Overland Summers: Extreme Happiness

It’s been a long absence from the blog. 91 days to be exact. In that time, I’ve had no time to respond to emails, no time to post pictures, no time to read, no time to overanalyze, no time to blog. And I’m not sorry. For the last 91 days, I have been totaling engrossed in the now, in my immediate surroundings. Living in the moment not for myself, but for everyone around me.

This summer I worked for Overland, a company based out of Williamstown, MA that creates adventure experiences for kids all around the world. 

Taken straight from the Overland website: “This is the Overland experience: a small group with inspiring leadership, engaged in a carefully crafted summer camp program that captures their imagination, stretches their abilities and strengthens their bonds with each other.”

It’s only a seasonal job, but if you asked me what I do for a living, I’d tell you I work for Overland. I spend the rest of the year killing time until Overland begins again. This was my second year as an Overland counselor and I led a brand new trip called “Alps Explorer” with the talented and intentional Judy Merzbach as my co-leader. We had two groups of 12-15 year old kids for three weeks each, exploring the snow-capped alpine mountains and pristine valley towns of Switzerland, France and Italy. We ate fresh croissants in the morning, hiked up 3000-foot mountains in the afternoon, cooked up pizza dinners in the evenings and ended each day with “dessert circle,” a time for each of us to reflect on our highs, lows and cheers of the day over a couple Oreos or a cup of pudding. We laughed, we cried, we played, we challenged each other beyond our physical limits, we grew together as a family. It was the best summer of my life.

Be Here Now

On the first night with the kids, I told them what I wanted to bring with me on this trip is “Be Here Now.” They chuckled and rolled their eyes a bit, presumably thinking, “yeah, duh! Where else am I going to be?” But at Overland, you have to be here now because there’s nowhere else you can be. There are no distractions. There is no chance to escape from the moment. There is no technology. In everyday life at home, many kids might have reached for their Instagram or Snapchat during those awkward or challenging moments. But at Overland you have to work through them. Fortunately, you have 13 other people in the same situation who are helping you get there. That is how we became a family. We didn’t spend our time fretting about the “luxuries” we were missing from home like a bed, a roof or a toilet seat. We spent our time soaking in the mindful moments on mountaintops and appreciating the opportunity to explore the Alps.

Be The Dog

Before the trip began, I set a personal goal for myself during training: Be the dog. The dog is unconditionally loyal. The dog does everything for you and asks nothing in return. The dog expects no acknowledgement. My goal was to lose my ego, ignore my selfish desires and spend the summer living totally for other people; for my kids, for my co-leader, for Overland. If my kids were happy and my co-leader was happy, I was happy. It meant late night brainstorming discussions with my “co” and early morning wake ups to start breakfast and hot chocolate for the kids, when all I really wanted was to roll over and snooze. It meant unbridled encouragement and positivity through long, exhausting uphill climbs, when all I wanted was a little peace and quiet. It meant sprinting through french grocery stores trying to buy dinner for 14 people in ten minutes, when all I wanted was a sandwich. After a few months of intentionally wandering on my own, this was a big transition. In the end, I achieved my goal. I lost my ego, I lost my connection to the outside world, I lost myself. It was a truly humbling experience and reminded me once again that a life lived in selflessness and gratitude is a satisfying one. It was wonderful. And it was contagious.

Choose Happiness

During the second day of our backcountry trip with group two, we had been hiking for about 8 hours in on&off rain when suddenly the drizzle morphed into a violent lightning storm. Stuck on the side of a mountain just north of Chamonix, France, we threw our metal hiking poles to the ground and crouched into lightning position beside a tall rock face to wait out the dangerous lightning. The kids hid under tarps to keep dry, while Judy and I danced in the cold rain to keep blood flowing to our limbs. After a 20 minute delay, we got moving again down the mountain through torrential downpour. Buckets of water washed over our heads, the trail deteriorated into a shallow stream, dense fog made the path nearly impossible to see past 40 feet, my hands were quickly numbing. And what did we do? We sang. WE SANG OUR HEARTS OUT! We laughed, we smiled, we dug deep and chose happiness. It was amazing. Finally, with less than half a mile to the campsite, we stopped. The storm intensified to a flash flood and our trail was washed over with a rapid river flowing straight down the mountain and off a cliff only 20 feet away. If any of us were to fall, the rapids would take us down the mountain. It was an extreme situation and required extreme leadership. Judy and I didn’t flinch. We huddled together and made a plan. We tied a rope between ourselves and I carried all 14 bags across the river to safety. We then tied each kid to the rope and ushered them cautiously across the river to safety. The whole fiasco took over an hour and we all reached the other side safely. Again I looked at the kids and they weren’t shaking in fear or doubt, they were gleaming in pride and confidence. We sang the rest of the way down to camp. When we finally arrived to Camp Ruins D’Arleve, more than 10 hours after we departed that morning, we told the kids they could warm up in their tents and we would cook dinner and serve it to them in tents. But they didn’t want to go in their tents. They were more concerned about the group’s wellbeing than their own. They crowded around and asked what more they could do. They set up my tent, they set up Judy’s tent, they made a rain shelter, they gathered water, they cut vegetables, they cooked dinner, they served dinner. It was one of the greatest moments of selflessness I’ve ever witnessed.

With rain pouring down, legs exhausted from a long day, and a bone-chilling cold creeping in, you have a choice. You can choose to complain and pout and wallow down a long path of self-pity. Or you can choose happiness. You can choose to sing and dance and laugh and enjoy life. Those kids chose happiness and with it came a story they will tell for the rest of their lives. Everybody has this choice. Some days it’s an easier choice to make than other days, but it’s always a choice.

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to have led for Overland the past two summers and I hope to do it again next year. Since I returned from the Alps, I’ve spent the last 3 weeks teaching my 7th Grade Jumpstart Camp. Now I have another week in Chicago before I’m off again to New Mexico to work as an education intern at Ghost Ranch, teaching kids sustainability and farming. Keep the adventures rollin!


photo 2The time I let the kids cut my hair

photo 3Glacier hiking

photo 4“I’m on top of the world, HEY!”

photo 5Judes n I

photoThe greatest summer of my life



Alps Explorer Group 1:  http://photos.overlandsummers.com/2014/Hiking/AX-1-with-Judy-Dylan/

Alps Explorer Group 2: http://photos.overlandsummers.com/2014/Hiking/AX-2-with-Judy-Dylan/

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