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Searching for Home in the Guiding Life

The outdoor world drew her in. Life as a guide seemed an ideal. It wasn't as romantic as it looked.

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The only thing I could see was a moving dot in front of me. Everything else was blinding white. Just don’t lose that dot, I told myself. Keep moving. One ski in front of the other. I had been wearing these ski boots for nearly 10 days. Underneath my layers of insulation and wool, I alternated between freezing to the bone and breaking a sweat. I was scared—of getting lost in this nothingness on my own.

Eventually the dot stopped, and more dots appeared. I could make out the color of each of my expedition mates’ jackets. I knew Kaitlin by the purple, Luke ahead of her by his lime green. Fifteen of us gathered somewhere on Horse Mountain in the Wyoming Range. We couldn’t see the summit, so we claimed the turnaround spot as it, and broke out in celebration. Deep belly laughs roared through the sound of wind ripping through Gore-Tex layers. We put our arms around each other to stay upright and sang, out-of-tune, “Ain’t no mountain high enough!” In that moment, with those people, I was home.

snow cave
Skylar Bullock, Vicky Cooley, Kacie Planavsky, Erin Phillips, Abi Ruksznis, Kaitlin Emig, and Keeka Grant in one of the snow caves shared by four students each. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

I spent 89 days with those 14 others on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course. We got to know each other at a depth I had never experienced before, and from that point on, I was hooked on the outdoor culture. All too hurriedly, on the 90th day, we boarded planes and dispersed across the country.

The NOLS course led me to start working seasonal guiding and wilderness-therapy jobs. Over time I spent nearly all of my 20s moving in pursuit of adventure, the wild, the over there. I lived out of vehicles for intentional impermanence, and changed jobs, friends, and states just about every season. Each job was the next big adventure, from backpacking and rock climbing with adolescents in Utah to sea kayaking and climbing glaciers with vacationers in Alaska. The cycle was the same: the high and sense of purpose that came when working the season, and a low that followed.

NOLS
Original NOLS crew. Top row: Kaitlin Emig, Joey Brodsky, Erin Phillips, Nick Walsh, Dalton Johnson, Spenser Halterman, Brad Stewart, Luke Wilhelm, Vicky Cooley. Bottom row: Abi Ruksznis, Kacie Planavsky, Skylar Bullok, Luke Anderson. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

The wild landscapes attracted me. Even with their objective hazards, they felt safer than the suburban environment I had grown up in. In the outdoors I could predict and prepare for dangerous situations. It was the life behind closed doors that kept me living in a constant state of alertness. The mountains, the rivers, the oceans, and the canyons were indifferent to who I was and whether I was performing or still. No judgment, no comparison. Only now, edging into my 30s and having stepped away from full-time guiding, do I realize that I was running, rebelling, and seeking that sense of being home, over and over again in the places I guided.

Growing up, I had never felt like I belonged. The community I was born into seemed to value fitting in over being creative, being nice over being honest, and doing what you’re told. I felt defined by perceived external beauty, degrees, athleticism, and career goals. It seemed as if every adult around me asked questions about how well I was doing in school and sports, and plans for my future. Never about who I really was or what I wanted. Others of my peers seemed to fit in seamlessly, and I wondered what was wrong with me. Layers of pretending led to feeling like an imposter.

Erin Phillips
Jenny Grischuk hiking off Mount Alice toward home in Seward, Alaska. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

So after college, I packed up and drove from Maryland out West, reasoning that the further I could get from the life I knew, the closer I might get to the one I wanted. What I didn’t know at the time is that rebellion “is just as much of a cage as obedience is,” as Glennon Doyle wrote in her book Untamed. “Both are a reaction to someone else’s way instead of paving your own.”

Finding the outdoor guiding community was like discovering a beach of shiny broken shards that fit together perfectly. We noticed common threads among ourselves, and often were the “black sheep” of our families. We sat around campfires and spent hours on the ends of each others’ ropes, depending on one another for safety. We flaunted our financial instability in rebellion to society. We howled into the open desert, and pissed on glaciers. As the season picked up, our days would fill with running trips and supporting and entertaining clients. Some of the crew kept charging after adventures in the infrequent off-time, but some would get home, slump into the couch, crack open a beer, and zone out. Some loved to party—hard. While NOLS had felt like a family, in guiding, the initial easy waves of meeting each other sometimes seemed to curl into an undertow of competition and comparison.

