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The Power of Monsoons

Posted by Elinor Priest on May 06, 2020

Screen Shot 2020 05 04 at 8.43.03 AMOne of my favorite times of year in the desert is monsoon season. From mid-to-late summer there are almost daily thunderstorms and monsoons. The sky is wide enough that you can watch storm clouds roll toward you for an hour before they are overhead. The sky goes from bright and sunny to ominous and dark grey with a purplish tinge. Right before the rain hits everything seems to still, and then a slight breeze picks up that cues the downpour. The rain hits the ground with enough force that you can see tiny impact craters in the sand. The water often runs over sand and rock and creates washes as it flows downhill. Thunder and lightning crash and light up the sky in an elemental way that makes you very aware of your decision to be working outside.

There is a powerlessness in being small and at the mercy of Mother Nature; when you know you have only a tarp as shelter in the midst of a thunderstorm. And yet, in my first summer as a field staffer, I watched a 16-year-old girl exert power over herself in a thunderstorm in a way that has stuck with me ever since. Let me rewind and explain.

It was night. Three other staffers and I had led our adolescent girls to their shelters, in a stand of juniper trees. The most-used type of shelter is an A-frame, where the ridge line is tied up between two trees and the four corners of the tarp are tied off low to the ground.

On this evening, one student (let’s call her Remi), let me know that she didn’t really like the placement of her shelter and asked if she could move it over a few feet. I didn’t understand the benefit of such a minor change but saw no reason why she couldn’t, so I said yes. I stood nearby with my headlamp providing light for her. She untied the four low points of her A-frame, and changed which tree one of her ridgelines was tied to. I patiently stood for somewhere between five and 10 minutes as she meticulously re-tied three of her corners to low brush, and capably created an anchor for the fourth out of a stick and stacked rocks. She didn’t ask me for help, simply for supervision. When she was done, I asked if she was satisfied, she said yes, and went to bed.

The next day, we got a brand new girl in the group. As you may imagine, everything is overwhelming on the first couple of days in wilderness. Later that afternoon the storm clouds began rolling in. We spread everyone out into their shelters, and went into lightning drills. I was anxious; I had never camped through a thunderstorm before in my life. I was tasked with sitting with our new client, while two of our more experienced staff donned all of their rain gear, and were going from shelter to shelter reassuring the girls and making sure they were dry and calm.

The storm got closer and began to dump rain. Water ran, first in small rivulets, then cutting deeper into the sand. I was sitting with the new student in our staff shelter where the last staff member had dug deep trenches, trying to divert the water from flowing straight through it. The rain pounded on the tarp and made it hard to hear; lightning and thunder were rolling closer all the time.

As you may expect, our new adolescent client became anxious and scared. She kept telling me that it was a mistake, that her mom didn’t know this is what Evoke would be, and that she needed to leave right away. I squatted in front of her, looked her in the eye and let her know it was ok to be scared, but also to know that we were safe. As I finished speaking, I glanced past her shoulder.

There was Remi in the shelter she has asked me if she could relocate the night before. In anticipation of the rain, she had proactively added trenches sometime that morning. Water was rushing down the slight incline toward her shelter, hitting the trenches she had dug, parting around her, and flowing away downhill. In the midst of the pouring rain, she was leaning against her dry pack, reading, and looking as comfortable as if she were laying on a living room couch. In fact, she looked much calmer and at ease than I was feeling.

I glanced between her and the brand-new-to-our-program girl who was panicking in front of me. In that moment, I felt something slide into place. My doubts about whether this job was right for me, if this was the mental health environment I wanted to work in, were replaced with a certainty about what the wilderness offered.

I saw how eight weeks of living out in the back country empowers a young person. How it turns fear and overwhelm into courage and capability. How it puts students in situations where they learn to advocate for themselves and employ the skills they need to meet their own basic needs. How they build confidence by keeping themselves safe and dry in the midst of an elemental storm. There was something particularly striking about that moment for me as I looked at this young woman, who the world would probably call a girl, and realized that she had learned self-reliance in a concrete, compelling way that so few have the opportunity to experience. In that moment, she was powerful, I was inspired, and it was a monsoon that made it all happen.

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