Open Space and Room to Breathe
The sun was setting on this particular balmy evening in October. A gentle breeze rustled through the juniper trees and brought wafts of sweet smelling sage across the open field near where the group was camped. The temperature was that perfect in-between: not real warm or real chilly. It was altogether different than the images of red rock formations and sprawling cactus that comes to mind when one thinks of the southwest, but then this was autumn in the high desert.
Long, cool shadows stretched across the beige sand as the group busied themselves with camp chores. They were eight young men from various regions of the country brought together to spend an uncertain number of weeks living in the dirt. Some were out there by choice. A few were out there because their parents finally drew a line and held it. But all of them were out there because—whether their belief or someone else’s—a pause needed to happen in their lives. As “12 Step” language would put it, their lives had become unmanageable. Maybe they struggled with a drug or gaming addiction. Or maybe it was that they didn’t have the self-esteem to make a good group of friends. A few had learning or personality disorders that crippled their social skills. Many did respond well to authority. And most of them lacked a sense of direction and purpose, and thus had come to the desert to make some sort of turnaround.
Take Jim for example. I met him at the road when the transporters brought him to our campsite, and all I could think was, “Man, I hope this dude doesn’t cause any trouble.” At 6'5", the college football player towered over me. I could tell by the look on his face that he was less than thrilled to be out there. He answered most of my questions with a one- or two-word response and his catchphrase, I quickly realized, was, “Whatever.” Another field staff and I walked Jim into camp and showed him his spot outside the group where he would remain during Earth Phase. Again, he wasn’t happy.
I sat with him for a while and made an attempt to get to know him a little better. It’s something I do with every client. In doing so, Jim seemed to be less tense about being out in the desert and even started speaking in complete sentences after a while. I started gathering a pretty good sense of what he was out there for. Of course, he wouldn’t outright say why but I had a few hunches. I learned that he struggled with alcohol at school and making good decisions. I got the impression that he was dealing with an immense amount of pressure surrounding the football world. And it was blatantly obvious that he had zero idea how to communicate any of the feelings he had going on inside. He was taught to never show emotion, because emotion equals weakness, and weakness means the other team could destroy him. He wasn’t going to let that happen.
Working with Jim over the next week proved to be a dance: two-steps forward and one back. Initially it seemed like we had little in common. I couldn’t care less about football. His affinity for Justin Bieber clashed with my love of Pink Floyd. Having never been in a real fight I had no war stories to match his about beating the crap out of the members of another sports team at his college. So we didn’t exactly click at first. I’d maybe catch him off guard and push him to explore his emotions in a moment of frustration, and then he’d realize what I was doing and the walls would go right back up. Even when I tried to help him adjust his pack so it would fit better on his huge frame his response was loaded with expletives.
The wonderful aspect of wilderness therapy, however, is that I had nothing but space and time. It was perfectly okay that Jim wasn’t ready to dig in just yet. I’d seen it before. It would probably take a couple of weeks but he’d come around. If he wanted to stuff and bottle his emotions that was fine; we’d wait him out. In the meantime, the staff continued to challenge him on it. He’d get angry and frustrated and curse and “whatever” us, then we’d talk and he’d cool down and become aware of how the way he handled his emotions was a defense mechanism that only exacerbated his issues. For a moment. And then the cycle would begin again over something different.
Eventually, after enough days spent in the sand and enough nights under the stars, clients inevitably start to realize that out there in the wilderness there’s nowhere to run to. It’s nothing but open space and room to breathe. Their lives get stripped down to the bare essentials, carrying everything they need on their backs. The outside pressures and distractions of the front country are gone and they are left with themselves and the Earth. With nothing to hide behind the clients are essentially forced to face themselves and, hopefully, choose to start making changes. This is the surrender that accompanies the second and third steps of the 12 Step model. It’s a turnaround point, and a lot of fun to witness.
I remember when Jim made his turnaround. We were sitting in session with his therapist late one night after the rest of the group had gone to bed. He was slumped over in the chair, refusing to make eye contact with either of us. His arms were crossed and held tightly over his chest. He wasn’t saying anything with his words, but his body language spoke volumes. Sean, the therapist, let him have the space for silence. So we sat there for what seemed like a half hour, waiting.
“You gonna ask me stuff, or what?” Jim mumbled out of nowhere. I smiled. The “rusty armor” was falling off. He was getting ready to talk, to really talk.
“What would you like to talk about?” Sean responded.
And with the biggest sigh I have ever heard, Jim unleashed a wave of emotion. He went off on how difficult group life was for him. He talked about how draining it was always putting on a “happy face” and being the group morale booster. He complained that everyone in his world expected him to go professional in football and that he didn’t even really want to play at all. He was sick of all the negative attention from the press because of who his father was. On and on he went, telling us what was going on for him. He was being real with us for the first time after several weeks in the program. Sean told him that it was totally normal for him to be feeling all of that stuff, and it was like someone hit the reset button for Jim. A whole new person showed up.
