My father handed me a card that said, Congratulations Class of 1990 Graduate! Inside, his perfect penmanship read: Kellee, I wish I had this at your age. Go get ‘em. Love, Dad.
I pulled out a folded brochure with the words OUTWARD BOUND in yellow letters on the front page. Underneath was a photo of smiling people wearing floppy hats, sitting in a boat.
“What is this?” I snarked. He pointed for me to open it.
Explore the amazing canyons of Colorado and Southeastern Utah on this 7-day white water rafting trip down the Green and Yampa Rivers. Yes, you will sleep on the ground. Yes, you will travel every day, rain or shine. Yes, you will be challenged again and again. Yes, you will go further than you thought you could. Yes, you will be proud of your accomplishments. Yes, you will know more about yourself.
Seven days in the wilderness? Rowing? In a boat? Camping? Outside? With strangers? And snakes? I don’t think so,” I protested.
As a Jersey girl, the mall was my natural habitat, not some river gorge in Utah. My BFF was a can of Aqua Net hairspray, who apparently could not come with me in the backpack I had to actually carry on my back. This trip felt like a punishment, not a reward for putting up with math all these years.
The next thing I knew, I found myself at Dinosaur National Monument in in Vernal, Utah. Those first days out of my comfort zone were a dusty blur. I met my fellow travelers who came from near and far for this experience. The Outward Bound Guides were tan and funny and definitely not cut out for a 9-5 desk job. They led us in ice breaker games followed by a crash course in what to expect, covering everything from how to pack, how to paddle and how to poop. After a couple of safety drills, we embarked. A flotilla of rafts filled with smiling people wearing floppy hats set off for an adventure of a lifetime.
As we practiced our paddling commands in the calm water that looked more like chocolate milk, my raftmates and I got to know each other. Cheryl the Guide was celebrating her 8th year with Outward Bound. Carrie and I clicked right away. She was a student at Colorado State University. A very cute boy from Boston named Ben was aloof about the details of his life but he was so nice to look at, it didn’t matter. Dan and Mike, also known as Frick and Frack, were on a brotherly bonding bucket list tour. Rita, recently retired and recently widowed, vowed to live a year of facing her fears.
When it was my turn to share what had brought me to the middle of nowhere, I didn’t tell them that I had been bullied so badly that I transferred to a different high school. I didn’t tell them that my father couldn’t seem to stop having extra marital affairs, causing my mother to turn to booze and community theater. I didn’t tell them that I had nowhere to direct my rage except towards myself. And I certainly didn’t tell my new friends that my reoccurring thought for most of my life had been, “I wish I was never born.”
Instead, I made a joke about how I was driving down the Jersey Turnpike, took the wrong exit and ended up in Utah. Deflecting with humor has always been a specialty of mine.
We floated along and fell silent, leaving our known worlds behind. I took a deep breath. The air was different. It was pure. A hawk swooped overhead. Cutting through the canyon, she beckoned us to follow her. We did.
Ancient petroglyphs looked down on us from the cliffs high above. “Who had been here before?” I wondered. “Where even were we?” One thing was for sure, I was far from New Jersey, from the mall, from my family and from my problems.
Each night we’d set up camp on a little sandy beach and after dinner would sing songs around the fire. I learned all the words to American Pie, which to this day is my karaoke go-to when I really want to impress. Sleeping under the stars, the Milky Way was my night light. I would wake with the rising sun and watch the canyon rocks glow pink. Then I would take a soapless bath, doing my best to rinse off in the cold and muddy water, always emerging a darker color than how I entered.
I was having the time of my life. In the wilderness. Camping. Outside. With strangers.
“Today’s your day, Jersey. You get the keys to the car,” Cheryl the Guide gleamed. The moment I had both dreaded and dreamt about came to be. It was my turn to captain our raft.
I took my seat at the stern and with a fake-it-till-you-make-it confidence, I commanded, “Forward paddle!” and forward we went, oars in unison. “Piece of cake,” I thought to myself.
Merrily, we rowed along. Then there was a thunderous rumble up ahead. We pulled over. “Welcome to Hell’s Half Mile. Class 4 rapids,” Cheryl announced, zeroing in on me. “You ready to rock this?” I was most definitely not. But I smiled, lied and replied, “Baby, I was born ready.”
We stood on a cliff scouting our route down the whitewater obstacle course. The plan was to start in the middle and gain some speed. Once through the chute, we had to bank a hard left to avoid getting stuck on the sleeper rock, hiding just beneath the river’s surface. But if we went too far, we would hit our heads on the overhang, so we had to quickly maneuver to the right. After this zigzag was completed, we were to proceed down a staircase of rapids, dodging boulders along the way.
Piece. Of. Cake.
I should mention that in near-death situations, I laugh uncontrollably. So when we hit a huge wave that sent our nose straight up into the air, almost flipping the raft, I was in stitches.
“Less laughing, more paddling!” Cheryl shouted. We were speeding towards the overhang. I channeled my girlish giggles into Jedi badassery.
“Backpaddle!” a sudden voice of authority came out of me. I liked it. This time with more volume I bellowed, “Right turn!” And we pivoted just in the nick of time, missing the jagged rocks but swallowing a mouth full of river. It tasted good. Fueled by adrenaline and instinct, I led my raft through all of Hell’s Half Mile with only one or two minor bumper boat moments.
