I discovered this incredible work by chance while searching through a listing of outdoor jobs on an online database in the summer of 2011. As a recent college graduate, I was neck deep in the angst of entering the job force. I had never heard of Wilderness Therapy before, and honestly, I remember feeling unsure if I wanted to do it or not. I pictured a boot camp where students just cried all day and yelled at each other as field instructors ran around saying things like, “take accountability for your actions!” or, “let the tears flow!” Nonetheless, something about it captivated my imagination. So I applied for a job as a Field Instructor and read every book about it I could get my hands on. As I read Shouting At The Sky, a book describing a writer’s personal wilderness therapy experience, I started to understand that this wasn’t like anything else I had ever heard of; it sounded compassionate, powerful, raw, even sacred.
Two months later I was asked to join a training group for Field Instructors at Blue Ridge and several days into the training I was confident it was the first step of my life’s work. I remember the precise moment. Let me paint you a picture: it is the first night of a solo experience where I will not speak to anyone for over 24 hours. I am lying down with my back on a rock, surrounded by sage and juniper, singing off-key songs under my breath to keep myself company as I watch the sun dip behind the horizon. The air is crisp and fragrant. I am wearing every piece of clothing in my pack to ward off the twilight chill, my breath creating plumes of vapor with each exhale. I am scared and excited. I have found a program that exists to usher forth transformation in those who have lost their way. I have found a place that will elicit and accept every ounce of passion I can muster for as long as I can sustain it. Am I good enough to be a guide here? What will I have to sacrifice to do this work? How will it change me? Who will I become? I ponder these questions and watch the sky turn a deep purple, revealing an ocean of stars. I am alive.
I began working as a Field Instructor at Blue Ridge in the winter of 2011. Immersed, I learned to live and grow alongside students and field instructors in the wilderness, supporting and challenging one another in ways both spoken and unspoken. I was, and still am, continually amazed by the resilience and wisdom that I see awakening in those I work with. One student, plagued with self-doubt, cast a heavy stone representing his shame down a mountain. Another who had been lost in a labyrinth of technology developed a profound connection with nature, and ultimately herself. A misunderstood and angry teen, who for so long had believed, “I can’t…” created fire, igniting a flame within. These stories are not unique. They are happening in the wilderness right now as you read this.
After more than three years as a Field Instructor at Blue Ridge, I chose to become a therapist because I want to be a part of work like this for the rest of my life, and I want to be as effective in that work as possible. I received a Masters in Counseling from Appalachian State University, where I focused on studying how to work with resistant clients, addiction issues, and attachment. I came back to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness as an intern therapist last summer. It was the culmination of my Graduate School experience and, in many ways, it was a homecoming. I left the fluorescently lit halls of academia and came back once again to the woods. In July of 2017, I was offered a position as a primary therapist with Blue Ridge, and I am so proud to be a part of this organization.
Upon reflection, it is clear that the questions I asked myself while watching the stars years ago are common to every student in wilderness. Am I capable? Is it safe to grow? Who will I become? These questions are at the very core of identity formation, and we must ask them in order to develop. What we do is give students opportunities to access the courage, insight, and wisdom they already possess so that they may ask these questions and then live the answers. These kinds of experiences don’t change who we are; they reveal us.