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Trail Tales

The National Outdoor Leadership School changed my life

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Cover image: Author Sandy Tarburton in 1987 on her life-changing semester course with the National Outdoor Leadership School. All images: Sandy Tarburton.

It was September in 1987 and I was in a small airplane with Roy Rogers. I didn’t get to talk to him but he was wearing a cowboy hat and his signature neckerchief and we were flying to Wyoming. With only one row of seats on each side of the aisle, I easily met other college-aged students ogling the movie star in the front row. Many of us were on our way to Lander, the home base for the National Outdoor Leadership School.

I was shy and nervous and downright clueless about what I was about to embark upon, but the next three months changed my life.

Sandy 1995

After a semester in Wyoming's Wind River mountains, Sandy embarked on a life in the outdoors. Here she is in 1995.

A New Direction

Having just graduated from high school, I was one of the youngest students attending a semester course of backpacking, spelunking, desert hiking, rock climbing, and winter backcountry skiing. I had never before camped in the mountains. I’d never backpacked with a heavy pack, never cooked on a portable camp stove, and never gone for more than a day without taking a shower.

The first three weeks on the backpacking section were hard. Not just physically, but mentally. How do I set up a tent? What if I burn dinner? I’m supposed to sleep with my wet socks to dry them out? Wait, we can’t take toilet paper??? Growing up on a farm in Delaware had in no way prepared me for what I was going through.

Sandy 1998

Hiking, skiing, getting outside. It's all important.

Luckily, my fellow NOLS students plus three instructors were phenomenal. Their humor, diversity and collective outdoor experience made my sudden immersion into outdoor living bearable and eventually rewarding. The course’s philosophies to be supportive of everyone in the group and to Leave No Trace (it wasn’t a registered trademark yet) have stuck with me over the years.

Life Lessons from NOLS

Take the importance of helping everyone maintain energy. If a wilting hiker says no thanks to water and snack breaks, pause to chow down yourself. There’s nothing like the crunch of gorp or gulping water to make hunger and thirst contagious. (And trust me, you want your hiking partners well-fed and well-hydrated.)

My first few days of hiking with NOLS in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range were like being thrust into a different universe. Thankfully on Day 1 we had scheduled snack breaks every 50 minutes and the nourishment was rewarding. 

My bashfulness and ego would likely have kept me hiking to keep up with the others—to my own detriment. Nowadays, when I’m with inexperienced hikers, I find that suggesting a snack schedule upfront at the trailhead helps everyone anticipate them and stay energized throughout the day.     

Sandy 2005

Passing on the legacy as a mother to her two sons in 2005.

Another factor in group hiking is stamina. If your partner is overburdened by their load, take something from their pack. The lighter weight will improve their pace as well as their outlook.

Thank goodness on Day 5 the cute guy with the dimples took a stove and rope from my pack. My shoulders and hips were bruised from my 80’s style external frame pack, and reducing its weight made a huge difference. Since then I’ve taken gear from reluctant friends and their mood always brightens under a lighter load.

And finally, whether hiking with two or ten, nobody likes to be left behind. If a member of the group is anxious and overwhelmed, move them to the front of the line. Their new role may surprise you.

Self Improvement

By Day 20, I was in a rhythm. I could repack my pack each morning in 10 minutes, I knew how to set up a cook stove and make scorched-free oatmeal, and I was getting used to my musty body odor. But hiking out to the trailhead involved crossing a glacier field. Veteran NOLS instructor Steve Goryl was an intimidating dude and when he looked up the hill and saw my teary-eyed struggle, he climbed back up to my side. In his gruff voice and with exaggerated steps he said “Just stomp!”

I made it down, and to my surprise the next and last day, he made me hike leader. I’m sure my face turned beet red but I quietly accepted the challenge. Lo and behold I flew across a boulder field rock-hopping with ease, and descended as if this was an everyday walk for me. I had to be reminded repeatedly to wait for the group.      

20070324 0398

The travels continue. Sandy in the Arizona desert in winter 2016.

Pay it Forward

The simple lessons NOLS taught me continue to influence my hiking style. I try to pay it forward whenever I hike with family and friends and I hope it helps them have a positive experience in the outdoors. Because hiking with your favorite people when everybody is happy is what makes any outdoor adventure so awesome.

Sandy Tarburton lives in Vermont and is the membership and communications director for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. She enjoys hiking, paddling and being outside with her two teenage sons, husband and any of her friends who are up for an adventure. 

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