communication system set-up between the leaders and the participants. Each day the participants will create a new design in their pile of rocks to signal their continued existence.

For Houston, this is one of many PSO trips she has either been on or led, but she sees the chance to go off on her own as being unique.

“I’ve always wanted to do a solo trip and this seemed like a good introduction. Since I’m graduating in May I am looking forward to almost being forced to reflect on my past four years here. If I didn’t go on this trip I don’t know if I would find the time or take the time to appreciate the past four years. Plus I’m hoping to befriend a javelina.” Houston said.

For trip leader Noreen, she says was attracted both to the opportunity to spend time reflecting and to spend time in Death Valley. Her enthusiasm for the desert landscape is contagious.

“I am most excited to see sand dunes, hike in a new place and to get out of the rain and into the sun! Oh, and there are also supposedly rocks that move across the mud when the dirt gets wet and it is windy, because there is just enough friction in the mud to make them slide—you can find photos of crazy rock trails on the flat expanses of cracked mud. It looks pretty cool. I hope we see that too,” said Noreen.

Balleria says he was struck by an urge to get outdoors. His only previous experience had been doing backpacking with Passages, and so he feels some trepidation about snakes, sunburns and carrying three gallons of water. As for being alone for two days, however, he seems unfazed.

“The leaders put a lot of emphasis on the mental tax of it, but I’m not too worried because I’m a bit of an introvert so being alone doesn’t bother me. I’m planning on reflecting about how the first three-quarters of the year have gone, what I can do differently and what I want for the rest of my college career,” said Balleria.

Brush says that he looks forward most to the morning that all the hikers come back from their solos.

“They’ll be sun burnt and tired, but I can’t wait to see everyone sit in a circle and talk about what happened out there,” said Brush.