In Search of Stillness

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The Davidson Outdoors solo weekend trip offers students much-needed solace from college chaos through reflection, solitude and silence.

A young woman sits quietly, alone, listening only to the wind as it sifts through the trees. She has no food or shelter, only a couple of water bottles, a ground tarp and a sleeping bag. She does not have a phone, or an iPad, or any other device to connect her to the constant buzz of the outside world.

There is only stillness.

You might be tempted to ask: Why isn’t she cramming for her upcoming finals? Why isn’t she practicing for her next lacrosse game, or getting ready for a party?

Enter the solo weekend trip, a new excursion offered by Davidson Outdoors that allows participants to escape the whirlwind of college life by experiencing nature in solitude.

Elizabeth Welliver ’16 of Westminster, Md., thought to bring solo experiences to Davidson Outdoors as a more radical way to help students handle the stresses of college and reconnect with themselves.

“The solo weekend trip is meant to provide a space for mental refreshment, and access to something deeper that we crave amidst the daily hustle and bustle of Davidson life,” she explains. “As busy college students, we don’t take enough time to be quiet or alone, and that can be damaging.”

The solo weekend trip is inspired by the “Vision Quests” practiced by Native Americans for hundreds of years. Often a coming-of-age ritual, the Vision Quest traditionally involves isolation, fasting and seeking visions that bear deep personal and societal meaning. Davidson’s version is not held with the same religious commitment, though it is treated as an important time of reflection.

“There’s a spiritual element to the journey,” Welliver explains. “You are meant to connect to the land and yourself in a way that might not happen if you were surrounded by people.”

In Davidson Outdoors’ solo weekend trip, trip leaders escort participants to isolated locations in the woods, where they are intended to remain for 24 hours. The participants choose the supplies they will bring along, allowing them to adjust the challenge to their comfort level. To ensure isolation, however, participants are strongly discouraged from bringing phones, music players or any other technology. Pen and paper usually suffice.

A Voice for Silence

Welliver went on her first solo experience as a student at Pearson United World College, a scholarship-based international high school in rural British Colombia. The school partnered with the elders of the local First Nation, the aboriginal people of Canada, to facilitate a solo experience.

But Pearson’s campus already afforded a partial measure of isolation. When Welliver attended there was no cell phone service or wifi access in dorms. Welliver said this allowed her to form deeper relationships with her international roommates. Students lived in houses in groups of four, with each student hailing from a different continent.

“My high school experience gave me an acute sense of humility, and a sense that we are not more powerful than nature, which was crucial for why I started to care about the environment,” says Welliver. “To some extent, I’ve lost those senses at Davidson because our lifestyle doesn’t offer the time or resources to appreciate nature.”

Welliver, a religion major, has found outlets at Davidson that provide a chance to slow down and rebalance. She attends Quaker Meeting once a week for an hour of silence and leads a monthly meditative Taize service for an ecumenical worship group. “I’ve found I can be truer to myself in those places,” she says.

Welliver felt that Davidson needed a way for students to more fully escape the hectic campus environment. “Even our breaks don’t really feel like breaks—we’re always doing something with them,” she says. “We’re certainly making the most of our education here, but we also seem to be losing touch with the meaning of it all—which isn’t simply being busier and more connected.”

A You With a View

The first solo experience was held last spring, with four students participating. Welliver, along with trip leaders Katie Mathieson ’15 and Bri Lazevnick ’15, obtained permission from the Davidson Lands Conservancy to use their ecological preserve.
“We place the solo before exams because that’s when students are trying to cram as much information as possible, but there isn’t enough time for assimilation,” Welliver says. “By removing external stimuli, our brains can weave together threads that were
once fragmented.”

She hopes that students will have an opportunity to reflect on their purpose in study and learning through the experience. “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is one end,” says Welliver, “but learning how to apply that knowledge and act on it is why we are here at Davidson.”

Welliver says the students who completed the first solo weekend trip treasured their experience. “Participants came away with a profound sense of connectedness to the natural world,” she says. “One participant said that he left wondering why words are so important, because he learned more from silence than he has from any other language.”

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About Author

Robert Abare '13

Robert Abare is Davidson’s media relations fellow, the latest recent graduate to be granted the privilege of honing his journalistic skills under the tutelage of the bike-riding sage Bill Giduz ’74, and his office comrade, John Syme ’85. Robert graduated from Davidson with a degree in English, and is considering a career in political public relations, post-fellowship.

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