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Goodbye Utah/ What Does a Wilderness Therapy Guide do?

Girls day of rock climbing.

Tomorrow is the beginning of my last eight day shift as a wilderness therapy guide in Southwest Utah. Then I will be departing to Nepal to start the Great Himalaya Trail. I’ve been at my job for over a year now, which might not sound like long, but it is for me.

As a long-term wilderness professional, the jobs I accept are usually seasonal and short-term. I’ve worked at a pizza shop at a ski resort in Telluride, Colorado. In Salida, Colorado I was a trail crew member working with Americorps. Two summers ago, I returned to the Appalachian Trail to be a ridge runner in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I enjoyed the lifestyle of moving to new places for work and trying out different roles.

One of the big reasons I wanted to try out wilderness therapy was to find an outdoor community of people whom I could be friends with for longer than just a season. I found that in St. George, Utah, and the time has come for me to say goodbye once again. I’m excited for the adventure ahead, and now I know that there are long-term outdoor communities that I can be a part of in the future.

Working in the Utah desert with Ashley.

My favorite things about my Utah outdoor community:

  • I’m starting with the people I work with because they are hands down the best part of my life in Utah. We work together in the field and hang out on our off shifts. Most people in my life don’t understand the nature of the job, but my coworkers do which leads to a sense of camaraderie amongst field staff. It’s like having a family away from home.
  • My work schedule has allowed for so much free time. I go to work in the wilderness for eight days straight before having six days off. If I take a shift off work, that means I have twenty days of straight freedom. And we are encouraged to take shifts off so we don’t get burnt out on the job.
  • I lived out of my car for my first nine months of living in Utah. During that time, I was constantly going on road trips. I’ve got to explore the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, California, and Colorado. Sometimes I went with my coworkers and friends, and sometimes I went by myself to see old friends.
  • After I got tired of living out of my car, I moved into a house with six other coworkers. It sounds like something that has the potential to be a messy, chaotic, frat house, but it’s been great. Everyone contributes to the household, and sometimes we do roommate dinners together. I’ve cut down on my road trips since moving into my house, mostly because I like being at home.
  • Southwest Utah is a rock climbing destination, and so many people here are good at it and willing to take their newbie climber friends (like me) out for a day. Utah Hills is about thirty minutes from my house, and there’s so many different places to climb there. *bad pun alert* I have loved learning the ropes.
  • Las Vegas is the closest city. I’m not a Las Vegas type of person, but it is a destination for people who are. I’ve been lucky enough to get two visits from friends from home who wanted to do “the Vegas thing”. Also, the Las Vegas airport runs decently priced trips to Central and South America, so I got to go to Nicaragua and Peru. Plus, all the flights home to Ohio and various other places. I’ve been to the Vegas airport so many times, if I never have to go there again I’ll be content.

After all of the times I’ve referenced my job as a wilderness therapy guide on this blog, I’ve gotten lots of comments asking what exactly I do. I have delayed answering this question because it encompasses so many things and is difficult to describe.

Break time at work.

What does a wilderness therapy guide do?

  • I guess I’ll start with what the clients at our program do. While we have adult groups, I mostly work with teenagers so that’s what I’ll talk about. Teens get sent to our program in order to sort through their metaphorical shit, figure out how to change their past behaviors, and generally work on improving themselves. They are with us for anywhere from two to four months, and occasionally as long as six months. For the entire duration of their stay, they are in the Utah desert backpacking between campsites, learning survival skills, and doing basic life things (like cooking for themselves and drinking water). There’s no electricity and no electronics. It’s a wilderness experience.
  • Each shift, I get put on a staff team with a few other coworkers and we get sent to a group. Together we plan out the day, things we want to do with the groups, hikes we’re going to go on, and so on. Everyone has a different skill set, so it’s pretty cool to see the different things we can do during the week. Plus, as I said before, coworkers are like family. We are working, but we’re also hanging out with our friends.
  • There are basic things we do everyday. Oftentimes just getting three meals eaten takes up half the day. Doing chores also takes up another chunk of time. We practice Leave No Trace, and we’re always tidying up camp. If we’re planning on backpacking to a new campsite, eating and hiking are usually the main things that get done.
  • After we do the basic everyday things, whatever time is left is for other stuff. Sometimes staff run therapeutic groups, sometimes clients run therapeutic groups, we use bow drill sets to bust fires, do yoga and meditations, play games, give the group time to work on personal assignments, go on day hikes, do crafts, carve spoons, harvest wood for hard skills, and hang out around a campfire. These are common things to do in a day, but there would never be enough time to do all of them in one day.
  • I do a lot of listening at work. Clients come to the group or staff to talk about what’s going on for them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here is that I don’t need to have any solutions to other people’s problems. I just need to be willing to hear what they have to say.

While this has been a short summary of what a wilderness therapy guide does, I don’t think it does the experience justice. Everyday is different, as is every group and every shift.

It’s nuts how fast the last year has gone by. I remember interviewing for this job at two AM from my hotel in Kathmandu during my first trip to Nepal. It feels serendipitous that I’m returning to Nepal at the end of this job. Thanks for the crazy, disorganized, beautiful year, Utah.

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