NOLS

Autumn colors on the Cohos Trail
Still walking forward.

Three months ago, I laid out my plans for the coming year (most of it, at least), and all the uncertainty that would come with it. Of course, I didn’t include all of my plans in that post. Guthook’s Hiking Guides was still in the top-secret development phase then, but it was a big part of my plans. Some of those plans have changed, some are more concrete, and there are some new ones. Let’s see where I stand now.

The warm winter didn’t do good things for the outdoor recreation economy, so my seasonal job stayed seasonal rather than continuing further. As nice as long-term employment would have been, this is probably a good thing in the long run. If it had continued, I would have less time to work on my Guide Apps, and I would have had to choose between that job and the summer at NOLS. Sometimes it’s nice to have decisions made for you.

From now until the beginning of May I’ll be working like crazy on Guthook’s Guides in order to finish the Pacific Crest Trail apps before through-hikers hit the trail, as well as apps for the Camden Hills of Maine, and Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. Then, in May, Yvonne has convinced me to go on a big trip with her. She’s been trying for years to get me to go to Hong Kong with her, since she goes every year to visit extended family. We’ll be apart for a good part of the summer because of NOLS, and her mom found us incredibly cheap plane tickets, so… Looks like I’ll be getting on a plane for the first time in two years, and leaving the continent for the first time since 2004.

To add to the insanity, we get back to Boston two days before I fly to Wyoming for NOLS. I’d better get used to being in the air again.

The NOLS Instructor Course goes through the entire month of June, during which time I’ll be completely unplugged from the world. After the Instructor Course, I’ll hopefully teach a course for NOLS, and then head home to New England, do some hiking, make a few more Guide Apps, and then…

That’s all, really. Hopefully I won’t be completely broke at the end of the summer, and I’ll be able to spend some time hiking in New England. So many variables that I can’t predict right now– will I want to and be able to teach NOLS courses after the Instructor Course? Will the Guide Apps be popular enough to give me a small money cushion when I’m between seasonal jobs? Will I have other responsibilities when I get back to New England?

For all the nail-biting and wondering I’m doing about the future, it certainly looks exciting. I’ll let you know how it goes.

My future seems to be falling into place, funneling me toward a path that is both exciting and scary. It feels good to have my plans solidifying. It’s not an easy set of plans, but I’m feeling mostly optimistic none the less.

Climbing an 11,000 footer in the Rockies, in a blizzard.

My application for the NOLS Instructor Course was accepted, and I just sent the paperwork back to Wyoming– I’m definitely going to do this. Going on the Instructor Course makes the most sense of any of my possible choices in the near future for a number of reasons. If I stick with the kind of life I’ve been going through for the past several years, I’ll continue to bounce from one seasonal job to another, with no real stability. Even though I don’t intend to be a year-round instructor for NOLS, a few months of working there will undoubtedly be worlds better for me than a few months of working for any of the other seasonal operations I’ve worked for in the last few years. And thanks to my year and a half at Americorps in Vermont, and a small but very generous scholarship offer from NOLS, the course will be almost free, which is about all I can afford these days.

So what’s making me so nervous about this otherwise no-brainer of a career choice? I mean, what could be bad about turning month-long backpacking expeditions in the Rocky Mountains into a career? Three things– backpacks, boots, and education.

Holy crap, look at the size of that thing! (the pack, I mean)

By backpacks and boots, I mean weight. On my NOLS course in 2005, we measured our packs at up to 70 pounds. I weighed 140! And, to be fair, I carried that beast proudly and without any problems. My legs were like tree trunks at the time. NOLS has made an effort to lighten the average pack weight on their courses, but a 40 pound pack is still heavier than any I’ve carried in the past five years. And I haven’t worn leather boots in years. I will certainly try to go lighter than the average student on the course, but probably not by much. I’ll buck up and wear my heavy boots, carry the standard issue 6000 cubic inch pack. I’m sure I’ll get used to it pretty quickly, since we’re not hiking twenty miles a day or anything like that, but it’s going to be a big mental hurdle for me.

NOLS does have a few lightweight backpacking courses during the summers, and if a spot opens for teaching one of those courses after my Instructor Course, I’d be on that like white on rice. But there are only a few of these courses, and I certainly won’t assume that I’d be the lucky one to get that spot.

Campsite on the Green River in Utah.

The other scary bit for me is the education aspect. NOLS courses are based around wilderness expeditions, but their focus is not simply backcountry skills. I’ve led plenty of leadership development courses in the past few years, so I know I have the ability to lead the students in the wilderness, but it’s still a little daunting. I’ve got this nagging voice in the back of my head, asking “what if I suck at this,” “what if I get homesick,” “what if I hate the students,” “what if I butt heads with the administration?” Well, that’s just something I’ll have to see after I get there.

Day after tomorrow I head out into the White Mountains for a ten-day (give or take) miniature version of one of these expeditions. It’ll be good practice. And hopefully it won’t reinforce any of my fears about the summer.

A scene from my NOLS course in 2005

The other week I sent in my application to participate in a NOLS Instructor Course. If I’m accepted, I’ll have the option of attending the month-long course in early summer. If I do well on that course, and then if I can get a spot teaching on a course immediately afterward, I may spend a good portion of this summer backpacking in the Rockies. How great would that be?

At the same time that I’m trying to work towards the NOLS gig, I’m also trying to do the best work I can at my current job. Even though it’s technically only for the Christmas season, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that I make a good impression and can hang onto the job in some capacity, even if it’s only part-time. It’s a good job so far, and I like the company (in both senses of the word– the people and the business). Still, that’s a lot of ifs in the near future.

As I’ve mentioned before, 2011 is the first year since I finished college that I haven’t hiked a long-distance trail. Long-distance hiking is as much a part of my identity as anything, but I got over that hole in my soul pretty quickly. Other things filled it, and I’m happy with those things. The hole is still there, though, like a round hole filled with a square peg. And it makes me question everything that I do that leads me further from the trail.

Vying for space in my mind with NOLS and my current job is another proposition. My friend from the Pacific Crest Trail, Uncle Tom, is getting a group together to make an attempt at the Continental Divide Trail in 2013. I can’t tell you how much I want to be a part of that group, but that idea would also put a damper on either of the two paths I mentioned above. These are the three ideas that are competing inside my head for the most attention. Sometimes it feels like a circus in there.

With the year drawing to a close, I’m a little distracted by a few more things as well (as if there’s not enough to hold my attention). I’m working on a top-secret project that I should be set to reveal in February or March (sorry, no hints for now); I’m still trying to find a balance between my home life and my ambitions as a hiker; I’m falling behind in some of my goals and deadlines for the winter; and I’m trying to resist my yearly urge to grow a winter coat and hide under my bed for the next three months. I never knew I could have so many options in my near future. It’s much more difficult than having one big event on the horizon, even though it seems like it should be more desirable.

Continental Divide Trail, NOLS, a home, a job, a life– the future is so full of possibilities. It’s a scary place. I don’t know what to expect, and I’m not sure what would be best. This will be my last post of 2011. I’m hoping that by next year I’ll feel like the ground beneath me is a little more stable. I like that I have so many paths I could take– it’s just that none of them have white blazes clearly marking the way.