Roughing it: Kavya Durbha (in pink jacket) and her fellow PWILDers assess their location on a topographic map. Credit: Doug Clark
Roughing it: Kavya Durbha (in pink jacket) and her fellow PWILDers assess their location on a topographic map. Credit: Doug Clark

The Trail to Duke

In an annual tradition, incoming freshmen get away from it all—before it all starts.
November 5, 2012

Kavya Durbha ’16 struggled down a natural stairway of rocks and roots through a rhododendron forest. Drizzle glanced off her waterproof jacket. Her boots skidded in mud, her thirty pound wilderness backpack unbalancing her every step. It was the eleventh day of her Duke experience, and so far she had hiked through storms and watched dawn rise from the peak of one of North Carolina’s tallest mountains. Not bad for someone who hadn’t even yet moved into her freshman dorm.

Durbha was participating in Project WILD (PWILD), a Duke pre-orientation program that annually leads approximately eighty incoming freshmen on a two-week backpacking trip through Pisgah National Forest. Begun in 1974, PWILD is one of the oldest wilderness pre-orientation programs in America. It is also one of the few programs run completely by students, who manage its finances, handle logistics, and lead hiking crews of seven or eight freshmen on the trails. The idea is for freshmen to gain confidence and forge relationships before arriving on campus, giving them a head start in acclimating to college life.

The trail leveled out in a clearing of red spruce pine trees and split into four tracks. The crew’s goal that day was to reach the ranger station at the Pisgah Fish Hatchery, the end of the trail. Durbha and the rest of the freshmen were excited to return to Duke to matriculate with the rest of the 2016 class. Also, there had been rumors of bathrooms with running water at the ranger station, a luxury after more than a week of living in the woods.

One of Durbha’s fellow hikers pointed to a path descending into a gulley. “That one,” he declared.

“Don’t you think you should check the map?” asked Veronica “Vern” Lepa ’13, the crew’s leader.

“Look at the sign: Fish Hatchery,” the freshman said.

“Are you sure?” Lepa asked.

The student blinked. Indeed, the arrow on the sign pointed ambiguously between the path dropping into the gulley and another following the ridgeline.

Credit: Doug Clark

Lepa began to laugh: a brazen, self-assured guffaw that Durbha had first heard eleven days earlier on her arrival at Duke.

Durbha had been sad to leave her home in Greenville, South Carolina, but she had felt giddy as she met her fellow PWILDers on the K-ville lawn. The International Baccalaureate class at her high school had only about twenty people, and she had fantasized all summer about an invigorated social life with her 1,700-plus new classmates. But as she mingled, she noticed that she was one of the slightest freshmen. Durbha smiled with her lips closed to hide her braces. Though the PWILDers were ethnically diverse, she didn’t see many other people of Indian descent. Worst of all, many of the freshmen were bragging about their backpacking experience; she had never even been camping.

But then that laugh rang across K-ville. The whole crowd shushed, the PWILDers all craning their necks, searching for the source of the ringing laughter. Durbha felt relieved: Not everyone here was serious and intimidating.

“Oh, don’t worry, that’s just Vern,” a PWILD staffer told her.

Now, at the trail junction, Lepa directed the freshmen to check their maps and compasses. “We want to go north,” one concluded, “but both trails go north.”

“They do,” Lepa said, grinning. “And—?”

Durbha Lepa was practicing the PWILD philosophy of “non-directive leadership”: PWILD leaders teach participants the skills they need to successfully complete a trip— like orienteering and bivouacking—but never do the actions for them. Freshmen determine their own hiking routes and camping locations while leaders stand back, waiting for teachable moments and standing ready to intervene in case of emergencies.

Still, sometimes leaders bestow Socratic hints. “What should the land look like?” Lepa asked.

At the beginning of the trip, Durbha had been frustrated by PWILD’s topographic maps. But now she could read the elevation lines and symbols. The ranger station lay to the north, through a gulley descending from the junction. Her finger traced the route.

“Uphill or downhill?” Lepa asked.

“Down!” Durbha declared and explained her reasoning. After a brief discussion— it’s part of the PWILD teambuilding philosophy that all decisions on the trail are made by consensus—the crew followed her into the gulley.

Lepa took up the rear of the group. As she descended the trail, her right foot settled naturally, but her left foot slammed down awkwardly, almost like she was stomping. Her shins and forearms were covered with scrapes, some raw and recent, others nearly healed. She wielded a trekking pole with her right hand, but her left hand was empty. Lepa has low-level cerebral palsy, which afflicts her left side.

When Lepa signed up for PWILD as a freshman, everyone, from her parents to her leaders, held their breath. On the trail, she endured numerous tumbles. But since her freshman year, Lepa has missed only one of PWILD’s hiking trips, which include not only pre-orientation programs but also fall- and spring-break hikes. Today, she holds three PWILD leadership positions: alumni, outreach, and food director. (A few weeks earlier, while buying provi-sions for 150 staff members and participants, she spent more than $600 on fivepound blocks of Cheddar cheese.)

For Lepa and other staff, PWILD is no small commitment. PWILD is unique among Duke’s five pre-orientation programs in that it is active throughout the academic year, sponsoring weekly social events, a fall-break backpacking trip for disadvantaged children, and a springbreak expedition for Duke students. To prepare for the freshman trip, staffers return to campus a month early, often passing up internships and other career-related opportunities to work on the program. They are not paid, and in the weeks leading up to the trip, they sleep on the floor of the Intramural Building gym because dorms are not yet open. Still, every year PWILD has to turn away applicants.

Like many of her peers, Lepa returns because the connections she has forged in the woods have been some of the most enduring ties she has made at the university.“You learn more about a person during a two-week trip than you might in years with them at Duke,” she says.

An hour later, the trail the PWILDers had been following ended abruptly in a parking lot. Sweaty and foot-weary, they whooped and pumped their fists as they reentered civilization. Across the asphalt stood the ranger station—and its public bathrooms.

“Tell me they aren’t closed,” one of the group said. The bathrooms were known to shut at 4:45 p.m. It is PWILD tradition that no one wears a watch.

“I don’t even want to see myself in a mirror,” another moaned, but started toward the bathrooms anyway.

An elderly gentlemen in the parking lot asked, “How long you all been out for?”

“Ten days!” Durbha and the other freshmen declared. Pride flooded her. She had done things she had never imagined she could do. But she also felt a twinge of sadness that she had only two more days inPisgah, at a group campground with the rest of the PWILD participants and staff. When she had stared at the map earlier, she had been intrigued by the names of the places she had yet to visit: Rough Butt Bald, Devil’s Courthouse, Clawhammer Mountain, Graveyard Fields…. She hoped to hike them one day. But for now she walked with six new friends across the parking lot and onward toward her future at Duke.

Lepa watched her freshmen depart. She had told them to call her, or even just show up at her apartment, if they ever needed anything. She remembered her freshmen leaders and their concern for her every fall. Already, she was looking forward to calling them after the trip to boast that she had only slipped twice in the last two weeks.

Carefully, Lepa arranged her pack as a backrest and then sat and began unlacing her boots.