Words and photos from this story were provided by Walkabout alumni McKenna Watson at just kenna things
After being away from camp for a while now, I wanted to kind of share and reflect a little bit about my journey as a gap year student and then as a wilderness guide this past summer. Leaving was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve done (not to be dramatic or anything), but I knew that it was time to move on and follow where God was leading me next.
Ever since my first visit to Camp Eagle, I think I’ve always had some sort of a deep connection to it. It felt like home, even before Walkabout. I found family there that I never really had before. When I came as a camper, I discovered a peace there that calmed a relentless storm of doubt and heartbreak inside of me. I think it had to do with the fact that I was able to finally breathe, away from so much chaos and hardship that was going on at home, immersed in a place that magnified God’s brilliance and majesty so vividly through the surroundings and the people.
Camp Eagle was different than what I expected. Summer camps get a bad rap sometimes because people come away with an emotional response from all the cheesy Jesus hype, then end up going home confused and empty because it all fades away. It’s called the dreaded “camp high”. I’m sure this happens to some people after they leave Camp Eagle too. But for my 16 year old self, who had a deep love for the wilderness/adventure and a huge need to understand that she is known and seen by her heavenly father, this was the place that brought me back. It was a place where I found a tangible faith. I was able to find the strength to utter the words “I forgive because I am forgiven” out loud, in the space of starry skies and rolling hills. My heart started to heal.
My senior class came for a few days the following year after we finished our final exams to bond as a class before heading into our senior year. Then, Sibling and I came back later that summer. The theme was ironically called “Home”. The speaker defined what home is and how this world is not it. This place is temporary. Our eternal home is not just something we reference in church, it is the final destination. That perspective shift should challenge everything we face, but specifically how we view and use our time. Time is the most valuable resource in the universe. Everyone wishes to have more of it and nothing we do controls it. This remained in the back of my mind as I encountered my last year of high school.
It’s also funny how God works. Our group camp counselors that summer inspired me a ton, specifically the legendary Josiah Patterson himself. He had just finished his Walkabout year and stayed to work on summer staff. He started to tell me about the program and the adventures he experienced as he worked in this little corner of hill country for the past year. I was in awe. I probably annoyed him with the amount of questions I had.
As soon as we got back, I spilled the whole idea to Mom. She thought it was brilliant. Just kidding…she advised I should take a breath in between sentences so she could interpret the words past my excitement. So I did. And then she said we should pray about it. So we did.
College, quite frankly, scared the crap outta me. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and everyone around me seemed to have at least some sort of a plan. As Pheobe from Friends would say, I didn’t even have a “pla”.
So at the time, running away from responsibility and family drama to work at this place I loved seemed like the move. But I didn’t want to do it for the wrong reasons. If I was really going to take a gap year, I had to make sure it was God’s idea, not mine.
Long story-short, I got accepted to pretty much every college I applied to, despite my below average transcripts and pretty sad ACT scores. I ended up landing on CBU (obviously). They’re photography program had me doing happy dances in the living room (and honestly still does).
I also applied to Walkabout and was eagerly awaiting the happy emails to arrive. Eventually Ashley Fry interviewed me then called back a few weeks right before Christmas and said the magical words “we would love to have you but please take the time to pray about…….” “MOM I’M IN!!!” *queue more happy dancing/clumsy laps around the kitchen table in slippery socks
Ok but actually yes, we prayed and thought about the whole thing a ton. CBU was able to hold my scholarships for a year, so I decided to go for it. Everything about it seemed right. And it was.
