Not as cool as it seems

By | Dylan Manderlink  
Issue VI, Janurary 2019

Dylan Manderlink tells the nitty gritty details of working in wilderness therapy in the Moab area and explores both the extremely rewarding and extremely taxing aspects of the unique career.

Two and a half years ago I decided to move to this magical desert place. Moab caught my eye in June 2013 from a public transit bus seat headed to an organic vineyard in Monticello. As someone who originally hails from the Northeast, Moab’s coloring and unique landscape were even more unbelievable to me. The bus turned into the 7/11 parking lot for a restroom break and I rushed outside to get a closer look at the surrounding red rock, my mouth agape, as I scanned this town I had never heard of but had just happened upon. Discovering Moab was serendipitous and so was finding my job as a wilderness therapy guide…which is not as cool as it seems.

The nature in which I became a wilderness therapy guide was fortuitous indeed. One of the volunteers I happened to meet while living and working on the organic vineyard in Monticello was an employee of the company where I currently work. His stories sounded bizarre, unique, rewarding, and challenging all at once. The eccentricity and unpredictability of the job intrigued the part of me that, up until that point, was very routine, Type-A, predictable, and thoroughly planned. My 2013 trip to Utah motivated me (or more accurately, forced me) to question my comfort zone, my personhood, and the future and life I originally saw for myself. I think the desert and its community have a way of inspiring and awakening parts of our selves- sometimes our most vulnerable and bare selves. And part of my own personal awakening included saying “fuck it” to my five-year plan, leaving my comfortable and familiar job of being a public school teacher, questioning my life choices heavily, putting faith in uncertainty, and jumping into a job I learned about on a whim.

I’ve been working in wilderness therapy for a year and a half now. My length of employment is much longer than I would have ever expected and what keeps me in this industry (albeit for not much longer) is complicated and embedded in so much personalization. When I tell people what I do, the conversation usually looks something like me unenthusiastically describing what I do on a daily basis and people being way more excited than me and saying how cool they think my job is.

I was that person on the other end of the conversation too at one point. Being bedazzled by the uniqueness of the job, feeling impressed by the title of the job, and thinking how rad those wilderness therapy guides’ lives must be. But among the many difficult and deflating lessons I’ve learned while working in this challenging industry is that it’s not as cool as it seems.

By no means am I attempting to dissuade any eager outdoorsy folks from applying to a job in wilderness therapy. Do it. Try it. Live outside for eight days at a time and work alongside some of the most interesting and warm-hearted people you’ll ever meet. Work a job that perpetually has you outside of your comfort zone. But like most jobs that seem “cool” from an outsider looking in, the story and perspective shared from the inside looking out is worth hearing before you commit to a job that may turn your life around.

Wilderness therapy is not as cool as it seems when a student who is upset with his parents decides to manifest his anger towards me and call me a cunt, or a bitch, or an asshole. It’s not cool when I wake up to frost on every layer of my sleeping setup - the liner, the bivy sack, the sleeping bag itself and can’t warm myself up with the comforts that modern technology provides us. It’s not cool when I have shit going on in my personal life that I quite literally have to hit the “pause” button on every time I head into the field. It’s not as cool as it seems when a student doesn’t recognize his privilege and shows blatant sexism towards the female staff and shows compliance, respect, and kindness towards my male coworkers. It’s not cool when I spend hours processing difficult concepts and emotions with a student to have him so quickly resort back to the problematic behavior that got him sent to the wilderness in the first place.

My job on the surface and in the little things we do throughout the day (washing teenage boys’ feet, checking their poop in the bucket we use as a bathroom if they complain of feeling sick, extracting microscopic cactus needles out of a student’s foot at 11 PM when the only thing you want to do is curl up in your sleeping bag and dream about your upcoming off-shift, to name a few) is not as cool as it seems. But the lessons I’ve had to learn while working this job, whether I wanted to be receptive to them or not, are what make this job “cool.” The person this taxing, dirty, and unglamorous job has helped me become is one I am finally proud of after struggling with self-love and healthy self-esteem for years.

What’s “cool” about this job is not the prodeals we get, or the backpacking we do, or the wilderness survival knowledge we acquire, it’s the way we change as people week in and week out. Each student I work with, whether we get along or not, holds a mirror up to me and unintentionally prompts me to challenge myself as fully and as earnestly as I can. What’s “cool” about working in wilderness therapy is the jubilance you feel when you come back from an eight-day shift and finally look into a mirror for the first time and think you’ve never looked more beautiful than when you have dirt caked into every crevice and imperfection on your face. It’s cool when you’re working a difficult, trying, and exhausting shift and your coworkers have your back and so thoughtfully support you. And it’s really fucking cool to recognize the bravery you have for coming back every other week to a job that most of the time is unforgiving, uncomfortable, and makes you question all parts of life.

I am not “cool” for working in wilderness therapy. My job is not as exciting as it seems- I can promise you that. But the serendipitous discovery of Moab and consequently, this job, has made my life more exciting and fulfilling in turn. I will most likely be leaving this industry soon which is bittersweet in so many ways. I’m burnt out, struggling with compassion fatigue, and itching for something new. But I thank this job every day for making my life harder and richer in the process. I thank this job for challenging the person I thought I was and for making me question where my life was headed. I thank this job and I thank Moab, for flipping my life upside down, shattering any and all expectations of what I “should” be doing in life, and for helping me find and love my most vulnerable and true self. I firmly believe that working and living in nature has made me a better person, a person I am proud of and a person I knew I was capable of being. The desert works its magic on you if you let it, and that’s pretty fucking cool.


Interested in contributing to The Dust Magazine? Check out our submissions page for more info.

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Interested in contributing to The Dust Magazine? Check out our submissions page.