The Real Trail Angels

(Most people, for example, wouldn’t reveal their deepest secrets to strangers. That level of conversation is reserved for their most intimate relationships. This is a lesson in self-disclosure, trust, respect, and fostering relationships that allows them to express their truest selves.)

Cazares takes an extra moment and thinks about how she can effectively reach him. She draws an x-axis and a y-axis beneath the rainbow arc and labels the x-axis as “Depth of the Relationship” and the y-axis as “Depth of What We Share.” You can hear the gears turning in this young man’s head as he begins to process this information tailored for his learning style. “What do you think this graph should look like?” He quickly draws a 1-to-1 line out from the origin. Little victories like this are not without their losses, though.

The students are easily discouraged, triggered and distracted. Cazares must navigate their emotional bounds while trying to protect her own. She battles through the students’ homesickness, denial, withdrawal and anger on an hourly basis. Fortunately, therapeutic metaphors are low-hanging fruit in Blackwater Outdoor Experiences’ 22-day expeditions. They’re more poetry than psychology really.

The river, for example, is a representation of our lifeline. We are born in the headwaters high in the mountains. We grow stronger with each tributary — the major influences in our lives — each adding to the whole, and we, a product of our environments, are guided down by the mountains of our life — those we look up to — and some unseen force. The rapids represent the turbidity of life, the rage and the anger, and are followed by the flat, reflective waters that flow in deep runouts with slow and peaceful currents. The delta: the point where we begin to give back to the world in fertile estuaries before our paths eventually end and we join a larger body, perhaps a greater being. And the notion that we all inevitably float out to sea.

At the end of the psychoeducational session, Cazares directs the students to crash camp and load the boats. “Group tarp!” Everyone makes their way over to the group equipment, breaks down whatever remains and distributes the campsite among a fleet of canoes.

After some odd hours of paddling, hiking or climbing, the focus returns to therapy. Cazares has an arsenal of journal prompts stuck in the front cover of her notebook. She prefers to eat lunch before the journal sessions to avoid any additional physical distraction and put the students into rest-and-digest mode. With their journal in one hand and a Therm-a-Rest in the other, the students disperse into the woods, along the riverbank or across the boulder fields to find a peaceful place to address the therapeutic prompts, process the day’s events, reflect and dig deeper into their thoughts and feelings, and perhaps take a well-earned nap or meditate while they wait for their peers to finish up.

Cazares makes it a priority to find one-on-one time with each student. In the afternoon, she’ll hike with a student for an hour and listen to them talk about their lives and ask questions to help the students process their emotional responses. These personal conversations are crucial to building trust and understanding. Cazares says that she believes in the power of nature and that utilizing the wilderness setting to foster her students’ personal growth is second to none.

“Being in nature allows students to separate themselves from the stress and anxieties of everyday life and helps them to dig deeper into themselves and address their struggles while at the same time helping them discover their strengths that will ultimately help them achieve their goals,” Cazares says.

Blackwater Outdoor Experiences also emphasizes the importance of the family dynamic and home environment in the treatment model. Clinical supervisor Margie Crow works closely with the families of the students while they are out on the expedition. Between Crow’s clinical sessions and Cazares’ uninterrupted 22 days of observation, they can provide extremely acute aftercare recommendations to their students.

“It is critical for families to be a part of the treatment process to help identify how each family member is able to develop awareness of his or her part in supporting and changing the family dynamic,” Crow says. “Even the strongest coordination of treatment and aftercare recommendations for the students and their families will have little success unless each party is aware of the issues and can work to communicate more effectively.”

The first days of the backpacking segment are physically demanding. The group must carry food weight for a week. Each day’s mileage is low, but heavy packs, a new environment and uncooperative weather provide ample agitation. The internal struggle for control rages, and the students reluctantly trudge through the wind and rain to the next designated campsite. The weather will eventually break. It always does.

Cazares loves the backpacking segment, and wilderness living in general, because there is such a heightened sense of self-care. “We are forced to listen to our bodies, to take care of ourselves in a way we are unfamiliar with,” she says. “We learn to surrender to the things we cannot control and focus on the things that we can.”

Cazares reminds the students that they are all carrying burdens. In the coming days, the group will hike up mountains that feel as though they’ll never end and experience brief moments of blissful ecstasy atop mountains they never thought they’d conquer.

A crucial aspect of the experience for the students is the solo segment. “Solo” requires the students remain within the boundaries of predetermined campsites for 72 hours without contact with their peers or the outside world. It’s essentially forced self-reflection. In many cultures, the walkabout, the solo experience, the spiritual journey is a ceremonial rite of passage signifying a period of significant personal change. Cazares tries to maintain that ceremonial significance by leading the students to their individual sites blindfolded. A “trust walk,” she calls it.

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