How Bushwhacking is Like Organizing

I am very interested in how community organizers can build a life in which organizing and movement-building is a long-term sustainable and healthy pursuit that integrates well with other aspects of our lives—family, restoration and relaxation, and lifelong-learning, to name a few. I have long enjoyed getting out and hiking in nature as an escape, a shift in consciousness and just plain fun, but recently have begun to think about how I can use these trips as growth opportunities. A couple months ago, while there was still snow at elevation, I took a field class with Philip of on off-trail navigation (AKA bushwhacking) in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On this trip, the goal was to climb a mountain that has no trails leading to the top, so we had to use maps, compasses and awareness to find our way, sometimes climbing, sometimes crawling, through the thick spruces. When I went on my first bushwhack last year, it was like being introduced to hiking for the first time and opened up a whole new world of what was possible. It was a similar rush to the feeling of being on the founding team of a brand-new organization. The lessons I learned felt immediately applicable to organizing:

1) Prepare to the best of your ability, knowing you can never know it all

What you are doing is serious, and you better be prepared. Use your experience, the experience of others, and the best information you can gather to have a very good sense of what you’re getting into. Ask yourself: “What will I do if…?” for each of the potential scenarios/problems that your preparation tells you could occur. But don’t get analysis paralysis. You have to get moving.

2) Maps lie

On this particular trip, our map showed the wrong elevation for a landmark peak, showing it as higher than the one we were climbing when in reality it is lower. If we were relying only on sighting that peak as an indicator of where we were, we would have been very confused. Close investigation of the map’s contour lines showed that it would have been impossible for the peak to be as high as it was stated to be. Maps also don’t show flooded areas or road closings. Some of these are human errors, some are a result of the fact that landscapes, both environmental and socio-political are always changing. We must be nimble, highly engaged and aware of what is going on around us and be ready to respond to it.

3) Know when you are going off trail, and why

Going off-trail is not about wandering around aimlessly, it is about choosing to make your own path, maybe a path never traveled before, to get to your goal instead of walking the established path. While this option is much harder, you will experience things unavailable to those on the well-worn trail. Whether on a mountain or in a direct action, throughout the day there are things you are sure of, things you are reasonably sure of, and things that are great unknowns. Know what and where the unknowns may present themselves, and you’ll be better prepared to deal with them. You choose when is the time to go off-trail. During direct actions, the exact response of the opposition is unknown. So do everything possible to have all the rest as tight as possible so that when you get to that moment your group is strong, and the off-trail moment won’t feel out of control.

4) Have a contingency plan, feel stronger (even without using it)

On this bushwhacking trip, we knew that if we became hopelessly turned around, we could orient our compasses due west and hit a road within a couple of hours which would get us back to the area where we parked. The chances of needing this information were very slim, but having that option in my back pocket emboldened me enough so that I volunteered to lead the group for a while. In organizing, encourage people to ask the question “What will we do if…?” even for some really far-out scenarios, and plan your response together. Fear of the unknown is the greatest barrier in organizing direct actions and having a contingency plan for disasters allows the group to act with confidence and power.

See you off-trail!


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