Melvin Van Cleave Common App Essay


Melvin Van Cleave, Contributor, '21

Teardrops roll down my cheeks. It’s ok, it’s raining, no one will notice. Didn’t matter anyway, the closest people were ten paces in front of me, and ten behind. This way, if lightning strikes, only one dies. I blow out the infinite snot clogging my nose, and stuff the tissue with the rest. Another five minutes of trying to wait out the storm and we vote to trudge back down the mountain, a mile-long hike till shelter. Feet squelch with each step, phlegm bubbles with every breath, I swipe the water off my glasses periodically, like windshield wipers, to see my feet. Nearly there. Rain turns to hail, and thunder booms closer, but Hallelujah, we can see the canopy. We are all sprinting now. Screw the trail. I dash down the side with a smirk, yet I’m quickly humbled. My boot catches a root, and I eat mud. ow… alright, nothings broken, so get up. I swing my 50-pound backpack around with a groan, stagger onto my feet, and limp to the canopy. At least nobody saw. Rest of my crew gathers, like a shivering herd of cattle. Then Josh, my tentmate and close friend, marches in, beaming ear to ear: “WOOOH! Ain’t this some sh*t guys? EMBRACE THE SUCK!” I wanted to sock him. Even my dad was grinning.

Philmont Ranch, 150,000 acres of Rocky Mountains, where crews worldwide seek high adventure. My troop offered it annually. Sounded like a great “father-son bonding experience” to my mom, so my dad and I shrugged and signed up. Our 12-man crew (dubbed “the Dirty Dozen”) trained for months before hitting the 2-week, 67-mile trek. After 10 days of iodized river water, the same three nauseating outfits, and excreting in dug-up holes, the trip got to me mentally, and physically: I woke up with a cold on day 11. Awesome. 

We headed to the base of Black Mountain, notorious for its unpredictably violent weather. Upon arrival, we dined a cuisine of spam and crackers under a canopy, followed by musket-shooting and 1800’s baseball (using a carved trunk and rolled pigskin). I pitched. Before summiting, the sky was deviously clear and, despite my stuffed sinuses and shaky muscles, I was optimistic. Just a five-mile hike over Black Mountain and then relaxation all day. Famous last thoughts.

You know the rest. Eventually, the hail turned to rain, the rain a drizzle, and finally clear weather. We raced back up, the fear of another flash flood putting jets on our shoes. By the last mile, I was nearly crawling down the trail. My calves toothpicks, ready to snap. I was Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders. I missed a bed, plumbing, my mom, dogs, ice cream, girls, electricity, AC.

Next morning, the rest of Dirty Dozen left to ride horses through the forest. For a moment I envied them, as I was reminded of riding to herd cattle on my abuito’s farm, where I was an official “cowboy” by age 10. But I had to stay back to recover. At least my dad joined. We sipped coffee while silently staring out at the valley. The smell of coffee again brought me to Colombia and the savory tinto my angelic great-aunt would make. Funny, after coffee we would always drive to the farm. Colombian memories swirling, we watched the cows graze the emerald field as the sun poured a silky pink over a sea of dark pine-trees layering the mountains above.

Black mountain didn’t look so black from here. I was filled with gratitude. The coffee, the sun, the cattle, Colombia was alive here at Black Mountain. And the hardships from yesterday made today feel that much better. It hit me: Josh was right. You have to embrace the suck. Now, I am the one grinning.