On the Nature of Offices (on being a NOLS instructor part XI)

“You can just leave it in my office.” It happens again and again.  “Wait, do you even have an office?” or “where IS your office?” People ask, even if we are standing in it, right in front of my nametag.

I haven’t written much about my desk/office job, even though it has been almost three years now.  I have written a bit about the feelings and learnings evoked, the emotional side effects of the job if you will, and I have also written about the physical side effects, the ones of home ownership, ranch work, and its effect on my climbing.

It is hard to write about a desk job for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that I don’t really have a desk.  Nor, despite my nametag hanging on the wall, do I really have an office.  It is more of a communal workspace that I have commandeered.  Those technicalities aside, it is hard to write about my in-town job because it doesn’t inspire me to sit and write.  For many years now, even as far back as high school the adventure of being in the mountains and deserts has fueled the desire to sit in front of a glowing screen and write. The creative juices have dried up and I lack the inspiration that once came from the combination of the dynamic nature of mountains, passion, and NOLS.  Now that work gives me that screen time, the desire to write has diminished along with the fodder.

This blog has always had an “inner workings” bent, attempting not to simply recount an adventure in didactic style, but instead to also expose what was happening emotionally and what thoughts were going on in my head.   For years, that centered on climbing, mountains, and work.  That being said, in the almost three years since I have stopped working full time in the field, I have noticed a trend toward posts more heavily dissecting the “inner workings.”  Transitions in life are rarely straightforward and often create great opportunities for reflection and growth.  This transition for me, which for some reason still feels ongoing, even almost three years in, is ripe with them.  In writing I have always found sharing the inner workings to be incredibly easy.  There is an anomynimity that comes from being on the internet. Sure there are areas in which I have only touched the surface, but writing about and sharing most stuff is easy and reflective.  The draw of telling my “inner workings” lies in it being rooted in something exciting, adventurous.  It is much easier to tell a story when you think people will want to read about it, because it is something exciting.  Not unlike an attractive, sexy person driving a ‘97 Ford Taurus with peeling paint, my “inner workings” at the office are the same, intriguing and contemplative, but the vehicle is one of boring mundaneness.

In the months following my transition into the office, I occupied one of the rooms in the program hallway, as the east wing of the NOLS Rocky Mountain is known.  It even had a proper desk.  My transition to the map room came after a short stint at standing desk on a table in the hallway.

The reasons were practical. One of my new, and now ongoing, projects was to develop a resource box for each location that our frontcountry climbing camps visited.  This necessitated space to spread out and work.  We have lots of operating locations, so the project’s beginnings took a bit of time.  The map room has three broad countertops that served as an appropriate work surface.  I took advantage of it and then remained. Prior to heading into the field, instructors will use the surfaces to fold, mark, and organize the plethora of maps that will help guide them on their expeditions.  It is regularly used for a variety of space needing tasks (maps, building drug kits, etc.) and that, in conjunction with it being a communal, accessible space, forces me to keep it clean, organized, and to not acquire a significant amount of stuff.  Forced minimalism.  It works for me.

Compared to the nature of jobs and work in North American culture, being in the field as a full time field instructor is anything but traditional.  I relished that idea.  I was outside the norm.  I was bucking the system.  That is something I have always valued.  Trading in my boots for a laptop seemed way too conventional.   The four walls felt confining.  The sitting was too permanent and inactive; the office door, too inaccessible.  The converse of those things is what had kept me in outdoor education for over sixteen years. I needed mobility, freedom, accessibility, and impermanence; those in turn fed a need of unconventionality that apparently is part of my personality.

“Oh, I see you have moved your office in here today” Jen, the director at NOLS Rocky Mountain will frequently say when I am sitting in “airport lounge” area of our main office. “Mobile office” or “felt a need to sit” or “just changing things up a bit” are the nature of my replies.  That I have a “mobile office” within our building seems to have been more or less accepted.  I use the space available and find the quiet and privacy I need at home, only a hop, skip, and a jump away.  Writing performance evaluations of instructors on my living room floor, without the distraction of people or the internet feels easy enough.

It is the distraction of people however that is one of the best parts of my job and one of the reasons I like my “open office” format.  I wrote a NOLS newsletter article on how courses benefit from cooking near our students; an open and accessible office space allows me to offer the instructors I am briefing the same benefits.  My map room office exists at the nexus point of information at the NOLS Rocky Mountain; I easily see both the main entrances and I inhabit the space between the program manager’s office and the evacuation office.  Instructors making their way to, or from the briefing room will pass through the map room and if I am there, I am available to answer questions, provide resources, or simply talk.  Being social and engaging and welcoming is not one of my strong points, however, my location and accessibility helps me work to that end.

Maps of Southern Utah cover one of the walls.  Another wall presents the Southern Absarokas and that bleeds down the hallway toward the rest of Wyoming’s mountains.  Under my laptop are thousands of USGS maps covering countless of square miles of the Rocky Mountain west.  These dream weavers recount many adventures and plot future ones.  They inspire and help ground the work that I do in places that I know.  Being in the field is grounding for me; doing in-town work does not frequently offer that satisfaction.

It turns out I needed to have some sort of phone.  I guess the map room officially became my office, not when I hung my nametag and put a photo or two on the wall, but when NOLS Information Systems put the map room phone under my name.

I stand.  I lean.  I move around.  I engage. Right now, it works for me.  I find the impermanence and the unconventionality well suited to my personality.  They keep me from taking myself too seriously and I like that.


Featured Image: My name tag and “office” wall at the NOLS Rocky Mountain.

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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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