Voyageur Outward Bound School blog

The Hitch Is Knot Enough

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My father is a dreamer, a man of ideas, who is always looking for the big moments in life.

For my father, the holiday season is just the right mixture of tradition, excitement and calendar pressure– squeeze in every moment of joy before the ball drops and a new count down starts. When I was a kid, cutting down our family Christmas tree was a tradition he looked forward to every year.  He would yell, “Tiiimberrr!” as yet another mighty Blue Spruce toppled to the ground. The excitement in his voice rivaled Paul Bunyan’s on a good day.  

As is the case with many dreamers, my father did not sweat the details. Measuring the size of the tree, dragging the tree to the car and transporting it home where aspects of an undertaking he did not bother to plan out. But all that changed in 1999.  

I was at that tender age when on a bad day I wanted nothing to do with my family and on a good day I couldn’t spend enough time with them.

The day we cut down our tree, December something, 1999, I was determined to handle all the details and prove myself.  In preparation, I ran around the house gathering all the rope I could get my hands on, plus a sled to pull the tree and an arsenal of tools to cut it down.  

Later, we ranged around the tree farm, tools in tow on the sled. We searched, analyzed, debated and eventually found our tree. My father let loose his time-honored, “Timber!”and we made quick work of felling our tree. As the echoes of my father’s mighty roar faded in the background, we headed back to the parking lot.  

Young Dan: graduate of the “School of Hard Knots”

Marching along, my brother started reenacting last year’s adventure, when our tree shifted from the top to the side of the car as we rocketed down the highway at 65 mph.  As he imitated our facial expressions during the high-speed disaster, I resolved to get this job done right. I stood my ground and boldly claimed that I would be one the tie the tree to the car this year. A long cold silence fell across the family as my announcement settled in.   

As we approached the car, each family member was in their own bubble.  I dreamed of the stress-free car ride home– our tree secured so tightly that not even a single pine needle would move in the wind.  Being my father’s son, I was sure of my success and willing to share my bold plan. My brother watched me like a hawk, caching away every detail for a future reenactment of my failure. My mother noted that my boots were untied and wondered aloud if I knew how to tie a knot strong enough to keep a tree on a car. My father just smiled; he was busy dreaming of how great the magnificent tree would look in our living room.  

After we got the tree on the car, I told my family that I would handle the rest. Grabbing my heap of rope, I started weaving it back and forth, looping it around the tree and securing it to every open spot on the car. The rope transformed into a complicated spider web. Tightening one strand loosened two others. Tightening two strands loosen three. I was getting nowhere fast. As the cold set in, my determination to succeed hardened:  I was not going to give up.  My mother, the constant pragmatist, took the rest of the family away for hot chocolate.   

As I continued to work, without progress, one of the tree lot attendants quietly approached. I’m not sure how long he stood there, but, when I finally noticed the guy, he had a huge grin on his face. He’d seen this struggle before and knew how to help. Unwilling to accept failure, I ignored his presence and continued to struggle. With compassion, and hint of amusement, the wise man did not offer to help me. Instead, he offered to teach me how to tie the tree to the car. 

I swallowed my pride and begrudgingly accepted the lesson. As I dismantled the mess of rope, my new friend cut four pieces of twine from a spool. Just four pieces of twine?! I was instantly skeptical. Were four measly pieces of twine really going to do the trick? My only option was to follow his instruction. 

First, my teacher explained that we would be using a trucker’s hitch to tie down the tree– a combination of three knots. Handing me a piece of twine, we worked alongside each other as we tied the first knot, a bowline. After a couple of tries, I had this knot down and we threw the twine over the tree to work on the second and third knots. The second knot, a slip knot, I was familiar with, and we quickly tied those knots into the middle of the twine. We looped the end of the twine around the roof rack, back through the slip knot then pulled the twine tight. He explained that we were creating a pulley system, giving us the mechanical advantage that would tie the tree down tight. As I pulled on the twine, I was amazed at how the tree seemed to hug the roof of the car. We secured the twine with the third knot– a half hitch.  

The next two trucker’s hitches were secured twice as fast as I worked independently on the front of the tree and my instructor worked on the back. After a quick high-five, he was off to teach other people and I never even learned his name. In one twenty-minute encounter, I learned a skill that I would use over and over again. I would tie down future Christmas trees, wrangle luggage during college moves and eventually employ the good old trucker’s hitch to secure canoes in my very first job, instructing at Outward Bound.  

So what does this story have to do with Outward Bound, canoes aside?

Dan and bro: on top of the world, thanks to knots?

This story is a snapshot of the process our students experience while learning leadership, communication, and decision making skills. Yes, our students learn the trucker’s hitch, and through all hands-on learning, individuals are empowered to lead peers through the wilderness, facing real challenges, and seeing their failures, and successes, for what they are:  opportunities to learn. Outward Bound instructors facilitate skill development so students can make real leadership decisions and contribute to a strong cohesive team. As student skills develop, Outward Bound instructors step out of the way to let the crew take over the responsibility of the expedition.  

Our students return home with a stronger sense of who they are, and a set of skills that help them persevere through life’s challenges.   

Dan Stark is not only a skilled Christmas tree wrangler, he serves as Program Coordinator at Voyageur Outward Bound School’s Twin Cities Center where he supports our team with compassion, integrity, excellence, inclusion…and the trucker’s hitch.

We challenge students with knots, and adventure…contact us to learn more about your journey.

Author: Dan Stark

Explorer, dreamer, and community builder. I have spent the last 7 years in the back country of America leading experiences that get at the core of who people are and teach them that they are stronger than they know.

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