The Cake Dilemma (on being a NOLS instructor… part VI)

We all have things that we value, however, we don’t always act as though we value those things.  I value my freedom, my family, honesty, a healthy planet and my physical abilities.  I value my friends, I value simplicity and I value my health.


“Wow, what a beautiful place” I muse.  I am strolling along a two track high on the Continental Divide in the northern Wind River Mountains.  In front of me fields of wild flowers stretch across the hillside ending in gnarled stands of white bark pine and sub-alpine firs.  A small tarn and the Tetons rising into an early evening sky that is streaked with high cirrus clouds complete the picture.

“Not a bad lifestyle” Logan adds, as he walks towards me.  The students are off on their own, traveling independently for the last four days of the course and we have plenty of time to ourselves.

“Not to bad at all” I respond as we pass each other, he headed on to camp and I taking an evening stroll.  The lifestyle has its merits but lately Logan has been talking about opportunity costs, also known as the cake dilemma.  “Yeah” he says “it is great out here, but I miss things in that other world, you know, relationships and community.”  I have taken on a bit of his introspection and have spent some time wondering what I am missing.  Wondering if I can have my cake and eat it too.  Wondering if I can have the best of both worlds.  Looking back at the last 13 years of my life, the years since I graduated college and moved west, I think about how I have missed my family.  The idea of opportunity costs doesn’t resonate strongly with me, least ways with relationships and community, though it does with family.  Over the past 13 years I have built my life around outdoor education and thus my communities and relationships as well.  In some regards it is all I know or all I remember.  It is the lens through which people know me and likewise how I know them.  It is being woven into the fabric of my existence.  Still I wonder, “how long?” or “what else is there?” or “can I do this more?” or “how can I make this sustainable?”  Students and fellow instructors will invariably ask me “how long do you think you will continue this?”  or “where will you be in ten years?”  And I don’t know the answer.  So I tell ‘em what I know:  “I have contracts through the beginning of December” or “ten WMTs” or “till 300 weeks.”  Then they ask “Do you still like it?”  “Yeah, I still like it, in many ways I love it.  It is a job though and it does have its ups and downs (both figuratively and literally).”  Queriers will typically respond with some semblance of “it must be great doing what you love” or “it is easy to see why you love it out here.”  Yeah, I love teaching, I love climbing, I love being outdoors.  I love sitting in a field of wildflowers watching the shadows fall across a meadow while my co-instructor cooks supper.  I love watching the alpine glow trace across the peaks and into the clouds as the sun sets on another day in the mountains.  But it isn’t as simple as that.  It is not as simple as repetitive sound of crampons crunching on snow while headlamps pierce the darkness as we make our way up the side of jagged mountain.  It goes back to my values.  Being a NOLS instructor, living the outdoor educator lifestyle brings my behaviors in line with my values.  And it is the extremes of this lifestyle that actually make things balanced, maybe letting me have my cake and eat it too.

Another day at work; Logan and Zach hiking down Dinwoody Creek in the norther Wind River Mountains

“Everything in moderation, even moderation” is an familiar idiom.  Twenty-seven weeks of the year I work, 25 weeks of the year I do not work.  When I teach NOLS courses I need to be mindful.  I can’t rush through things or do things half-assed.  Out here there are consequences for leaving things un or half-done and those consequences go beyond just me.  If I leave something half done or do something incorrectly, students notice and then they model that.  I can’t say “do as I say, not as I do.”  I need to always do what I want others to do.  I need to always give 110 percent.  I need to be mindful of that, be meticulous.  Whether it is a clean camp, a well packed pack, being honest or upholding a positive learning environment, students notice and then they copy.  The skills that I value NOLS students learning are skills that I must do right.  Always.  My actions and behaviors must uphold my values when I am at work.  “Do you wear a helmet when you are not working?” is a question I am commonly asked.  “Almost always” is my standard response.  I teach what I believe and value (and what NOLS asks me to teach, which is pretty much in line with what I believe and value — but which came first?) and my actions, both at work and at play aline with what I value as a climber and individual.  With intentionality, mindfulness and self-awareness so present in my work it is no wonder that these aspects spill over into the rest of my non-working endeavors, personal time and who I am.

I value my freedom, so I take advantage of it; I go places and do things.  I value my physical abilities and health so I use them to climb mountains, travel, laugh and love; I don’t abuse my body with alcohol, drugs, or unhealthy diets.  I value a healthy planet so I teach in the outdoors, help other learn to value, love and appreciate it.  I teach students not just backcountry Leave No Trace principles, but more transferable simple living frontcountry skills as well.  I value my friends so I spend time with them at work and at play.  I value simplicity so I try to own little, fix things, be thrifty and be proud of it.  I try to teach others to do the same.  I role model for my students and friends.  I value honesty.  in the backcountry I role model being myself.  Showing folks that they can be who they are, that there is no reason to pretend or pose, is a priceless lesson in today’s world as a teenager wanting desperately to fit in.  For me honesty starts with being who I am and accepting that.  Being a NOLS instructor brings my frontcountry values and behaviors more in line with each other.  Being a NOLS instructor forces me to have integrity in making choices and decisions both in the frontcountry and backcountry.  Students ask questions and since I value honesty, I must answer them truthfully.  If I want them to adopt a simpler, less clutter, less resource intensive lifestyle, I must give them a model, something to strive for, it is no different than teaching them to tie a well dressed figure eight knot.  It is not just showing them how to do it, but showing them what it looks like when done, giving them something for which to aim.

Yes, I have gaps.  No, my values and behaviors are not perfectly aligned.  I value my family but I see them once every two years.  Yes, I value a healthy planet, yet I fly half way around the world to be an outdoor educator or to test myself on the world’s mountains and rocks.  I drive a Toyota Tacoma.  These gaps make me feel both inadequate and challenged.  So I drive less, take the train more and call my mom more.

So I climb and I work and I play.  Throughout it all there are no, as Dan Millman says, ordinary moments.  No moments that don’t deserve the respect of my awareness.  Is what I am doing or about to do, in line with my values?  Is it in in line with what I have taught and expect?  Is this action making me a better person or the world a better, healthier place?  As I ask these questions of myself I can’t help but thing I am only an instructor and teacher;  these folks will only know me for thirty days.  It must be wicked hard being a father.

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