Memories of the Oregon backcountry . . .

I just returned from the Independent Educational Consultant’s Association (IECA) semi-annual  conference in Indianapolis, where I met with many of my Wilderness Therapy colleagues. Through our conversations, I remembered the times I’ve spent in the field and how I long to return. You can find the original post here on the IECA blog: Notes from the field

For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” -Vincent Van Gogh

I saw this quote written on the back of a t-shirt recently, and it so captured the dreamy quality of my state of mind. You see, I had just finished an overnight at a wilderness therapy program “in the field,” something I have done a few times over the past couple of summers. I quickly scribbled down the quote and made a point of googling “dream quotes” just to see where it would take me. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Tupac Shakur to obscure poets and philosophers, the message of transformation is woven throughout. If we allow ourselves to dream and open our minds to the brilliant, creative (and often fantastical) ideas of our imaginations, the possibilities for transformation are endless. Unfortunately, for so many struggling teens and young adults—their minds clouded in a drug-induced haze, anxiety-ridden, or crippled by depression—the opportunity for sweet dreams is as unreachable as the stars twinkling overhead.

I am a city girl, southern through and through, and in times past, the thought of sleeping anywhere but in a soft, comfortable bed never even dared cross my mind. I didn’t grow up with family camping vacations to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon—Dollywood was about as close to the Blue Ridge Mountains as one could get. But, as I have challenged my clients so many times, I realized it was time to challenge myself and step outside the proverbial box and fully embrace the wilderness experience, if only for a night or two. Granted, I can only get a glimpse of what these kids face day after day and night after night, but I so appreciate that they allow me to witness their struggles and healing on such a personal level. My thoughts about wilderness therapy are simple, yet the experience was deeply provocative. Metaphors abound, clichés exist, but there is truth in nature just as there is truth and eventual self-knowledge in every one of those angry, scared, and lost children.

As the sun rose over the high desert, I was struck by the sheer beauty of the early morning. As far as the eye could see, vivid and playful wildflowers stood in direct contrast to the muted junipers and desert sage (and petrified cow patties), all silhouetted against the morning sky. Even though it was an early 5:00 a.m., I had slept wonderfully, snuggled in my sleeping bag under the open Oregon sky. My neighbors still slept peacefully, while several of the program staff remained vigilant in their slumber as they enveloped a student on suicide watch. As I reflected on the events of the previous day, I couldn’t help but think about transformation as the dawn of a new day and the chance for these students to start anew. This was a difficult group. In addition to the usual Sturm und Drang of adolescence, all were “on the spectrum,” holding diagnoses such as NLD and Asperger’s syndrome. Group dynamics in any wilderness therapy program are challenging as students learn to live in a community, but with the inherent social deficits of this group, life skills instruction, much less therapy, becomes a frustrating lesson in patience. They are all smart kids, even brilliant, but their social difficulties in camp only mirror the difficulties experienced in their home lives. Not only do these struggling youth have to figure out group dynamics, but as they are often the bullied and denigrated, they must find their voices while learning to celebrate their individuality. Staff continually model and teach healthy peer relationships, but this group struggles to integrate fully with each other. They’re on edge and tempers flare from ennui, as they’ve been confined to this campsite for several days as one student recovers from a physical ailment. Every group within a wilderness therapy environment thrives on structure and ritual, and this group is no different. A couple of guests and the addition of a staff dog seem to lessen the anxiety for just a little while, but also may be the source of distraction that encourages chaos within the camp. Several students, however, are beginning to internalize therapeutic goals as they hold their peers accountable for a difficult dinner cycle. One boy shirks his pre-dinner duties as he finds the guests so much more willing to be a captive audience than his peers. One boy struggles to get his food down, while another has sequestered himself away from the group refusing to be a part of the community for that evening. Even though the focus of conversation is on the concrete actions that made dinner preparation and the subsequent meal chaotic, one student eloquently speaks of the need to pull together and “make things right.” In my mind, this discussion about dinner cycles can only be a metaphor for his cycle of life—getting a chance to make it right, with himself, with his peers, and with his family.  He asks for group cooperation in looking forward to the next day. He gets it! He is beginning the transformation.

Bellies full, chores done, souls bared, and finally peace shared, as the group closes for the day we hike to the camping site. Laughter fills the cool night air punctuated by the “sounding off” of identifying numbers—repeatedly—lest someone stray (or more likely run) into the dark shadows of the night. As we all settle in, laughter becomes silence and I can’t help but think of the words of Annie Lennox:

Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree

We travel the worlds and the seven seas

Everybody’s searching for something . . .

Hold your head up