Glacier climbing
Cameron Hygate and Jamie Trapp use a day off for some personal climbing on Exit Glacier, Seward, Alaska. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

I felt like my practice in pretending and performing was put to use day after day, and I again learned a calculated version of who I could be. I had scripted answers to the clients’ questions. And when shit hit the fan on a trip, such as a client having a breakdown in a remote environment, I suppressed the feelings of powerlessness so that I could show up the next day ready to go back out. There were few to no affordable or available mental-health resources to help us guides feel supported. We generally relied on each other with drunken subpar therapy.

A sense of restlessness grew within me. I felt like I constantly needed to prove something to somebody, or at least myself. A part of me was driven to ramp it up and squeeze every drop out of that midnight sun. Another part of me questioned how long I could really keep going. The season would end, as it each one did, and the community, the job, the way I dressed, and the shared language would all halt. And we would all be left saying flimsy see-ya-laters, packing up our cars, and jumping on planes to whatever was next. There was always a question of who would come back.

The author climbing in a moulin on Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords, near Seward, Alaska. (Photo: Trevor Kreznar)

In October 2019, I flew from Alaska, where I had just finished another season, to New Zealand for another guiding gig. I bought a van and drove it around the South Island, staring out at the beautiful shores that were printed on thousands of postcards. Places people only dreamed of escaping to. I sought climbing partners, and met a nice European couple. We shared a day cragging, and then they drove their van in the opposite direction from mine. My heart sank. The cycle of relationships coming and going was speeding up more than I could handle. What I really wanted, beyond any grand adventure, was a consistent community.

Bellingham Mountain Guide, 26, Dies in Fall in North Cascades

I remember staring out at the ocean and feeling nothing. I was thousands of miles from anyone I knew, and not only did I not want to be there, I couldn’t think of a single spot where I really wanted to be. I wanted to stop running, stop moving, stop living in a way that burnt me out. On the day I was to start orientation for my new job, I sat frozen in the company’s parking lot and couldn’t even step outside my van door. Finally I drove away and used whatever money I had left after getting there to buy a plane ticket home. I had broken down and recreated my identity so many times. What once felt like freedom in the nomad spirit, now felt like a dead end.

After the month it took to sell the van, I left New Zealand to move into my mother’s house. I felt like a failure. If I slowed down enough to find stability, would I be compromising too much? What if I no longer had the drive to guide or take risks in the outdoors? Those things had become my identity.

Over the next two years I lived in seven more houses and four different states. A therapist in North Idaho told me about two twin women who open their homes to help people listen to and heal their hearts, and move through grief. They run 10-week classes and three- and six-day workshops called Responsible Living. I resisted meeting them until I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. That point came after five more significant events, including losing a relationship, housing and even housing for my pup all in one swing. What I needed was a roof and a friend.

Laura Wood soaking in a hike in Glacier National Park. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

These women taught me that when I know who I am, even in a whiteout storm, I can never be lost. Season after season I thought I had learned who I was. But it was only in the context of each job, place, and identity. And those contexts weren’t sustainable. Or if they were, I had to ask myself if I really wanted to continue down those paths.

I believe the outdoor guiding industries have the ability to create healthy, sustainable communities. They just need the resources and support. Individual therapeutic support for guides is one great tool, but the most effective connection comes through community, over time, in small moments, not in a structured one-hour sit down block. Some organizations are collectively having similar thoughts and doing something about it. Redside Foundation in Idaho and Montana and Whale Foundation in Arizona support the health and strength of the professional outdoor guiding community through cost-free counseling and financial and holistic health support. I think a step in the right direction could be creating times of intentional togetherness, such as campfire circles where anyone who feels compelled can share a piece of their story or something they’re feeling. Principles that can help guide that space are being 100 percent accountable for yourself, staying current with your feelings, choosing win-win mentality, using “I” statements and being specific, and confidentiality. Check in with each other regularly. We can sometimes get so caught up in our stories that we miss what is really going on.

Erin Phillips is a writer and photographer living in North Idaho. She is a seasoned wilderness-therapy and outdoor guide and passionate about supporting mental health. Find her at erinmp93, erinmariedesigns.com.

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