Walkabout is something nearly impossible to explain to truly convey what it is like. Eighteen of us, nine dudes and nine gals, moved into stuffy cabins in the middle of the woods, an hour from cell service and miles away from our families. We had never met before and quickly had to come to the realization that we were basically all each other had for the next nine months. Ya, still sounds kinda crazy…
It was weird and exciting. We hit the trail within the first 24 hrs. Seth gave us our first of verrrryyy many “don’t be stupid” speeches. Taylor got stung by a scorpion on the first night. It’s ok though, she took it like a champ. Ashley explained the proper bobo procedure and probably enjoyed the awkward looks on our faces. Charlie and Dude (the Fry’s pup) became best buds. Brent displayed such grace in various bellyflops into the windmill pool. Everyone had some amount of tape on their feet. Blisters were abundant and relentless. Those calluses would form soon enough. We endured the most iconic thunderstorm of our entire year on the third night. If there ever was a way to truly bond a group of people together, throw them in a small tarp shelter during a summer downpour in the middle of the backcountry in Texas. It was the go to “remember that time when…” story for the next nine months.
This was the first of many days that would test and shape us. We became a family. Not the cute little family that you picture on someone’s Christmas card with matching shirts and radiant smiles posed in pretty fall leaves. We were messy and dysfunctional. Mi Casa was rarely a place of peace and quiet. The rambunctious presence of Walkabout life echoed through the whole camp. The 1500 acres of cactus, trees and hills was our playground. We could jump into the Nueces, bluest of rivers, almost anytime we wanted. We would climb the main wall in between logistics shifts. The windmill marked the favorite running trail out of most of us. Go up a long, rocky hill, jump into the pool and maybe do a couple sit-ups, then all downhill (try not to face plant). There were many shenanigans…very many.
During the winter, we huddled together in our zero degree sleeping bags next to our big fire pit as Christmas music blared from the speakers. We drank absurd amounts of the “stuff”. It was a concoction we came up with in the most desperate of times in the dead of winter. The recipe called for a pot of cowboy coffee and powdered hot chocolate (or just chocolate milk heated up when we ran out of that) mixed together, served with expired marshmallows that were found somewhere on the top shelf of the Mi Casa kitchen. That and ramen noodles were our best friends till the sun came out a few weeks later.
The winter was miserably cold. There was a week or two right before Christmas where showers were rarely taken because the bathhouse was just too freezing. We thrived in our long underwear and thick socks. Some of my favorite memories with my cabin mates were made during this time. We would snuggle together in Kinley’s bunk and drink tea and talk about life…dreams and silly stories (sometimes embarrassing) and struggles…the sisterhood was formed. It was the sweetest of times. Because basically, all we had was each other. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
We were growing and learning. And sometimes we had to learn things the hard way. We were stubborn. We broke trust and made mistakes sometimes. But God still used those moments to instill resilience and a sense of camaraderie through hard things. It’s difficult to stay pissed at someone when you basically live together.
We worked hard too. Rain or shine…or snow. Dishes on dishes. The best jam sessions happened in that dish room, elbow deep in grease and grime. We did the things that no one noticed. I actually loved the fact that we did these seemingly little things that made the guest’s experience that much more focused on the presence of God and building memories with the people around them. From scrubbing toilets and shoveling rocks to meal preps in the early mornings or the late nights. Camp showed me that God uses those that are just willing to work. He shines brighter when we are willing to do the background work without caring who sees. It’s bigger than us. And understanding how that impacted my experience as a camper motivated me to keep going when things got monotonous and hard. I wanted any guests that came down 8 mile to see His majesty the way I did when I was a lost 16 years old with big dreams and daunting fears.
We also got to lead groups through activities. There was an intimidating sense of responsibility when I started to guide people through different high ropes elements. I remembered the pure horror that used to creep into my stomach when I would stand on the edge of the zip tower or the rappel cliff when I was camper. My body would shake. My heart would pound. But now, standing on the edge of that cliff is a place of pure joy. It was often my favorite part of the day to watch guests, who would be scared and unsure of themselves as I would instruct them, light up with excitement when they figured out the simplicity of rapelling. Confidence would flood into their eyes and they would look out towards the river in awe instead of fear.
