He called himself A-Train. He was an overweight, 18-year-old immigrant Vietnamese from Manhattan named Aaron; not the average candidate one expected to meet on a month-long expedition through the vast Denali National Park in Alaska organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School.
I, on the other hand, spend a considerable amount of time outdoors, at home on Martha’s Vineyard and hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had been looking forward to going to Alaska for years. There were 11 of us who left Anchorage last July. And there was A-Train.
During our first full week of hiking, A-Train consistently lagged behind. He had scraped knees, a ripped shirt, and an attitude to match; he was a complete disaster. He often fell down on the hikes, and perhaps worst of all, from my point of view, he was unmotivated and unappreciative of the adventure. That bugged me.
After a week of trial and error I decided to hike behind A-Train. I encouraged him to stay focused and push forward. Mostly I yelled at him: “Let’s go Train! Move it! Dig deep! There you go!”
I wondered if my tactics were constructive. I knew they were not always respectful, but I was trying to be a leader, and act to serve the greater good of the group.
The days wore on, and A-Train’s presence on the trail continued to be a chore. But oddly enough, at night in conversation, the two of us forged a bond over our love of cuisine. With little meal variation on the trail, dreaming of food became epidemic, and our tent was filled with countless hours of food talk.
A-Train described elaborate Asian dishes, embellished with chutneys and tenderized pork atop rice. And as we talked, I began to understand that although A-Train and I had our differences on the trail, we were developing a relationship that made me reconsider my earlier view of him.
It was during the last week of the expedition that I learned that first impressions could be very misleading. Somewhere on the trail, my face and eyes were exposed to a poisonous shrub. They became swollen to a point where seeing became a challenge. Impaired, I felt awkward and unable to fully contribute to the group. I had never experienced this sense of vulnerability before. I had always been in control of my actions; however now I had to give in to this allergic reaction.
A-Train took over my role, and I became a follower, listening to him execute plans for the day ahead. He led the group with composure, and displayed incredible confidence. This was a very different A-Train from the person I had imagined he was. I was impressed as I watched him prepare meals and lead hikes, and he did it all with great assurance.
During the expedition, A-Train and I emerged as leaders at different times, for different reasons. We learned from each other, and made each other stronger and more effective. Even though we began the journey as very different people, we brought out the best in each other. And perhaps more than anything else, on this expedition I learned that in order to be a great leader, one must be able to step aside and allow others to lead.
Elie Jordi is a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School senior. His senior project has been a stint on The Times staff.