Everything is Better in Winter
When I was 23, I attended a 50-day Outward Bound course in the mountains of western North Carolina. This experience propelled me into the career I have today and was the beginning of many years spent devoted to the wilderness. After I completed my course, I decided to make a blog out of the many journal entries I went home with. One of the blogs I wrote was called, Everything Is Better in the Wilderness. I remarked on several days that were incredibly challenging during that course, but how eating, sleeping, bathing, etc. feels better when earned. I had never tasted pizza that good even though it was made on pita bread on a small frying pan with a backpacking stove and contained no marinara sauce. When you’re living in the wilderness it feels like everything you do is earned. It’s just more satisfying and sensory to enjoy a meal at the end of a day when you have hiked 10 miles carrying everything you need to survive on your back.
During my course, one of the things I felt I didn’t sign up for was winter weather. I remember waking up in the middle of the night towards the end of the course with our group tarp resting on my face under a couple inches of snow. The next day, we spent a long day hiking in the snow. At the time we were on our final expedition, which meant that we were without our instructors. My crew thrived anyway. Getting into my sleeping bag that night and the pancake breakfast we were able to make the next morning would not have been the same without the struggles we faced because of the snow. That day on my course was a day I thought fondly of and reminisce about with my crew mates to this day. I call it Type II fun--the kind of activity that is anything but fun in the moment, but that you look back on with delight.
When I came to Utah to work in Wilderness Therapy in 2009 I was surprised to find out that even the glorious Southern Utah weather could involve snow. In fact, one week it snowed three feet in four days! Now, this is obviously very rare and, in my time working for Evoke, has been the worst storm I have witnessed. However, we do get snow from time to time and this year has been no exception. When Mother Nature dumped 6-8 inches of snow on our field area during the last week of January it reminded me of the two winters I spent working as a field staff at Evoke. My daily job was to make sure the participants were warm and dry enough, while assisting them in meeting their emotional needs. My co-staff and I also tried to make sure everyone had at least a little bit of fun, too.
When I think back to my time during those winters, I remember them fondly and would even go as far as to say that I loved it more than any other time I have spent in the field. To this day, I miss it. I miss the feeling of getting into my super fluffy -20 degree sleeping bag or slipping on my down booties at the end of the night. I miss the feeling of making a fire from sticks, then slowly feeding it with tiny kindling and then larger and larger wood until it grew into a fire large enough to keep a group warm. The experience of building that fire was that much more gratifying when I knew how much we’d appreciate that warmth. There are a lot of things that can be challenging in the wilderness and winter can make them especially difficult, but there is also something about it that is better and more powerful.
When I think about the participants I worked with during those two winters, I smile fondly remembering my time with them. I miss watching adolescents thriving in this environment and teaching me even more about what resilience looks like, when I was supposed to be teaching them. A lot of them had the experience chosen for them, but they thrived anyway. I watched many students meet the unique challenges of wilderness over the years, but watching it in the winter was something special. How many adolescents can say they survived and thrived living exclusively outdoors in the middle of winter? I believe the skills learned when you accomplish this are some of the most unique and empowering skills you could ever learn. When I think about my five-year-old and imagine the challenges he will face in his life, I secretly hope he has the experience of living in the woods during the winter. Maybe we will even do it together?