Just Another Day (On Being A NOLS Instructor XII)

March 27th 2021–I rose from below a juniper tree that morning. It would be hard to say that I slept or I awoke.  Those didn’t come easy on this course.  Usually I was just conscious of being conscious.  The night prior had been still and bright and now the full, round moon began its slow descent behind the western hulk of Cedar Mesa.  Intersecting with the frozen dew laced across the trees, sage, and dirt, its beams caused dancing sparkles till the end.  I pulled on my boots and gaiters, their leather and nylon encased in the frozen shimmer, stood up, and walked down a two-track toward the disappearing Worm Moon.  “Goodnight moon” I said with a wave, bidding it adieu for another month, another year.

“The moon is beautiful, isn’t it” I said aloud as I continued my wave.  Earlier in the course, one of our students, Marishi, told us that the translation of “I love you” in Japanese is “the moon is beautiful, isn’t it.”  Somewhere south of me, a couple hundred miles as the crow flies, Andy was under the same moon in the Cochise Stronghold of the Sonoran Desert.  Her ritual of watching the full moon rise each month wasn’t practical for me with the prior evening’s clouds and storms, but there was power and beauty and love in saying goodnight to the beautiful moon as it tucked itself under the mesa.  It felt timeless.  And heart-filling.

It was to be a day of transitions.  We were headed back to Salt Lake, then the following day to Lander.  But now, under slowly brightening skies, I heard a passable rendition of Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” float through the air–an attempt to rouse the group as they lay sleeping under glistening nylon fabric.

I hadn’t expected to go to the canyon country this March, at least not for work.  Two days into their briefing, an instructor tested positive for COVID-19; one of their co-workers was a close contact over the past week.  Just like that, two of three instructors were in a forced quarantine.  It was a toss up between my co-worker Gary and I as to who might be going, but late in the afternoon word came down that two last minute instructors had heeded the call.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  There was plenty to do on the home front.  Later that evening I submitted an application to the Lander Pet Connection to meet a dog they had for adoption.  I emailed my friend and supervisor, Anna, the application to show her I had “bit the bullet.”  My phone rang at 830.  It was Anna.  I figured she wanted to talk about the pending adoption…  “An instructor dropped the KPLE; you or Gary are going to need to go in the field… and he didn’t answer his phone”

Eight the next morning found me at work.  I met with the instructor team and our program supervisor.  A quick teambuild ensued and then I grabbed some gear from the issue room and tied up a few loose ends before heading back to 616 to pack, polyurethane, and ponder.  At 1145 my phone rang again.  The 307 number indicated a local call, so I said hello.  “Jared, it is Jeanne from the Pet Connection.  We have approved your application.”  I pressed the speaker button and set it down, proceeding to polyurethane a backsplash while telling Jeanne about my impromptu trip south.  My heart felt confused.

Walking down the upper reaches of Cowboy Canyon in Ute and Pueblo Territory–and no, that person in the middle is not peeing.

Each NOLS course is hard in its own way.  We were tossed a last minute i-team, some equipment adversity, and some small communication snafus in the first iteration of the instructor team that had us laughing and scratching our heads.   The cold temps, wind, rain, snow, and groppel had us shivering, smiling, and sharing layers.  Allie wrangled Judd and I with wry comments, deadpan humor, and a pretty good vision for the week.  We each found our place and filled our roles such that students wouldn’t have known it was i-team 3.0, or that it was only my second hiking course ever.  The powers that be told us it was a professional level course, but our laughter and “Spring Break” mandate made it feel anything but that.

The 13 MBA students from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management spanned the spectrum from previous NOLS grad to never having carried a backpack before.  And they crushed it.  They came together, many meeting for the first time, and rose to the occasion.  Their autonomy was high; teach them and they would go and coach each other for the rest of the course.  Their tolerance for adversity had them orchestrating an evening meeting in windy, rainy conditions with smiles and thoughtful answers.  They schlepped their unwieldy packs up and down canyons and up and over mesas.  They reveled at the imposing Jacob’s Chair, drank in view’s of the Henry’s–a place I once knew so well, a place that, 20 years ago, cradled me as an educator–, and gulped water from desolate potholes.

And now they were waking up to the disappearing Worm Moon and Ben singing Queen.  We gathered at the lick tank and began the pre-breakfast walk to the trailhead and the NOLS bus.  They (and I) had disconnected for the week.  Soon we would be back in the land of cell phones and schedules.

We followed Coyote’s track down the rutted two-track; they had walked that way after the evening’s rain, but before the morning’s freeze.  The tracks were clear and fresh in the frozen dirt.  Two by two we walked, talking of this and of that, and just being silent.  Sometimes the desert is its own conversation.

Later that evening, after a de-issue process and showers at the Comfort Suites in Salt Lake, and after pizza and beer had been consumed and diplomas handed out, Allie, Judd, and the students threw me a birthday party.  Allie had some of the students wrongly convinced that I was 27.  She had rightfully told them however, that this day marked my 400th week in the field with NOLS.

I couldn’t think of a better course to cross that milestone.

Featured Image: A cloud shrouded Jacob’s Chair in Ute and Pueblo Territory

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.

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