Why I Do What I Do

Reflections of an Adventure Educator

By Morgan Hite

I always try to remember not to ask my students where they go to school.

Most of them are in college, and right after they tell me their college they want to know where I went to school. I have to reveal then that my alma mater was one of those ivy-covered, East Coast institutions of venerable tradition. They inevitably ask the same, incredulous question: "If you don't mind my asking, what are you doing here?" It's stated almost as an act of self-protection, a litany against evil. Because, of course, they're thinking, "Why should I bust my ass for four years to get through college when this guy went to Harvard and now he just bums around the woods with a bunch of deadbeat kids like me?"

I usually give some glib answer, like, "This is where those of us who can't handle it wind up." But if they press me further I give them more. They deserve to know. When they go back they will be on the front lines, doing daily combat with the traffic, the crowding, the overstimulation. It is they, not I, who have to face the expectations of parents, the labyrinth of society and business, and the confusion of their brethren. It is a grim place. I would not trade shoes with them.

I have a lot of ideas about why I do what I do, and why this job is great. I'll bet anybody could write down why he or she thinks what they do is a really good thing. I wish they would. We all could only benefit from sharing a little about why we think we do what we do.

I'll give you my view, here from a canyon in Southern Utah, from a rocky alpine cirque in Wyoming, from the inside of a snow cave miles and miles from the nearest plowed road. These are my five favorite ways to think of what I do.

  1. I teach people to escape. J.R.R. Tolkein was told once that his books were "escapist," but he insightfully replied that the only people concerned about escape were jailers. I like to think I help people acquire the skills and confidence to get away from it all, from what subtle jailers there may be in our lives, any time they like, and take friends with them.

  2. It is good to be out here. It is healthy and powerful and all of those good things. I can commune with the mountain gods. I get away from it all to talk with the real powers that be and help others do the same. We look back on civilization from a high mountain and see it for what it is. Clean air and physical obstacles lead to healthy, free people. This is Real, dealing with weather and terrain and survival. This is what humans lived in for thousands of years. To meet the Earth on her own terms is to respect her and we do a lot of meeting out here.

  3. I meet impressive people in this world, bold and daring. Handsomest men and beautifulest women as William Golding might say, with great senses of humor and incredible storehouses of knowledge - they must be this way, to be ready to deal with anything. We are real souls out here; there are too few of us to get lost in the sauce. Travel "by hand" and food cooked outdoors make honest, generous folk with integrity, and I have a feeling the world was supposed to be this way.

  4. I come out here for the castles: the awesome buttes, mountains, mesas, canyons, and valleys that stir the imagination. I commune with all the lost centuries, and stories that never were, at home in rugged places. What better job could one ask for than to live in unsoftened, beautiful places, be inspired by them and help others do the same?

  5. Here I find Peace, a time to reflect and replan my life, and to feel surplus goodness in myself that I want to share with the world.

I do it because there are thousands of people out there itching to be free, to journey to that photograph on their Sierra Club calendar and all that is standing between them and their goal is someone to show them how and reaffirm that they can do it. Someone to say, "Take that risk, live that dream! Life is too short, you may die soon - live now!" I am Coyote out here, summoning the students and the businesspersons who hardly know why or what the call is, and dangerously destabilizing their lives by showing them freedom. I am serving a high cause of democracy.

I do it because it's good for me, it's good for you, and it's good for the greater whole. I do it because pretty few of us grow up in anything akin to hardship anymore1 and we need hardship to appreciate the basic important things in life like love and beauty and water and warmth. Life can be simple and this is a good place to experience that. We need to be tired and cold and hungry, and then make ourselves a hot meal and go to our sleeping bags to realize that life is complete and how rarely we experience that.

I do it because sometimes things get pretty Real out here and we start making basic honest communications with each other: "I'm alright. How are you?" And it feels good, and we wonder what we've been doing in our lives. Because here we can be the captains of our own ships, and chart our own destiny.

The backcountry vacation is always unlike other vacations. When we return, there is at least a little sigh of relief - we made it. There is definite risk going out there: we have to find our way; we have to deal with our own injuries. There won't be anywhere to stop in to ask for help. It's a risky business. As vacations go, it is more than just a vacation. So it stands to reason that as jobs go, it is more than just a job.

March, 1990

Grand Gulch, Utah

1I should say, more properly, many people grow up in hardship. But no one I knew grew up in hardship.

[(c) Copyright, Morgan Hite, 1989-1991: No permission required for copies which include this notice.]