My initial flirtation with Funemployment this January turned into a steamy love affair, and things got a little out of hand. I thought I had a job lined up to start in the middle of February, but a series of setbacks finally ended in the realization that I was going to have to work something else out. By then, though, I’d gotten used to skiing every day and having time to eat and sleep in addition to attending class, and “figuring something else out” was something I kept saying I was doing but was really just kind of ignoring and hoping it’d go away.
It didn’t, and while I worked a few odd jobs here and there to make ends meet, I was pretty into Funemployment. We had so much fun together, and anyway, who wants to hire someone who’s just going away to climb for weeks or months at a time? No one in the Matanuska Valley, that’s who.
By the end of the semester, things between Funemployment and me had gotten a little tense. We tried not to talk about the bills piling up on the kitchen counter or the fact that we’d been living on Top Ramen and dry cereal. Instead, we set our sights on the Harding Icefield and decided we’d discuss it later.
I want to say I was committed to Funemployment, but it turns out I’m swayed more easily than I realized, especially by the siren call of my home state. When things fell apart with the job I thought I’d be working in Anchorage over the summer, my old instincts returned, and before I knew it, I had a job lined up beginning in June. A real job. In my field. In Colorado.
It was hard to end things with Funemployment, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see another tryst in the future. We spent a lot of time together over my last few weeks in Alaska, skiing and climbing, but I don’t miss it like I thought I would. It helps to have some distraction.
I didn’t start my new job for a week after I got home from Alaska, but the fact that I was technically employed put a damper on our relationship. I managed to spend a long weekend paddling the Arkansas and do a little climbing during that time—things I knew Funemployment would smile upon—but by mid-June, things were officially over between us. I had re-entered the real world.
Well. Sort of. My job is kind of awesome, in that it’s a lot like being unemployed. For example, I live in a tent and spend my weekends bumming around with a bunch of dirtbags. There are five of us, and we immediately became a little family of vagabonds, traipsing around the Rockies and climbing rocks whenever we can get our hands on them. We’re working on our mountain karma, too; last weekend we performed a little mountain rescue when we stumbled upon an injured woman on our way to climb in the Mount Evans area. (We suspected a sprained ankle, and later learned she’d broken her tibia. Our patient was so grateful for the evac, she’s donating to the organization we work for and apparently buying us pizza. Win.)
The times I’m actually working are pretty rad, too. From our facility in Genessee, we run two overnight camps each week for eight- to twelve-year-olds. For an exhausting but unbelievably rewarding twenty-four hours, we’re constantly on: running games, supervising mealtimes, teaching skills classes, leading nature walks, managing bathroom breaks, being woken up in the wee hours by homesick campers, etc. Most of the kids we work with qualify for free or reduced lunch at school, and over 80% of their families are below the poverty line. I often bemoan the homogeneity of outdoor education: most of my peers look like me and come from similar backgrounds, and the same can be said for the vast majority of kids we interact with. I think everyone deserves a chance to get into the wilderness, but I fear those who need it most are often forgotten. Finally, I have a chance to reach kids who aren’t represented in the media of outdoor ed, who can’t afford their own sleeping bag, let alone a NOLS course, and who might otherwise not have a chance to experience the outdoors. It feels pretty great.
As adults, we spend a lot of time worrying about bills and significant others and the daily mountains and valleys of our lives. Personally, I spend so much time thinking about what I’ll be eating next and when, it’s kind of shocking that I’ve managed to stay even moderately fit. Most of what we worry about falls into a category I like to call “First World Problems,” or the kinds of worries we should almost be embarrassed to be wasting energy on. It’s hard to be present all the time, but it’s also vital to the success of a child’s first experience in what probably seems like a really scary place. It’s tough to talk a kid out of being homesick or afraid of bears or convinced a yeti is about to attack (this was an actual concern of one of my campers last week) when your mind is elsewhere, too, so I’m doing my best to commit to being present. I’m not always successful, but it’s made easier by the fact that I love my job.
One of my earliest outdoor mentors once said something that really stuck with me. It was near the end of a weeks-long backpacking trip, and people had started to wonder how their “real” lives would seem different once we returned to the frontcountry.
“Remember,” he told us, “The wilderness, both within and without, can be lost.” He was right. I’m going to hang on to that wild place, within and without, as long as I can—both for my own sake and for the remarkable kids I get to teach.