Testimonials: Blackwater Stories

Solitary Confinement: A Breath of Fresh Air

A Creative Essay Written by Former BOE Participant on October 8th, 2016 based on his BOE Solo Experience

“There’s a tree trunk coming up, watch your step” … “Okay Austin, we’re going to take a sharp right turn. Be careful” … “Not much longer, just keep your hands on my shoulders.” As John removed the blindfold, a drop of sweat rolled down my face. It was hot; mid-July in West Virginia consisted of relentless mosquitos and unbearable humidity. As my eyes adjusted to the piercing rays of the sun leaking through the branches, I immediately dove into analyzing my surroundings: creak to my left, open space to my right, a makeshift fire pit directly in front of me and endless dense forest. After being in the wilderness for a mere 13 days, I had quickly picked up on one of the golden rules of camping: always observe your surroundings.

We began the trip by canoeing down the unpredictable rapids of the vast Shenandoah River, transitioned to ten days of carrying 60-pound backpacks in the West Virginia mountains, and finished with a three-day finale climb of the steep cliffs near the James River. During the backpacking, there was a mandatory three-day solo where the instructor led you blindfolded about a mile from camp, left you with enough food and iodine tablets and a cheerful, “see you in three days!”

And there I was. John helped me dig my bathroom hole deep enough, said he would check in on me without my knowing, and handed me a neon yellow toy whistle noting sarcastically, “blow if you get attacked by a bear!” As he walked away, it hit me: I was on my own for the next 72 hours. How was I going to occupy myself? What would I do? Could I plead insanity and call it quits? Possibly fake my own death? All these hypotheticals made my stomach churn, and it was only the beginning of my journey.

I set up my ripped navy tarp, laid out all my standard-issue REI gear (which my parents purchased only days before) and took out my wet and rather disgusting dirty clothes to dry. As I set up, I rationalized that I could find a way—any way—to forestall being alone with my thoughts. I rationed my food and decided what I was going to eat and when. I was busy for what seemed like several hours, and then it was all done. I glanced down at my cracked, water- filled watch, and my heart sank: it had been only 45 minutes. There was nothing left to do. Nothing to organize, nothing to fiddle with and nothing to distract me. I sat there staring up at the big blue sky draped in white clouds in all types of formations.

Before John left, he had given me a flexible bright green journal and a cheap pen. Chuckling when he handed it to me, I thought to myself that that the only real use for it was as an extra cushion for sitting. However, as I sat by the soothing creek with not a single thing to do, the journal seemed to call me to overpower its blank sheets of paper with my thoughts.

As the hours rolled by, I became increasingly uncomfortable. I had spent the entire summer avoiding my emotions and thinking about the past. Now it started to feel as if it would all come pouring out, like a broken fire hydrant on the street. Suddenly, I broke down. I became sweaty, antsy, and even considered blowing the whistle and calling it quits. With almost no options at all, I swallowed my pride and grabbed the journal.

Over the next two days, I wrote almost 30 pages. Ranging from the first thing I was going to do when I got home to my favorite baseball player of all time, at the end of the three days, I had captured all that I had to say.

And yet, those three days and that place changed my life. Before that moment, I believed that my friends and family were out to get me. I was confused about what I wanted in life, who I wanted in it, and how much effort I was truly interested in making. After those 72 hours, my head cleared. I learned I could be alone and comfortable with my thoughts, acknowledge the regrettable actions of my past, and make plans for my coming year at a new school. However, though I finally found purpose in my life and took my first realistic steps toward living with that, I also realized something far more important: life is not about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. What really matters is that you remain present and in the moment, committing your undivided attention to life as it unfolds every moment.