On Being a NOLS Instructor (part II)

“Can I make an appointment for an oil change?”

“Sure I got something available tomorrow afternoon.”

“Mmmm, that won’t work, I need the 8th of August.”

“Oh, that is a month out, I think I can pencil you in”



“I’ll call you when I get  out of the field.”


“I love you”

“I love you too, bye babe.  Have a good time out there.”



Dropping a letter in the mail box, paying the credit card bill, filling out that grad school application, taking the GREs, they all slowly morph into the plan for tomorrow, who is teaching what, prepping the class, checking gear, bagging food, making a 72 hour plan, who is on dinner and the daily grind that is life in the field.

I am a professional.  Like it or not, that is what I am.   I teach NOLS courses for a living.  The strings, attachments and baggage so often associated with living, debt, worries, love, relationships, uncertainty, these things often need to be left behind.  I need to focus on providing safe, quality experiences for the students on my courses.

Long time NOLS/WMI instructor Marco Johnson refers to it as the white envelope theory.  I think of it more as a cardboard box, requiring some packing tape.  Probably brown, corrugated cardboard.  Seven or eight times a year I take my life and shove it into the box.  I pull out some packing tape, seal it up and set it on the floor of my storage unit.  I try to shove everything I can into it, no loose ends should be falling out.  Unwritten letters, family members, college loans, bills, telephone calls, conversations, dreams, desires, nightmares, disasters, death, heartbreak, love, wants, needs, friends, projects, plans, current events, things left unsaid.  They all get shoved in there.  Sometimes the box is harder to pack than other times.  Usually the box is packed the night before I go in the field, though in these modern times, it can often be left slightly open when I work a front country rock camp, with cell service.

Projects, plans, relationships, things left unsaid, all out of the box.

Back to back courses are great.  It means I don’t have to unpack the box.  Sure maybe unseal the tape to get a quick taste of how loved ones are doing, but they are quick.  I won’t pull out the messy time consuming projects, plans, ideas, or feelings.  Wham, bam, shower, back in the field.  I am getting pretty good at getting used to “that other world” again.  Ten years of in and out of the desert and mountain wilderness has gotten me used to transitions. That doesn’t mean that packing or unpacking that box has gotten any easier for me.

Sometimes the box is forced back open after I have packed or opened prior to my wanting it opened.  My grandmother passed away over a year ago just as I was about to go into the field on a thirty day course.  I left the box empty, set the tape down and went home to New Hampshire.  I packed it up a week later and went into the field late.  The visit home, for the wake and to see my family, made the packing of the box so much easier when the time came.  Similarly, sometimes I get news or no news in the field and my mind mentally pulls out the knife, slices open the tape and peers into the black void of the overfilled box.  This is probably the worst breaching of box security.   I am then left with to many questions and not enough resources to answer these questions.   So it is an area in which I have learned to tread lightly.  I was in the field on September 11,  2001.  On September 13th we heard the news from another group of wilderness users. With five or six days left till the end of our course, we knew that we would be walking out to a vastly different world then the one we had left nineteen or twenty days ago.  It was a known unknown.  As a group we collectively experienced a breach of box security, an instantaneous transplant from the here and now to the then and there.

The transitioning from work to “that other world,” the unpacking of the box, is not an aspect of my job that I like.  It is not something I would have suspected twelve years ago when I started working outdoor education, but it is something that needs to get done for the sake of the students.

Many a student has asked me if I am excited to get back to town.  I generally say no.  I know I will enjoy a hamburger, a shower and the other luxuries of town, but life is so much simpler in the mountains.  Drop me off a group of students as you take the last group away.  Sometimes it is hard to unpack that box knowing that I will just have to pack it up again.


Group de-issue, shower, turn in paperwork, personal de-issue, lunch, check voicemail, stuff grad packets, check email, make dinner reservations, check mailbox, unpack, make telephone calls, laundry, dinner, graduation, check the list, sleep, debrief, and start the unpacking process.  Start the planning process, start the living process, rekindle the relationships, hang out, get the oil change, and go climbing.

That might be what I love about unpacking the box:  climbing.  Waiting, like an old friend to comfort me.

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