By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3, NOLS 35th Anniversary Insert
The letter reveals the uncertain hand of a child. It is dated March 19, 1966, Anywhere, U.S.A.
I have run away. Please don't worry or be angry because I have adequete equitment and clothing. I'm not doing this because of your treatment of me, but rather so I could escape the city before I became attatched to it and for the adventure. It wasn't your fault at all. I intend to plunge into a wilderness and live off the land.
Thus began Randy Cerf's big adventure. He was 13 years old and he was headed out West. He boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., carrying a dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a sling shot for killing game, a sleeping bag and a one-way ticket to Butte, Mont. But he didn't make it very far. An alert passenger on the bus read his letter home while glancing over his shoulder, and reported it to the authorities. In Cleveland, the police boarded the bus, arrested him and shipped him home. "I was a big city boy from Washington, D.C., and my form of rebellion was to run away," remembers Cerf. "I wanted to be a mountain man."
Accounts of the young lad's aborted runaway attempt made it into several newspapers in the area, but the story might have ended here had it not been for a friend of a friend who knew someone who ran an outdoor school out in Wyoming. That someone was Paul Petzoldt. Petzoldt's new school, NOLS, was only a year old. Here was a young man who fit the mold for a course, a classic Petzoldt-taking-a-misguided-youth-under-his-wing opportunity. Naturally, Petzoldt came to the rescue when he heard about it. He offered Cerf a scholarship to NOLS that very same summer.
"My parents loved the notion of taking this rebellion and focusing it in as institutional a way as possible," says Cerf. "I didn't have much of a vision of what I was getting into, but I was very excited about it."
In early June, only a few months after his runaway attempt, he boarded a train bound for Rawlins, Wyo. There, he hopped on the bus to Lander, where he arrived as a 13-year-old kid about to take a course with a bunch of 16-year-olds. Before heading out into the field, he stayed at Petzoldt's home. "Paul didn't quite know what to make of me, but NOLS of that era was a better fit for the little 13-year-old boy that I was than maybe now. I mean, we were issued one .22 rifle per patrol, got to slay hundreds of fish and build bonfires."
At that time, the courses started out with some over-nighting in Sinks Canyon before heading into the mountains. Since NOLS had its roots in Outward Bound, that meant a two mile run and then a dip in the ice-cold Popo Agie first thing in the morning. There were classes on rifle shooting, wood chopping, and fire fighting, among other things. "The outdoorsmanship of the '60s revolved around hunting, fishing and mountaineering," remembers Cerf. "The notion of cruising through the woods and not doing anything, just walking lightly through the woods was weird."
That summer was one to remember. Cerf actually went out on two courses, hiking deep into the mountains on the Wind River Indian Reservation and the surrounding national forests. He climbed, he camped out under the stars, he caught fish, he ate marmots and grouse, he built campfires, he learned how to cook his own meals, he survived the end-of-course survival, he learned how to chop wood, and he became enamored with NOLS, with Petzoldt and with other men of the woods like Tap Tapley. Petzoldt made his dreams of becoming a mountain man come true.
"I never actually paid a tuition," says Cerf. "One of the things that Paul did that was incredible was getting scores of people to work for nothing and enjoy it. We were out doing stuff and the understanding was that we had to contribute enough to earn our keep."
So Cerf spent his summer in the mountains with NOLS, first as a student, then as an assistant on another course. He helped with rerations, he did a lot of work to get courses out in the field and he had the time of his life. The next summer, Cerf was back in Wyoming working for NOLS. And the next summer, and the next. In some way or another, Cerf managed to work for the school as an assistant, as an instructor and as an administrator until 1980, when he worked his last course. "Paul treated me as a total adult," remembers Cerf. "I went back through some old correspondence recently and Paul was writing me letters asking me about what kind of curriculum NOLS should have for their first 14- and 15-year old adventure course. Here I was just a snot-nosed 14-year-old kid and Paul was asking my counsel. He valued my judgment in ways that have rarely been valued since, to be candid. NOLS became a real pivotal experience in growing up, it really launched my entry into adulthood."
Cerf still keeps in touch with many of his NOLS friends, and still maintains a connection to the school. "It was an integral part of the fabric of my life for a long, long time and still is an integral part of the fabric of my soul. I obviously made friends for life there. My best friends are old NOLS friends and we still have a very tight bond, which is not an ordinary part of the relationships I have in my life today."
These days, Cerf is a little removed from the mountains and the school that helped shape his life. He is chief financial officer and senior vice president of business development and new media for Valley Media, a music and video distribution company. Yet he still finds the time to take an occasional trip with old NOLS friends or to take his three children camping. "There's lot of stuff from NOLS that apply to my life now, but it's pretty subtle. The amount of responsibility that we were given was really incredible. Paul would say sit down and smoke a cigarette if you got in a tough situation and that's pretty darn good counsel for any situation where things come flying at you quickly."