Camping in the rain: An adult field trip in Glacier National Park

Jenny Gessaman
A man wearing slick rain gear and a backpack stands on top of a large, wet boulder, looking away from the camera at the contrast of fall leaves and pine trees.

A fellow photography student studies Glacier National Park in the rain, looking for the perfect shot.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

This weekend, I went camping in the rain. Not only did I manage to keep my tent dry, I had a great time, and I think it’s because I rediscovered something: the field trip.

I spent last Friday through Sunday at the University of Montana’s Wilderness Photography Workshop. Along with my classmates, I was shuttled between a historic chalet and Glacier National Park, jumping from lectures to photo sessions and back.

The workshop had 10 students taught by one professional photographer and de facto park guide. It was an intimate group for a class, made more so by the setting: We rode together for three days and camped together for two nights.

When I met my fellow photographers, I met a range of ages and professions. Roughly half were university students, with one non-traditional student returning to school in his thirties. Two of our group were friends of the teacher, traveling from Washington to attend, and the rest were hobbyists from the Missoula area.

In one sense, the weekend felt very much like a professional training. I took notes during lectures, and the park excursions were just opportunities to practice new skills.

In another sense, the predominant sense, it was a grown-up field trip. Like a high schooler, I had been carted to a place far from home that offered new, unknown adventures. Unlike those teenage days, I was thrown into a group where I knew no one, not even the instructor. This was not just a visit to a new place, it was a visit to a new social setting.

This setting, with three days of close contact, encouraged interactions with everyone. Even in environments designed around the idea of social interaction, like bars and bowling alleys, there are always those you don’t interact with. That wasn’t a choice this weekend.

That lack of choice made a world of difference.

I met a woman over 50 who lived in Hawaii and Alaska and Montana. I met a man in his thirties returning to college, and who was strongly considering becoming a veterinarian. I met an African-American woman who grew up in Michigan, eventually coming to Montana from New York. We had lived in the same country, but all of her life experiences had taken place in a culture completely different, and separate, from rural Montana’s.

I learned from these people, through stories and conversations and photos. We shared meals and car trips and a national park. As a person, I am constantly amazed by and curious about the world around me. I need to remember that includes people, because learning about my classmates, from their names to their personalities, was a large part of what made the weekend.

This setting, and its cast of characters, was also a reminder. Maybe more so in rural Montana than in cities stretching miles and encompassing millions, it is easy to build a bubble. It is not a conscious process, but with such a limited number of interactions, and settings, my daily experiences become my common ones. They become the standard by which I see and consider the rest of the world, the events and happenings and people beyond this state.

I get stuck in this filter made from my past, experiences and memories. If I don’t go beyond Central Montana once in a while, if I don’t meet different people and see different landscapes, I forget that I’m stuck. I forget I am viewing everything from an angle created by just my short 26 years, and I begin to think that’s how the world really is.

I need to be reminded this is not true. Other cultures, other people, other ways to see a situation, are not just a story in National Geographic. Every time I forget and then remember again, I am dumbstruck for I moment. I am amazed I forgot, yes, but I am also amazed at all the new perceptions others introduce. I am humbled and awestruck and joyful when the world reminds me: We are not born knowing everything.

I need to remember this. I need to remember that this weekend and its people made three days of rainy camping and photography something I want to do again.

It was a good field trip.


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