Notre Dame students backpack in Wyoming as part of Wonder program

Established in February of this year, Wonder is an initiative that curates “adventures through nature and people to encounter beauty, awe, and wonder.” According to its mission statement, the program “seeks to reestablish beauty as an essential event in peoples’ lives” and does so by “fostering a journey of self-reflection” within an immersive encounter with nature. 

After spending a summer doing research in Wyoming in 2021, Ilaria Schnyder, co-founder of Wonder and former Assistant Professor at the Kellogg Institute, returned to campus with the idea for an immersive program in nature. She said to herself, ‘This is something Notre Dame doesn’t have. We need to do it.’ She elaborated, telling the Rover that “nature provides a space of beauty that allows people to go deeper into who they are,” which is her hope for the students participating in Wonder.

Over the course of this past summer, Notre Dame sent four pilot expeditions out West with the program. The first went packrafting in Utah, while the following three went rock climbing and backpacking in Wyoming. Each was associated with a different fellowship, club, or program on campus.

The third adventure was sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life and led by Leonard DeLorenzo, Professor of Theology at the university and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. DeLorenzo explained that the Institute was “exploring ways to develop this program for different kinds of student formation and leadership development.” He recruited sixteen students, all of whom were excited for the adventure and none of whom really knew quite what to expect.

Sophomore Mark Van Kirk, who backpacked with Wonder in Wyoming this summer, explained to the Rover that he had expected “some backpacking, a little cooking, and a lot of free time”, but that his idea “was quickly proven wrong: it took substantial time and energy to backpack, cook, and set up or take down camp each day.”

“[However,] the people and beauty of the world around me kept me going. There was excitement in traveling to new places each day that were initially out of sight and getting to know another person a little bit better,” recalled Van Kirk. 

Campers spent the first full day of the trip acclimating to the higher altitude by means of rock climbing at a nearby canyon. That evening, the 16 students were divided into four “cooking teams” which were thereafter responsible for making all of their own meals.

The next morning, the group of Notre Dame explorers began their ascent into the backcountry. Each hiker carried a pack that included all of his or her own gear, parts of his or her tent, and a quarter of his or her team’s food for the week. 

Averaging about five miles a day and anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet of elevation change, the hiking Irish witnessed countless scenes of natural beauty. The trail led the group under green canopies, over sun-baked boulders, across majestic overlooks, and through a handful of cold mountain streams. 

There was no predictable end to each day’s hike. Rather, it was the search for an adequate campsite within the final mile that determined when and where the group would stop. Once the guides designated where the group would spend the night, the backpackers would quickly pitch the tents, fetch the water, and prepare the dinner. 

After the sun had set and the last pan had been washed, everyone would gather together for a Wonder tradition called “Snapshots,” in which each individual shared a brief autobiographical story. “The Snapshots were without a doubt my favorite part of the trip… [it was] such a special experience to hear what people find most important in their own lives,” reflected junior participant Ainsley Hurford.

On the last full day in the backcountry, storm clouds rolled in around dinnertime. 

Amidst the downpour, a vivid double rainbow appeared across the sky. 

“Witnessing a double rainbow over mountains and a lake… [m]any of us ran out from underneath the tarp, even though we’d get wet from the rain… to admire the beauty and take photos and be silly,” recalled Hurford. 

The campers’ encounter with the double rainbow illustrates a realization of Wonder’s hope “to spark human flourishing beginning from beauty.”

In reflecting upon her trip, Hurford told the Rover, “This experience as a whole, and that [last] night in particular, further instilled in me a desire to have a childlike wonder and love for the beauty around me! I hope to adopt this simple and awe-filled love in my approach to life and all that God gives me!” 

Given the success of the backcountry trips over the summer, Wonder hopes to continue working with the university to organize outdoor excursions for Notre Dame students in the future. 

Claudia Parisi is a junior studying Management Consulting and Theology. When she’s not taking pictures of sunsets or playing country music at full volume, she can be reached at

Photo: One of the rainbows seen during the storm on the last evening in the backcountry.

Photo by Claudia Parisi