By Ana Liuzzi
Although it’s been operating for 17 years, 100 Elk Outdoor Center at the A/U Ranches is still unknown to many close to the organization. 100 Elk is the A/U Ranches’ public programming arm, serving 35 organizations from Santa Fe to Boulder. It provides employment opportunities for Christian Science outdoor educators during the spring and fall.
A trip to 100 Elk changes the lives of many of the 2,000 annual participants who leave their comfort zone for three days in the mountains. The diary that follows highlights the ways in which a young staff member finds humor, joy and inspiration in her work with this highly praised secular outdoor education program.
Now that I’m in my mid-20s, I can safely say that I’ve worked a number of strange jobs. “Strange” is probably the best way to describe my experience at 100 Elk, too.
A day in the life of an outdoor educator at 100 Elk includes waking up at 6:15 to stumble into a pair of Carhartts and hiking boots, a flannel and my Camp Newfound puffy vest. I’d meet my colleagues – my friends Philip, Wyatt and Savannah – at the dining hall to clock in. We’d press our index fingers to the screen on the wall; the machine would beep loudly at us and squeak, “Thank you!” It was time to set up the high ropes course.
Philip usually drove the Land Cruiser, bumping over the dirt path to the Round-Up corral and down through the pasture to the South Woods. Wyatt usually rolled down the window, stuck his head out and commented emphatically on the way the sunrise hit Buffalo Peaks in the distance. It was always beautiful. Sometimes a layer of mist sat at the base of the mountains, making the reds and oranges glow as the Arkansas River Valley flooded with early morning light. Setting up the high ropes course was my favorite time of day; I grew to love the way the cold air felt on my face and the way Wyatt played songs by the Fleet Foxes on his iPhone as he climbed 30 feet into the air to set up the zip line.
Savannah and I discovered in the first week of 100 Elk that we both like to sing as we work. She missed her acapella group from college and I missed my folk band from Massachusetts, so we sang as we set up the course, Savannah coming up with harmonies that were hauntingly sweet. When the ropes were all up, our double figure-8 knots tied, the harnesses and helmets checked and laid out in a circle and the lobster claws hung on a cable, we rolled back into camp, blasting whatever country music was on the radio at 7:00 in the morning.
Breakfast usually had already started and we’d walk in to a scramble of children holding plates full of eggs and bacon. Meals at 100 Elk were a crash course in herding small humans. I worked at a sheep farm in Iceland when I was 18, and herding sheep wasn’t nearly as involved. The din of voices and the surge of hungry bodies at the buffet lines rival the time when I forked hay at 800 baah-ing sheep twice a day. The main difference, I think, is that I could speak English with the children who came to 100 Elk. Mealtime conversations were some of my favorite moments as an outdoor educator. In the thick of breakfast chaos, I could check in with kids individually and make memories over spilled hot chocolate.
Around 8:30, just about when the last tub of plates were getting scraped, we’d run outside to meet our morning’s activity group. Savannah and I would meet our ropes course group and walk them down to the South Woods in a slow migration of children and chaperones. It was a manageable sea of backpacks and hats. Once again, one of us would look at the other and start to sing. Towards the end of the season, when temperatures were cold and patience sometimes wore thin, singing might have been what saved us. All Savannah had to do was begin a song from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or one of our favorites, “Bottom of the River,” by Delta Rae – and my heart would melt. At that moment, the important thing became the music.
And that, for me, is the magic of 100 Elk. The only thing that matters, in the face of 16-hour workdays back to back, is the joy of celebrating life together. When it came time for evening campfire, usually the last thing any of us felt like doing was singing camp songs at the top of our lungs, but each campfire was hilarious, goofy, fundamentally awesome, wonderfully strange. Leading campfire songs with my coworkers (who grew to become my dear friends) had the ability to create its own energy, its own light.
One night, in the afterglow of a campfire, Savannah and I sang the most beautiful version of Hymn 148 I’ve ever heard. We were both raised with this hymn; its melody and words hold significant memories for each of us. In the context of our post-college lives, its words are newly relevant to us:
In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear;
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here.
This is the sort of music-making that I love most – the kind that heals hearts. This is the sort of shared spirituality that I love most – unscripted and real, wrought out of friendship. It is a rare thing, rare and strange. Strange in the best way.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of an adventure working for 100 Elk, click here to learn more and to apply.