Sports column by Matt Dickerson: Outdoors matters

It’s Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day. Classes won’t start in earnest at Middlebury College for another six days. Today, however, is the first full day of activities for first-year students who arrived on campus yesterday. So here I am at a reception, carrying out my role as faculty member introducing myself to parents of these new students. I sip coffee and make conversation, sometimes asking questions, sometimes answering them, and sometimes just listening to nervous banter while trying to be reassuring and friendly.
I have talked with two moms from western Massachusetts dropping off sons who happen to be friends from the same high school, a mom from the San Francisco area dropping off a son who plans to major in the sciences, a married couple from Connecticut depositing their daughter interested in international politics, a father from Illinois whose son wants to study computer science and physics. Within an hour of when the reception ends, all of them will be saying goodbye to their children and driving away. They are excited and a little bit afraid. What experience will their beloved child have here at Middlebury College for the next four years?
While the parents are at the reception, their children are in the midst of their first seminar with professors who will be their advisors for the start of their careers. That seminar and their relationship with their advisor will certainly play an important role in how much they appreciate and gain from their Middlebury experience. Of course so will their other classes and professors, and especially their choice of majors. And so will their roommates. And any sports or social activities they participate in. There are many factors.
What also plays a very significant role in the experiences of many Middlebury students, though many parents haven’t thought much about it, is the land that surrounds the college. Not just the views they see when they occasionally lift their eyes up from their books and glance eastward into the Green Mountains or west toward the higher Adirondacks — though even that “scenery” may be more important than we realize — but the experience of getting in a car or on a bike and heading in any direction in Addison County. Wandering across the meadow behind Bicentennial Hall toward the organic garden. Walking up to Silver Lake some Saturday afternoon in early October. Or taking a more ambitious hike up Mount Abe.
Or swimming in Bartlett Falls. Or learning to cross-country ski. Fly fishing, rock climbing, or kayaking some local stream (or even over the falls in Middlebury as some have been known to do). I am now in my 25th year teaching at the college, and the longer I have been here the more I am convinced of just how important the nature of Vermont can be in the experiences of the students who come here.
Vermont is not the only state that has great outdoor opportunities, of course, and Middlebury is not the only college. But it certainly is in the top tier of locations for outdoor lovers. And for many students that is one of the criteria that led them here.
I have two nephews who came to Middlebury. They have lived in Colorado in the shadows of the highest peaks in the Rockies, in western North Carolina within a morning drive of the two tallest mountains east of the Mississippi, and they now live in Alaska. They chose to come to Middlebury, they claimed, because of the reputation and excellence of some of the academic programs they were most interested in. They also showed up on campus with whitewater kayaks, rock climbing gear, fishing gear, mountain bikes, snowboards, and all sorts of other items of outdoor gear and apparel. And there is no doubt that the opportunities to use all that played a role in their decisions.
One of the parents here this week dropping off a child is a long-time friend who graduated from Middlebury 22 years ago and now lives in South Dakota. She said that when her son moved into his dorm on Monday, his roommate was already settled in. The roommate’s possessions included two whitewater kayaks: one stored in his closet and one under his bed. I imagine he will find a place to use them. I imagine that is one of the reasons he is at Middlebury.
And I happen to think it a good reason. Our surroundings — or sense of place, and familiarity; our experience of environments and especially our ability to experience environments that are less engineered and less manmade — are important.
Our friend’s son, by contrast, initially expressed more interest in urban schools than in Middlebury. He is more into cars and photography and soccer than the outdoors. And he certainly knows more about cars than I do, and is a gifted photographer as well as a very nice and intelligent young adult. Yet, though he and his father have gone camping with me, and he had fun, it wasn’t his passion.
Now I have certainly enjoyed spending time with some of the students who have come to Middlebury with a preexisting passion for the outdoors. I have taken several of them fishing with me. And cross-country skiing. And snowshoeing. And boiling maple syrup. Fifteen years ago, when I was closer to the ages of my students, some eventually became close friends in large part through time we spent together outdoors. The father from South Dakota, a Middlebury alum who graduated my second year teaching here, is one of my closest friends. We have published two books together and completed a third. The most recent is a series of reflections and narratives about our experiences fishing together up and down the Appalachians.
But what may be even more satisfying for me have been opportunities to introduce outdoor sports to students who have simply never spent much time outdoors. A few years ago, I took one of my students fly-fishing and watched him catch both his first trout and his first ever fish on a fly. I certainly still remember that years later. I suspect he does too. And though, as a professor it is somewhat uncomfortable to acknowledge this, he might actually remember that experience wading a local stream and catching his first trout better than the remembers anything he learned in my class.
And maybe that’s the way it should be. 

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