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Wilderness Therapy in the American Southwest

Daniel Stranahan is a Wilderness Therapy Field Instructor living out of his camper truck in the Southwest. In this guest post, Daniel writes about his experience in this outdoor career and the lifestyle that surrounds it. Follow Daniel on Instagram and checkout his photography here

My first encounter with a wilderness therapy program was non-optional. I was fourteen, excited to be discovering drugs and doing my research at all the wrong moments. Before science class was not a good time to get high, but at the time I had little concern. Before I knew it the summer was beginning, and my parents sat me down, together, which being divorced they rarely did. I was told that the next day I’d be on a plane to Utah, and backpacking for an undetermined amount of time.

I spent 8 weeks in the woods, learned a ton about who I was, what I cared about and how to talk about my feelings (which, to this day men are rarely taught). Today, I run around the Utah desert as a field Instructor at a program called Evoke Therapy, formerly Second Nature.

So what happened out there? What is wilderness therapy? Wilderness therapy programs gained their momentum in the 80’s and 90’s. Early on, some organizations took a more militaristic “boot camp” approach, whereas others drew more of their structure from psychological theory, like behaviorism or cognitive psychology.

Many of the more militaristic programs were eventually confronted with death, accidents, and illness. This led to the demise of most “boot/brat camps,” and frequent controversial press on wilderness therapy in general. However, a positive outcome for wilderness therapy was a system of accountability, and safer practices. This happened through the creation of new governing bodies that drew programs together, in order to create a universal standard of risk management and client care.  

As a field staff at Evoke in Saint George, Utah, I work 8 days on and 6 off, spending 8 days in one group. The 2-4 other staff that I work with are often my climbing partners and close friends. Together, we spend the week hiking at a comfortable pace, and creating therapeutic assignments with the therapists that work with each group. These can look like building a sculpture to represent an important person in a client’s life, and asking them to speak to this person as if they were present-or, mastering the skill of making a bow-drill fire without matches or a lighter. Wilderness therapy operates on the theory that living outdoors provides humans with challenges and metaphor, and that the skills needed to overcome these challenges, and understand these metaphors are akin to the skills we use to navigate the most trying moments of life.

As field staff, I get to collaborate with the groups’ therapist to learn about their approach, and create new assignments each week. This is certainly my favorite part of the job. Another plus is the schedule and location. I live out of my truck, and spend off-shifts climbing all over the southwest. I can often jump on cheap last minute flights to surf, and spend time with friends and family. The schedule is also one of my greatest challenges - I rarely feel rooted, leaving the community at work for a new one each off-shift. I’ve had to adapt to this, and appreciate the nomadic life I live, knowing I won’t do it forever.

My Bedrocks are actually one of the few material constants in my life. I wear them hiking off-trail in the field, to the crag and out to dinner. Looking at my feet, I feel glad that I spend more time with a pair of sandals than with my cell phone, or most other things. Here you will find images of my scantily clad feet all over the west, in and outside of work, in Canada, Washington, California, and beyond.

All photos taken by and property of Daniel Stranahan.

1 Response



March 20, 2017

Any new bedrocks coming out this year?

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