November 26, 2012. On a somewhat gloomy day, I taught a lesson on Jacobites, Scotland, and the Acts of Union (1707) in my British history survey course. The class was made up of twenty-five lively students, seven of whom were first years. By this point of the semester, we knew each other well enough to have some spirited back and forth on the topic of Scottish history and national identity. Looking over the roster and syllabus now, I remember just how excited I was to teach each class.
Last week, I was hiking the West Highland Way in Scotland with a group of ten students and (very) recent graduates as part of the GRAB program at Gettysburg College. We were on the ten-mile stretch from Inveroran to King’s House, walking on an old cobbled path, parts of it a military road for red-coated British soldiers in the eighteenth century. This stretch was our first real day of hiking. On either side of the road were rolling hills; wet boggy mounds of heathery turf that leisurely make their way into strikingly severe mountains in the distance. We carried heavy packs laden with our shelter, clothes, and food for a week’s journey. The packs dug into our hips and shoulders, the weight causing a burning bruising feeling that eventually became a dull ache as the bruises settled and as our bodies adjusted to the discomfort. We all felt the same burden. We all plodded along together.
Two of our party took my British history class in 2012. At that time, they were first years, but now on the trail they were graduates who saw this trip as a fitting way to end college. As we walked on the old road with ancient mountains distant, my trailmates struck up a conversation with me about the Jacobite cause, the Acts of Union, and Scottish nationalism. In between deep, slightly gasping breaths, we talked casually about the same material that we had covered together nearly four years before. But this time around it was more conversational. This time around, it was better.
When you are all sharing in the same burden, the same discomfort, you see each other as human beings. On the trail, we were nerdy comrades-in-backpacks walking and talking about history, culture, violence, and nationalism. I am tempted to say that our conversation resonated more this time around than it did when I stood in front of my power-point presentation on a gloomy day in November 2012. It certainly was more enjoyable for me to converse on a historic trail with two people that I watched grow in their short, but formative, time with us.
In our two weeks in Scotland, our merry band toured Glasgow and Edinburgh and then got on the trail from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William. As we walked, we hummed songs, told stories, and got to know one another. We groused together, laughed together, and longed for the next water break together. We worked through the physical and mental challenges of long days hiking and restless nights sleeping on the ground. We showed vulnerability and determination in equal measure. We ate improvised, unfamiliar meals. We looked each other in the eyes and spent precious little time looking at our phones. We labored up Ben Nevis together and sang the alma mater upon its summit.
If you told me four years ago that someday I would take students on a backpacking trip to Scotland, I would have probably laughed. I think I was more guarded then and insecure in my profession. But something changed as I got to know our students better and thought more about my role. I believe that what makes our model distinctive is that it is based upon relationships between people who are separated by many things, but in theory, are all here for the same purpose: to learn from one another. Learning requires trust, in part, because it is an exercise that often exposes the raw nerves of our insecurities. In order to build trust, one needs to show some vulnerability. This is something easily done on a backpacking trip when everyone is challenged both physically and emotionally by their discomfort. In the field, we see each other differently than we do on campus. In the field, we see each other as having a shared sense of our humanity in common.
I am too close to the trip today to offer the type of reflection that the experience deserves. I came home on Sunday only with a very complicated, but pronounced and powerful sense of deep gratitude for being able to go on the trip, for my family being supportive of my going, and for my trailmates for making the experience wondrous and enlightening. ‘Forever am I thy debtor,’ indeed.