I recall learning about Wild Rockies Field Institute in my first class in college ever, I couldn’t resist testing myself and my limits; I needed something outside of a classroom. I spent many years attending Valley Forge Military Academy, where I spent nearly 10 months of the year exclusively with high school-aged boys. Later, I would join the wildland firefighting community, first with a private contracting company, then with the U.S Forest Service; typically my crew consisted of only men. I recall receiving an email from Katie Nelson, one of the Wild Rockies Field Institute instructors, with the group list for my upcoming semester program on the Colorado Plateau. I had anxiously awaited this email for months, in fear of being the only guy on the trip. That fear became a reality when I clicked that welcome letter and learned that I would be spending nine weeks in the backcountry and rural landscape of the American Southwest with eight women. I instantly panicked. “Well shoot,” I thought. “How on Earth am I going to do this?”
Fast-forward to Green River, March 28, 2019. I anxiously entered the coffee shop after meeting my incredible instructors, Joe and Katie. After seeing the group, I instantly retreated back to the safety of my Jeep to call my Mom. After a 10-minute conversation, I summoned the courage to head back into the cafe so I could introduce myself. “Hi, I’m the only guy,” is the first thing I decided to say. I don’t believe I nailed the intro.
Despite my initial anxiety, as the weeks on course progressed, I began to find my place within the group. I had spent weeks at a time in the backcountry with my fire crew, and the differences were astounding. First and foremost, the group of WRFI students very rarely complained, whereas I was extremely accustomed to complaining in backcountry settings, of which the group can attest to. The girls and I were constantly supporting one another, through extremely physically and mentally demanding trips. We were always checking up on each other, with something as simple as a “how was your day” or “you doing good?” This truly, to me anyways, made a world of difference. I was accustomed to an “every man for himself” mentality in the firefighting community, one I subscribed to every now and then, or especially when I was feeling angsty. But as my time with this group went on, I found instead that our group is tight knit and can take anything.
This semester has also been a great time of healing for me. We each gave a very personal and in-depth biography on our lives before the course, and I did something I almost never do: I shared with the group some difficult memories and experiences I had earlier in life. I truthfully don’t think I could have shared such personal moments without the support and comfort I felt from every group member involved. I am very grateful for that experience.
I thought I was taking a 15-credit semester course on and about the Colorado Plateau. Turns out, I was also enrolled in a very individualized gender studies course, taught by my eight female fellow-students. I would like to share some lessons that each of them taught me:
Lucia taught me how to listen, and more specifically, how to listen with kindness. She has taught me that everyone has a story that is worth hearing.
From Ada I learned that persistence and determination can open up whole new worlds of learning.
From Malia, how to cut vegetables! And how to genuinely approach every situation and everyone with kindness and an open heart.
I learned from Sara that humor and knowledge can go hand in hand, and a dark sense of humor is always welcome, at least to me.
Maddy taught me patience and generosity. She listens even when I’m talking about complete nonsense.
Lena has been the resident professor in my gender studies course. She has taught me about ecofeminism and has especially taught me to be intentional with my words.
Anna has taught me to stop taking myself so seriously and to enjoy life for all it has to offer; she has introduced me to a whole new way of experiencing the natural world, one of awe and love.
Lily has taught me to embrace humility. I could always count on her to tell me when I was acting like a complete jerk, and being unreasonable. She is a natural-born leader and every day I spent with her I felt as though I learned something new.
Throughout my time on the Colorado Plateau, I have had the opportunity to study systems theory, and I have just now, at the end of our course, realized that we are the ball in the basin. By this I mean, we are the ball being molded by our environment variables, and surroundings, and relationships. We have been put through many regime changes, physically, mentally and emotionally, and this has created for us a whole new world. This course has completely blown open and changed many of my preconceived notions of the natural world, relationships and thresholds. With the knowledge I’ve gained on this course I feel as though I am ready to take on any unknown and novel ecosystem. I am grateful for my experience with WRFI and the instructors and group members that have shaped my learning along the way!