Do you know that feeling of content when you're with your people? That instantaneous camaraderie that appears when people with a common passion come together? I've been lucky enough to find that a few times in my life.
I found it most recently this past weekend—at an REI member campout in Lost Dutchman State Park. I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into when I got the email invite but I've been wanting to attend an REI event and camp at Lost Dutchman for some time now—and this gave me the opportunity to do both
I arrived at the group campsite a little after noon to find a group of REI instructors (facilitators, they called themselves—bond facilitators) signing in members. A couple of instructors were playing KanJam and Cornhole with one of the kids behind the pavilion as a few adults chatted around fall-decked picnic tables beneath it.
I went off to pitch my tent and appreciated the multiple instructors who offered to let them know if I needed any kind of help. Once I was all set up, I joined the slowly increasing group beneath the pavilion—agreeing to a game of Cornhole with one of the kids between two instructors.
After everyone arrived (there were about 20 of us) we introduced ourselves and got an overview of what to expect for the weekend. Shortly after that was three-mile mountain biking trip through the park. I'd never touched a mountain bike in my life and was up for the challenge of trying something new.
The instructor leading the escapade, Chris, was one of the most memorable teachers I've ever learned from. Not only was he open and knowledgeable about the sport but he made sure everyone who decided to join—newbies and veterans alike—practiced the basics until he was confident taking us out to ride in the desert. He was, at the same time, cautious of our inexperience and encouraging of our daring spirits.
The ride itself was beautiful—albeit one of the most nerve-wracking things I'd ever done. It seemed like every time I began to get slightly comfortable with the bike, another obstacle appeared to set my nerves on edge again. Although, I did rather enjoy the rush and satisfaction of successfully going down and back up hills on what Chris deemed an intermediate course.
We only had one casualty of a leg scrape, which Chris and Britty, another instructor, expertly patched up before we finished the last stretch of the course—the least eventful and (in my opinion) most enjoyable part of the trip.
We arrived back at the pavilion to find the remainder of the members circled around a park ranger finishing a legend about an ancient flood. After that everyone enjoyed some down time and the spectacular sunset before the catered BBQ arrived (we were really roughing it, I know). As much of a workout as mountain biking was, I felt no shame in piling my plate with the cornbread, pulled pork, brisket, potato salad, bread puddin' (not pudding), and peach cobbler from some BBQ joint in Mesa.
What followed was the highlight of the trip for me. We sat around the fire eating toasted (charred, in my case) marshmallows, watching the distant lightning storm that framed the mountains, and sharing our favorite places and hidden gems of the West. I think I added about 15 places to my Arizona bucket list. It was here that we began discussing how our adventures affect us and one of the instructors produced this bit of insight:
"Real growth happens once you leave your comfort zone."
What I found most interesting about the group was that roughly half of us came by ourselves and, like me, were just looking for companions to camp with. As much fun as solo adventures are, it's nice to have someone to talk to and appreciate the outdoors with.
Nine o'clock (the backpacker's midnight, someone called it) had the majority of us ready for bed. Had I known what a restless night it was going to be, I would have tried to get some shut-eye a little earlier. As cool as their serenades were to hear, the coyotes didn't allow for a very quiet night—neither did the perfectly chill breeze that made tent walls flap all over the campground.
About half of the group rose before sunrise, as the instructors offered an early morning yoga class and trail run. They didn't disappoint on the yoga—Britty had us working and stretching every muscle in our bodies for a solid hour. Afterwards, everyone ate a little breakfast before the group split to trek two different hikes: Treasure Loop and Siphon Draw. I opted to tackle the more challenging trail (Siphon Draw) and wasn't let down. The four-mile out-and-back trail was deceptively easy to begin with and became increasingly steeper as we approached the basin that was the trail's end.
Our post-hike reward came in the form of "cowboy queso"—which turned out to be a creative name for Tostitos Salsa Con Queso dip warmed in a pot. Member numbers began to dwindle over the next hour as everyone returned to the normality of their Sunday afternoons.
Leaving me to ponder on my way home how I can make excursions like these more of a normality in my life.