I had no idea what I was getting into when I started as a field guide in 2011. What I did know, however, was that the wilderness provides a powerful backdrop for anyone searching for something. I had recently gotten back from a four and a half month backpacking trip from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail (The “AT”), where I had experienced that fact first hand. When I started the Appalachian Trail, on the surface I was a confident and probably somewhat arrogant recent college grad. However, internally I was scared to death by the fact that I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had always liked the outdoors but unlike many of the people I met during the trip, I was not fulfilling a lifelong dream by hiking the full length of the AT. Rather, I was fulfilling a dream that I had had for all of about two months after realizing that I was about to have to graduate and this was something that could help delay my entrance into “the real world.”
I think it is safe to say that I was quickly humbled by the experience. Though it was certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, I had anticipated that part being difficult and knew I could do that. What was most surprising was what was happening internally. In a world that is simplified to the point that the only possessions you have are on your back, you naturally begin to find more meaning in things. In the quiet, stillness of the forest, endless electronic devices can’t hide the pieces of yourself that you would rather not think about. It is a world without deadlines, practices, appointments, classes, meetings or rushing from one activity to the next. At three miles an hour on foot, your world slows down and there is a new clarity to your thoughts. You sleep when you’re tired, you eat when you’re hungry and you live intentionally. There is no instant gratification. The accomplishments take longer and there is no monetary compensation, trophies, or plaques awarded for every peak you climb or state you complete. But those are accomplishments that are real and that are meaningful. From a mountain peak with the sun warming your face as you breathe in cool mountain air and stare out over a 360-degree view of mountains stretching out as far as the eye can see, there is a sense of peace knowing that it was worth every blister-busting step it took to get there.
As I put days and miles behind me, my body was changing, but the real change was happening inside. There was an internal resiliency and authentic sense of confidence that had not been there before. The fears, insecurities, and clutter that had made it increasingly difficult to find my purpose began to fall away with the miles, leaving me with a clear view of all the corners of my life and what is truly important. I felt gratitude for things and people in my life that I had not slowed down long enough to feel in a long time. There was a restored sense of trust in the goodness of people thanks to a community of people that went out of their way to help me along the way. Most of all there was a sense of purpose I had been searching for. I came home still not knowing exactly what my career would be, but knowing that I wanted to help people experience what I had experienced in the wilderness.
Shortly after returning home from the AT, I was fortunate enough to meet someone that had worked at Blue Ridge. I had no background in therapy and didn’t even know that the field of wilderness therapy existed before that, but I knew it sounded like something that I wanted to be a part of. Since then I’ve learned a thing or two about therapy, and I continue to be blown away by the amazing work being done by our therapists and field guides. Still, even before I knew about the remarkable clinical work taking place, I believed this was a place that could help young people who were struggling and who were hurting because I know what the wilderness has to offer.
There is a quote on the Blue Ridge website by author and environmental advocate, Edward Abbey, that says, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” I agree wholeheartedly with that, and it is why I do this work. In a world that is always on the go and full of endless options, deadlines, and distractions, it can be easy for someone to lose their way when there are obstacles and clutter on their path in life.
However, the wilderness offers a reprieve from that world. It forces us to confront the difficult and sometimes painful areas of our lives and it offers the quiet, nurturing space to begin to heal. Wilderness is not a luxury. Those tend to be external things: a new car, an expensive dinner, a nice vacation, an award to recognize all of your accomplishments. Wilderness is a necessity because it creates a lasting internal shift. It helps people find the resiliency that was in them all along so that when the next inevitable obstacle presents itself in their life, they have the self-awareness and confidence to navigate around the obstacle and continue on the path they were meant to take.