Suddenly, Jim started checking in more and sharing his emotions with the group. He invested in other members too. Rather than taking on all the camp chores himself, he started coaching the newer members how to do them. He also started encouraging them to share more of their vulnerable sides. As he became more open to the process of working on himself, of being accountable for his behaviors, and to being real, he and I started getting closer. I could talk to him about my history with alcohol, how I used to use it as a coping mechanism and almost killed myself with it one night after a bad break up. He was finally in a place where I could tell him my process—seeing my own therapist, doing AA work, ending toxic relationships and rebuilding destroyed ones—without it being thrown back in my face. He pumped me with questions on what the road to recovery was like, and seemed genuinely interested in starting his own.
Jim got more excited about life in the wilderness, too. About two months into his stay, I planned a weekend excursion for the group that would take them into a “wilderness boundary area:” simply a section of land that was especially protected by the governing land agency. To the staff, it was no different than what we would normally hike through. The group, on the other hand, thought we were backpacking out into uncharted territory and were ecstatic about the opportunity to camp without easy access to our normal support system of water and food drops.
When we crossed into the boundary area, Jim became even more boisterous and energetic than usual. His head whipped back and forth as we hiked, taking in the 7000-foot peaks that surrounded us. He grabbed me by the arm at one point, turned back to the group and commanded them all to be quiet, and then motioned off in the distance to where a band of wild horses stood grazing.
“This is freaking insane!” he whispered.
The next day, after a night spent line-sleeping on a rock outcropping, we took the group on a day-hike up to one of the peaks. It was quite the scramble. The steep slope was full of loose rocks and made the trek a bit precarious. It was worth the challenge when we got to the top, though. We were afforded a 360-degree view of the entire field area unmarred by any indication of civilization save for the occasional dirt road. The group was speechless. Without prompting, they all spread out to their own rock to sit and soak in the view. A pair of hawks soared and screeched above us. The hills and canyons rolled away beneath us. Every guy in the group sat there, contemplative and reverent.
Later that evening as we were all gathered around the stoves making dinner, Jim called a sitting group. He had a real serious look on his face, which was unusual compared to his chronic smile.
“I just wanted to share something with you guys,” he started. He paused for a few moments, looking around, and then cleared his throat. “I’m as content on this mountain as I am on the football field.”
It was one of those moments where, as a field instructor, I took a step back and examined what I was doing out there. Here I was in the high desert with a bunch of guys not much younger than myself making some of the biggest—and most positive—changes in their lives. They were discovering who they really were, often for the first time in many years. They were learning to take care of themselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically while living outdoors for weeks on end. They were putting that much-needed pause on their lives and finally doing something different. And I got to be a part of it.
Those “ah-ha” moments are the driving force behind being a field staff, at least for me, because by no means is it an easy job. It’s not one of those gigs where you show up for eight hours and then get to go home at the end of the day. You commit to eight whole days, always on. You’re responsible for the safety of the group, physically and emotionally. Sometimes, stress and tension levels can skyrocket. You deal with the entire spectrum of emotions, and often hear some pretty horrific tales. It can be taxing, to say the least. So when one of your clients comes around, digs in and starts really doing some powerful work, it’s an incredible feeling. My heart beams when I see a client find a little bit of success, like when fire-ban was lifted and Jim made his first campfire after learning how to properly harvest and stack a decent wood pile. The relationships that are formed out there are different, too. They can be intense. When you’re surrounded by a group of people who genuinely care, it’s hard not to get attached. And when you invest the kind of time and energy this work requires, you can’t help but feel elated when one of your clients does well.
At the end of Jim’s stay, he had many accomplishments to be proud of. He reached Water Phase, and his dad showed up to the field for a visit during the ceremony. He busted enough flames with his bow drill set to earn himself a headlamp. He completed a solo assignment: spending almost three days alone at his own campsite away from any other group members. Jim got to be a mentor to a new client that arrived in the group and walked him through the expectations of the program. He logged several hundred miles hiked. Most importantly, though, he allowed his true self to shine forth from behind the mask he used to wear. In doing so, he reconnected with his father in a way he never thought possible.
I’ll always remember the final group we held for Jim. It was his last night in the field. Another group member had just finished presenting the Goodbye Ceremony, and Jim was taking his turn going around the circle to share a favorite memory and a hope for each individual. Tears streamed down his cheeks despite a grin that stretched from ear to ear. He thanked the group and the staff for all the challenges and support. Here was a whole new person about to step back into the “real” world. I felt some worry for him—I always do when clients leave—and at the same time, I was excited and proud. I’d had the rare privilege of working with him from his first day in the program until his last, and I was confident he had the tools to continue doing well.
The sun went down that night and we sent all of the group members off to bed at their shelter spots. For Jim, it was the last time. As I nestled into my own sleeping bag, I reflected back on the last seven shifts with this group. What a rollercoaster! But, I thought, if it weren’t for the power of being out there in the wilderness, together, none of the magic would have unfolded the way it did, and I was grateful to be part of it.