A Classroom in the Mountains

Amanda Ottaway is the education coordinator at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The Pulitzer Center, which promotes in-depth engagement with global affairs through its sponsorship of quality international journalism and an innovative program of outreach and education, is an education partner, alongside Project Zero, with Paul Salopek for his Out of Eden Walk. You can explore the Pulitzer Center’s classroom materials here and their free online lesson builder here. The video below was made by Pulitzer Center multimedia projects coordinator Evey Wilson. 

“In the distance are always mountains. And over the whole scene hangs a peculiar light, a glaze of steel and lilac, which sharpens the contours and perspectives, and makes each vagrant goat, each isolated carob tree, stand out from the white earth as though seen through a stereoscope.”
-Robert Byron, “The Road to Oxiana”

Paul Salopek, journalist and world-walker, quoted these words of Byron’s in an August 2014 dispatch from Cyprus. Paul’s journey, on foot out of Africa in the ancient path of our ancestors, embodies an inescapable perspective: This world is an awfully big, old place. In the distance are always mountains.

At the Pulitzer Center, our mission is to support global journalism like Paul’s Out of Eden Walk, stories that remind us all of the complexities – and, despite its magnitude, the interconnectedness – of this planet. Our education team works to bring those ideas to students in both traditional and nontraditional classrooms.

And for the purposes of studying the Out of Eden Walk, what better nontraditional classroom than one that meanders through the mountains?

The Philmont Scout Ranch leads some 22,000 scouts through ten-day hiking journeys in the wilds of New Mexico every summer. This year, we hopped right on the trail with them.

Paul himself worked with our education team to produce a video introducing the scouts to the Out of Eden Walk, which the Philmont staff screened for each group before they set out on their hikes. Paul spoke directly to the scouts from his summer post in the Republic of Georgia. He gave the scouts some advice about recording “milestones,” which would become a household word among the scouts and camp staff. Every 100 miles on his trail, the National Geographic fellow and Pulitzer Center journalist stops to take a panoramic photograph, a photo of the sky, a photo of the land, and a sound recording.

IMG_4235_2Before hitting the trail, each scout was given a “Passport Journal,” a small blank notebook in which to write or draw thoughts, scenes and memories – their own “milestones.”

“We want you guys to stop every single day and write something down,” a camp staffer told the scouts as they gathered around campfires before each hiking trip. “Whatever it is, write it down. This is not something you’re going to see every day when you wake up in the morning and you’re getting ready for school. Look around. See, hear, feel, experience.”

Many of the scouts spoke to Pulitzer Center staffer and filmmaker Evey Wilson about a feeling of considering themselves through a newfound sense of perspective during their hikes. That’s the kind of thoughtfulness the Out of Eden Walk encourages.IMG_4236_2

“Once we got to the top [of the mountain] we watched as the sun rose, the shadows just kind of pulled back from the landscape,” Matthew Langsdale recalled. “And it was really an eye-opening moment for me that I’m not the biggest person in the world. You know, I’m this small thing. But I still matter. I still mean something because I climbed that mountain.”

“It puts things into perspective for you,” John Schissler told Evey about having experiences, like this one, that made him feel small. “It gives you an understanding and an appreciation for everything you have.”

“Slowing down makes you see a lot more,” Julian Kay explained to Evey. “If you’re quiet and walking slow, you get to hear more of the things that interact around you. You could hear the water flowing, you could hear the trees blowing through the wind. It’s pretty cool.”

“Well it’s amazing because sometimes during cross country I’ll just run, and on my trail I won’t see anything as I go past it, but whenever I hike I get a chance to look to the side and see the pine trees that look like they’d be perfect at Times Square for Christmas,” Triston Giesie told Evey. “And I get to see the deer that make me wish it was already fall. And I just get to appreciate so much more about nature that just I’d miss normally.”

Paul also made a video for scouts to watch once they’d concluded their hikes and were heading back to their homes all over the country. He encouraged them to take with them the lessons they learned at Philmont.

“Take a moment to think about where you are in the world,” Paul said. “Take a moment to pause. It’s important to truly understand where you are in the context of your society and of your physical landscape. Every one of us living our lives today is living a life of rediscovery.”

“My Scout Master told me to constantly look up,” Jeanne Babiez told Evey. “And when you look up you have to stop. And your feet stop moving or you will tumble down the mountain. And then you realize what you’re seeing, the beauty of the earth and everything that is around it and how it was made and you stop and you slow down. And the quieter you are, the more you hear, and the more you start to see.”

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