I knew I truly had gotten away when I noticed the sticks.

I was on a typical afternoon jog near my home, when my eyes were drawn to branches resting in the leaves on the side of the trail. I had a sudden and tremendous urge to stop and collect some. The thin, dry twigs would be perfect kindling. Much easier to collect in the daylight.

A day earlier I had returned from four days in the Linville Gorge Wilderness with the upper school Outdoors Club. They had kindly invited me to join them on their spring backpacking trip.

The Outdoors Club is one of the 65 clubs in the upper school this year. As clubs go, it is relatively new. CA students have gone hiking and camping in the past, most often as a Discovery Term choice in the spring. Students enjoyed those trips so much, they approached Mr. Rushin about starting a club and adding a fall and a winter trip into the mix.

My trip was with 12 students, a mix of juniors and seniors — with one plucky freshman. Three chaperones joined the group, generously counting myself. Although I believe my greatest contribution was driving one of the buses back during the latest winter “weather event,” as they seem to be called now.

With support from the school and the PTAA, the Outdoors Club has amassed the beginnings of a nice supply of equipment for backpacking, and Mr. Rushin set me up with the backpack, tent, and sleeping bag I’d need to brave wind, cold, rain, and snow. We saw all of those during our four days in the wilderness, sandwiched between a 60-degree afternoon and warm sunshine.

Students helped to coordinate all aspects of the trip, from gathering supplies to creating teams that would handle tasks for the group on the trail. Before heading out each day, all the food for the trip was pooled and divided. We then weighed our packs to make sure the distribution of weight was fair. Teams were formed to gather wood and get the fire going, to gather and filter water each evening and morning, to cook and to clean. And, if the steep hills, jagged rocks, and raging rivers were not enough to remind us we were not in our back yards, a group was assigned to “bear bag” the remaining food each night and string it high in the tree branches away from the camp.

It was pretty awesome to watch our Cary Academy students work together on the trails each day and laugh together around the campfire each night. The area was rugged and beautiful, far away from the ordered and manicured world of our day-to-day lives. In that way, the Outdoors Club provides a nice balance to the other intellectual and creative opportunities present at Cary Academy.

In all, our group hiked roughly 17 miles under 30 to 45 pound packs and added another 8 or so miles of day hiking to the mix. We woke up the first morning to some light snowflakes at the base of our tents only to climb to the top of Table Rock later that day in our t-shirts. The highlight for many was the hike to the base of the gorge and a plunge into the very chilly Linville River, with a water temperature of 42-degrees. Our final day out of the gorge was mostly uphill in a steady rain with dropping temps. Near the peak, the rain turned to big, beautiful snowflakes.

This might have been why, fully 24 hours later, I was still scanning my surroundings for sticks to build a fire.