When we weren’t working or exploring, we were getting educated by our spiffy wilderness professors. We studied the christian doctrine so in depth my brain would ache. Especially when Tylor would ask some deep, philosophical question and Adam would come back with an even more mind-bending answer. But then it eventually all made sense and that was the coolest part. The goal was to really understand the foundation of our faith and be able to cultivate an in-depth relationship with Jesus based on knowing these things and approaching scripture with an examined mindset. We also had the opportunity to learn about other world views. To see the way other people saw the world and humanity really impacted my view on God and how Scripture says he views us as his “masterpiece” or “glorious inheritance”. There really is no other religion that works the way Christianity does, because of the grace He freely gives to us, no matter how broken we are.
The year was simply all about examining ourselves and Jesus and how those things go together. We did several solo camping trips throughout the year in the backcountry to develop the essential practices of prayer in solitude and silence (definitely still working on that). Just us, in the woods. Purely alone with the Holy Spirit. It was sometimes incredibly tough to cope with the solitude. Time goes measly by and thoughts drift wildly. I would sit in my hammock and basically write till my hand felt like falling off. But there’s a lot to learn about oneself when there’s nothing else to do but pray and think. It was cool to have the space to do this.
Another super sweet part of our 9 month adventure were the trips we had the opportunity to go on. If you want to see all the hiking, paddling, climbing, road tripping, biking and whatever else we packed into our various exertions, go check out my highlight videos. They’re pretty fun…I shot and edited one video for every month. These trips were mostly what became known as “type 2” fun. The kind of fun that you gotta work for but it was always worth it.
Paddle 60 miles down the Pecos river under the Texas sun and you’ll never take ice cubes for granted ever again. There’s something about waking up to early rays of sunlight on the skin and hearing the rustle of the wilderness begin another day that is just so good for the soul. Muscles would be sore but stronger than before. The new day held such mystery. Our leaders wouldn’t tell us much, we just trusted and followed. Pretty simple but it meant letting go of control. Sometimes that was hard. To be so very present in the moment was not something we were used to but it allowed us to see God more vividly.
I remember sitting on a white sand dune in New Mexico on the first day of our fourth trip, and the sound of my pencil scratching against the page I was journaling on seemed to carry. The utter quietness of the incredible landscape before me made me feel so very small in the best way. I was reminded of the lyrics to the song “How Great Thou Art”…
“O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.”
His sufficiency is greater than my inadequacy. His grace and sacrifice is greater than any sin or mistake. His power and mercy is greater than my pain…..at that time, this reminder was everything.
Through these trips, I was able to conquer so many fears and insecurities, but it was usually a domino effect from witnessing a fellow walkabout overcome something they battled with. They would inspire me to keep moving forward when things got rocky. We grew stronger together. It’s amazing what happens when someone truly believes in you.
Being on trail also puts things in perspective. People stop caring about appearance very quickly. There’s a certain shift of awareness that exposes what really matters. I love that.
The whole thing was over so fast. Camp time is weird…some days feel like weeks and some weeks feel like days…if that makes any sense. Graduation day was a mess of bittersweet tears. Then one by one, we all went our separate ways. Some stayed for the summer. But it was so different so fast, quite literally overnight. But I know that no matter how far we drift, we’ll always have each other’s backs. It’s only been about 7 months since our last day together and the majority of us have launched into our college careers, a few have had to deal with the tragic affects of cancer, a lot of us moved all over the country, a few have major jobs and places of their own…we’re all jumping into life and all its chaos. But we still have each other, even if we don’t share life together anymore.
I’ll always be thankful for the challenges and lessons Walkabout taught me. And being able to guide people and help them see God in new ways through the wilderness over the summer was a whole other experience I’ll forever be grateful for too.
There are so many wild stories from this past year…I could go on forever…but this is already absurdly long so I’ll just end by saying…I’m in awe. To look back and see how God has shaped my story from defeat and insecurity to confidence and hope…..it just blows my mind. But that’s just what He does, he takes broken, dead things and brings them to abundant life. I want to help others connect to this hope…whether it be through the art I create or images I capture or wandering into wild places…or just doing a few dishes. This is just another beginning…
(ok thanks for hangin with all the cheese. here’s a little highlight video about the program if anyone is interested in it…have a fantastic day )