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A virtual love letter to ProjectWild

<p>Photo <a href="https://www.dukechronicle.com/staff/courtesy-of-wikimedia-commons" target="_blank">Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons</a> | The Chronicle</p>

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | The Chronicle

Over five months ago in mid-March, I was staffing a ProjectWild backpacking trip over Spring Break. We were deep in the mountains of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, blissfully removed from our busy college lives. Over the course of the week, through weak cell service and frantic emails, we saw our time at Duke abruptly end for the semester. We felt so much loss at having to leave Duke, and we had no idea how much our future plans would change.

Midway through this summer, we received news that all pre-orientation programs would be held virtually. Even though we saw it coming, I was crushed. Those 10 days of trekking through the wilderness, rock climbing and friendship building can only be described as magical. Most staffers invest incredible amounts of our time on certifications, our house course and trip preparation. The process is rooted in tradition and institutional knowledge, which means losing a year disrupts the program severely. My class never had an August trip, and the program felt that loss for the consecutive years. I was saddened on a personal level at not having my final senior year trip, and worried for the future of the program.

Transferring a hiking trip to a virtual format is a daunting task, but it made me value our program more than I ever had. ProjectWild is a program that uses technology only when needed, and prefers to disconnect from our eternal reliance on devices. We do not bring phones on the trip, and time itself is a forgotten concept. To broadcast this program over Zoom felt antithetical to our existence. PWild for me has always been both a physical and mental break from Duke and its hyper-professional culture, and the stressful cycle of always being plugged in. Zoom calls feel like a dystopian Wall-E inspired nightmare that removes all spontaneity and fun from social interactions. But despite this, we knew how important a weekend of meeting other students, even over Zoom, could be for first-years. Especially right now.

An area of struggle for Pwild and most outdoor activities is inclusion, as cost barriers and discrimination make enjoying nature spaces difficult. I viewed Pwild as a way for first-years with no experience whatsoever to get involved, as we provided all the gear and instruction they needed. But our community continues to fail to attract all students. Perhaps our virtual weekend has been the most inclusive trip that Pwild has ever done, as it removed physical barriers, cost barriers, and was optional at every stage. 

As we move our organizations virtual, I think we can reimagine inclusivity at Duke. We can rethink whether our groups need a limit on participants, and how necessary or valuable are applications for a student group. One of my favorite parts of Project Wild is that we do not reject people from being staffers based on interviews or personality. Any participant can be trained to be a staffer and have an opportunity to lead a trip, continuing to be a part of the community if they wish. Organizations at Duke are notorious for being exclusive and hierarchical, so a decentralized and inclusive community has been so amazing to experience. The virtual world we live in seems to be a further equalizer, removing organizational structures that made it difficult for all interested people to be involved.

The Zoom weekend was difficult to plan and execute, but I felt like many people were at least mildly entertained by our icebreakers, challenges, and environmental-related panels. Throughout it, I continued to feel inescapable nostalgia of my unreplicable memories of Pwild. I missed the chaos of our first-day, seeing hoards of nervous first-years slowly let out smiles as they saw how fun college could be. Playing icebreakers over Zoom didn’t feel the same as stumbling upon waterfalls, eating wild blackberries, and watching the sunrise on a mountain peak. I was both deeply grateful for my memories, and distraught that they would remain as only memories.

Pwild truly has been the most positive aspect of my time at Duke, and has made me see the world and strangers in a different light. It taught me that anyone can be a leader, and that we can overcome challenges that might seem daunting at first. I learned to step back and listen to others at all times. I began to think of food as fuel that could help me climb mountains and hike several miles in a day, not something to limit or feel guilt towards. I learned to love my body in its purest, most natural form and for all it does for me. Pwild was a break from the perfectionism that whittles our self-confidence down. It was an opportunity to escape judgment and routine, that so many college students need.

While driving back to Durham a few weeks ago, a took a detour to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway that cuts through the mountains of Pisgah. Every few hundred feet is a gorgeous outlook more striking than the one before it. I made strategic stops to some of my favorite sights, and reminisced on previous trips. In the middle of this pandemic, people of all ages and abilities were able to slowly cruise on the BRP and take in the natural wonders. Although the Pwild experience I envisioned never came to fruition, the place that I dearly love continues to live and breathe.

The most important thing I learned in my time at Pwild is that wilderness and nature do not belong to any of us. The land and “outdoors” that I enjoy, as a non-Indigenous person, have importance that I cannot begin to understand. To distinguish nature as inherently separate or incongruous with our society is a colonized, outdated perspective of living. Nature is all around us, and intertwined with our lives. This virtual, isolated era we are living in makes me feel alone and artificial at times. I have to remember that my love for the environment, for pwild, for my friends, for all things that bring me joy—has not gone away. It has only changed and evolved.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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