The crew gave me high-fives. I looked behind me at that wild raging beast and whispered to myself, “Did I just do that?”
Soon after, we were on a wide stretch of placid water. I lost all sense of time. I had no idea what day it was or what I looked like. It didn’t matter.
Beauty was everywhere. A gentle breeze kissed my skin. The sunlight danced like diamonds, shimmering across the water’s surface.
My thoughts left me entirely. I felt like a soul with eyes. I was small. I was connected. I was free.
That night, I counted shooting stars instead of sheep to go to sleep.
There’s nothing quite as intimidating as standing at the bottom of a sheer wall of prehistoric rock that you’re expected to climb up. So I brought my newfound “I Can Do Anything” attitude to this seemingly impossible feat. I put on the wedgie-making harness and tied in to the rope with my very own square knot while listening to Rob the Rock Climbing Guide’s instructions.
The weird thing about climbing is that the only way to prevent slipping on the rock is to fully commit to a foothold, no matter how tiny. Instead of clinging to the wall and crying, which was my natural inclination, Guides Rob told me to hunker down with all my weight. “Lower your heel as if there’s an imaginary floor beneath you,” he coached. “Come on Jersey. You got this.”
Rob was right, I did got this.
When I nimbly scaled that wall, I surprised even myself. But then I got stuck and I got scared. I was really high up. Going back down was not an option. My heart pounded. My forearms shook. I strained my neck to see the top. This was not going to be easy. I had to dig deep.
With a bold lunge to the right, I found an opening and scurried up a crack line, only to get stuck again, this time even higher. I’ve never wanted to quit so badly in my life. But I didn’t. Slowly, I made it to the top where a friendly arm reached down to help hoist me to my final destination. It was either Frick or Frack, I don’t remember. But I will never forget that view. I earned that view.
Getting down a rock wall is even more counterintuitive than climbing up. After shouting some French words back and forth with Rob the Rock Climbing Guide, who was still on the ground, I stood at the edge, mustering the conviction to take the Nestea Plunge off the side of a cliff.
That first step was a real doozy. I let out a fearful yelp. But as soon as I trusted, really trusted, and leaned back, I understood what Rob meant. Before long I started pushing off the rockface in a weightless bounce. Exhilarated, I let out a primal, “Woooooo!” that I’m sure echoed down the canyon for miles.
It was finally time for Solo. Up until that day I wouldn’t have had the courage to be alone in the wilderness. But as I sat with only myself, I wept. I wept all the tears I’d been hiding behind smiles and jokes. I wept because that week I had become my own best friend. I wept because I was lucky that I had been born.
The last day on the river was bittersweet. I was painfully ready to take a shower and sleep in a real bed. But I also wanted to stay forever. While we were paddling and harmonizing the final chorus of American Pie, an unfamiliar noise hummed and grew louder. It was a plane flying. We stopped singing, mesmerized by this mechanical bird who reminded us that another world existed. A world we had forgotten about. A world we were fast approaching. A world I wasn’t sure I was ready to return to.
Back at the hotel, I looked at myself for the first time in a week and barely recognized me. My hair was flat. My face was brown. My eyes were glowing. I showered, shampooed three times and shaved my shaggy armpits. I scrubbed my skin and watched my tan disappear, forming a circle around the drain. I closed my eyes and relived all the sights and sounds, feelings and fears, tears and triumphs.
No one back home is going to believe me when I tell them.
I thought about the brochure that came with my graduation card. Outward Bound lived up to its promises.
Yes, you will go further than you thought you could. Yes, you will be proud of your accomplishments. Yes, you will know more about yourself.
Although Boston Ben never did write like he said he would, he went on to win a couple Academy Awards. Carrie and I remained friends and she actually prompted my move out west, where I transferred to Colorado State University, the following year. I lost touch with the rest of my Outward Bound family immediately after our last hug goodbye. But their smiles, their support and their spirits have travelled with me on this river of life, barreling down rapids, getting stuck on sleepers and being carried by the current of trust.
“At Outward Bound I found my inner self, a love for nature and a love for me.”
Since then I’ve dedicated my life to protecting, preserving and promoting self-esteem in children. I create education programs so little ones can be comfortable in their own skin, express their uniqueness and feel good about who they are from the inside. I want them to be glad that they were born.
And so, I forward paddle.
ABOUT KELLEE MCQUINN
Nicknamed “the Pied Piper with a Boom Box” by the LA Times, Kellee is a kid at heart. With over 17 years experience creating award winning children’s edutainment, she most recently produced Mack & Moxy, an animated preschool series airing on PBS and Netflix that aims to raise the next generation of humanitarians. In 2002, Kellee founded KidTribe, an obesity prevention program and has impacted millions of children and educators across the globe. In partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Kellee and her tribe of kids have performed Hoopaplooza, the ihip-hop-hula-hoop concert the White House Easter Egg Roll from 2009 – 2016 as well as the Nickelodeon Worldwide Day of Play since 2006. She was hired by NASA to develop the Telly Award winning STEAM education program, Space School Musical. In the wake of recent natural disasters and acts of violence on school campuses, Kellee is creating a comprehensive emergency preparedness and safety awareness program called Rocket’s Rules for Safety. In 2012, Kellee received a Community Leadership Award from President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition and was just honored with a 2017 Broken Glass Award by the Palm Springs Women in Film and Television for her contributions to children’s educational programming.