Editor’s Note: This was written in late May as I tried to settle into a pandemic routine at NOLS’ Three Peaks Ranch.
Andy met me at the Steele House gate in a blue tank top, with a wide smile, and her hair piled high on her head; “do you want help packing?” she asked. “I don’t unpack so packing is pretty simple for me.” I decline the offer as she tilts her head, squinting narrowly at me standing in the sunlight…
Maybe she has something there. If I never settle in, leaving is that much easier. It isn’t a new concept, just one that others don’t espouse to me often.
“You have to sleep with the knife, either in your sleeping bag or under your pillow” they told me in the training. “I recommend under the pillow, knives can slide out of the sheath in the sleeping bag at night.” I trusted that they were speaking from experience. As we roamed the Utah desert’s greasewood and rabbitbrush, juniper and pinyons, canyons and mesas, we learned the ins and outs of how to be successful as a wilderness therapy instructors. That scorching October in 2000 we were taught fire by friction, how to make backpacks from tarps and string and webbing, how to talk on the radio, and how to hold the standard. The latter is something I am still refining. One thing they didn’t tell us though, is to sleep in our pants. That, I had to learn on my own. Now, I have been sleeping in my pants most of my adult life. This strange truth has served me in good stead for years on end; it has also left me single and alone at 42. But in the time of the COVID we all need to adjust to sleeping with our pants on, I just had a head start.
“Jared, Jared, get up, we got a couple runners” Kevin shook my shoulder. His headlamp blinded my sticky eyes.
“huh. . what. . . wait. . . what?” sitting up was an ab workout and I try to remember what is happening. My pants were wadded up under my head, stuffed in a bag with a few other items to make a serviceable pillow. It was November of 2000; the night was dark, cold, and starry; frost had already encrusted my sleeping bag. My hands struggled to work the zipper, the slider caught in the fabric while Kevin’s headlamp made its way into the distance, bobbing and weaving toward an orange glow. Inside my sleeping bag my hands blindly searched for a headlamp before I remember I left it on my head. My right hand wiggled up and pushed its button and I quickly took stock of the stuck zipper. I crawled out of the bag, my bare legs pimpled with cold. I dug the pants out of the pillow, dumped my sleeping bag upside down to scavenge for some socks, and pulled on the required accoutrements. I kneeled on hard slickrock and tied my shoes before heading in the direction Kevin’s light had disappeared.
The scene repeated itself another time or two before I gave up and just slept in my clothes. I learned to sleep light and trained to move fast. And it paid off.
Working therapeutic wilderness programming changed my life. Through all the late night runners, bedtime skirmishes, stolen food, and endless accountability circles I was forced to examine my own entitlement and privilege, put the interest of others before me, and view life through the lens of the Serenity Prayer. Through all the blind canyons choked with tamarisk, juniper cloaked mesas, and head high, riverbank sage, I found beauty in the stark expanses of emptiness and longing. Through all the making of fire with sage spindles and boards, long hours of rapport building and de-escalation talks, and kneeling into the muddy snow to coach a knot, I found the importance of empathy, of listening to another’s experience, of just sitting and being. Through it all, there was never a good reason not to sleep with my pants on.
In the winter of 2007, my transition to full time work doing leadership education with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was sudden. One random night, sitting around a campfire of juniper and pinyon, somewhere below Utah’s Henry Mountains, I knew I couldn’t serve students any more. I finished the week’s work, asked for more spring work with NOLS and drove north. From late night urinations to wind that ripped tents and trees from the ground there was still not much reason to sleep without my pants.
Two decades of mountains and deserts, at work and play, in sun and snow, wind and rain have created more than just premature aging of my joints and skin. It has left me with habits that have ruled my life and a tolerance for uncertainty and adversity that doesn’t falter. When it all goes down, I might not know what to do, but I’ll be there helping to figure it out. In this pandemic, privilege and habit have led me to be at ease with uncertainty; for that I can’t be thankful enough. Getting used to sleeping with our pants on is healthy, except when it is not.
Sleeping with your pants on sucks. Always being able to get up and go, means that you can always get up and go. It also means rootless, ungrounded, non-committal. Relationships have been on my terms. If I had one foot out the door or was holding it open for other options, ready to bounce, that was OK. If someone else did the same, I would pack up and leave on course before they did. If another wanted me to commit, I would say I was, but my unchanged lifestyle said otherwise.
Strings of short term relationships proved others’ points. I wasn’t ready, I couldn’t commit. Somewhere in there I thought I got the message. I reduced field time. I purchased a house. I expanded my interests and skills. I settled in. I thought that is what was needed. Under all the trappings of settled life though, twenty years of learning was hard to undue. When they walked away i followed; when they wanted more, I balked.
Actually, it was more than twenty years; in retrospect I started sleeping with my pants on when my dad died. I was 18. I switched universities every year for four years, had different summer jobs, and trolled the continent for my next big adventure. Even wilderness therapy: I would work six months then go work at another place. I couldn’t stay; I wouldn’t stay. I kept friends, students, even family, at arm’s length. I used humor and superficial answers to be evasive, to keep people on the outside, and to keep myself from getting in to deep. I called it freedom, living the dream, independence. It was all true. It just came at a cost.
In times of uncertainty, sleeping with my pants on is a desirable attribute. Responsive, adaptable, and an ability to tolerate discomfort let me roll with the punches much more effectively. This pandemic exacerbated my penchant to have a foot out the door. Now as I bounce from my home to my job, hours apart, I expect the unexpected, I steel myself; I know how to do this, it is nothing new. Right now though, one foot out the door is the last way I want to be.
So, right now I feed horses because they still need food. I water the horses because they need water too. I hug the horses because they won’t hurt me, they won’t break my heart. In this time of COVID I sleep with my pants on because I never know when I might need to get up and leave. Try as I might, my heart is closed and locked up tight, unwilling to attach itself to this place, this thing; that happens when I don’t unpack, when I sleep with my pants on.