By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3
I had no idea what I was doing. I was travelling at high speeds on a highway between Colorado and Wyoming, glancing in my rearview mirror at a sage-dotted landscape, a token tumbleweed crossing my path, a deserted gas station here and there. My car dipped into a green valley surrounded by red canyon walls. I could see a thin dirt road winding its way out of the canyon in the distance. And then I was looking down on a small town, a gateway of sorts into what lay beyond: snow-capped peaks, slanting mountains. I had arrived in the Wind Rivers.
I was fresh out of college and looking for adventure. To that point, the greatest adventure in my life had been a NOLS sea kayaking course in Alaska the previous summer. Banking on my notion that NOLS was a guaranteed ticket to adventure, I was on my way to work at the school's international headquarters in Lander, Wyo.
It's impossible to miss the NOLS sign posted on the Noble hotel on Main Street, even if you do blink. The historic hotel, built in 1917 as `the best hotel west of the Mississippi,' was once a resting place for early travelers venturing into the mountains. Butch Cassidy stayed in the hotel after his alleged death in South America, and the granddaughter of Sacajawea, the famous guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, worked there as a desk clerk. Today, the Noble is a dormitory of sorts for NOLS students doing much the same thing as early visitors-trading in creature comforts for adventure, the outdoors, something pure and primitive nobody can really explain.
I think anyone who comes to Lander for the first time feels like a pioneer. I certainly did that day when I arrived, even if my journey had been on a paved highway in a fuel-powered vehicle. Nobody told me to come. Nobody told me what it would be like. The lobby was filled with young adults carrying heavy backpacks, their faces bright and eager. I stopped and talked to a blonde kid wearing new hiking boots. He was on his way into the Wind Rivers for a 30-day wilderness course. He was from New York City and had never been camping before. He looked nervous and excited all at once. I wished him luck and watched the group hike out of the lobby and onto a NOLS bus outside.
As for myself, I was boarding my own "bus." I spent the summer rock climbing in the evenings and backpacking in the Winds on weekends. I learned to fly fish at a place called Cathedral Lake where a tall granite spire looms like a pulpit over the clear water. I went to a powwow at the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation and watched a cattle drive on Main Street. At summer's end, I was truly convinced that there's no place like Lander and no mountains like the Wind Rivers. And the people were different, too. There was the town councilman who came up with the idea to give out-of-towners parked illegally on Main Street a free cup of coffee instead of a parking ticket. That didn't last long. And I once met a man on Main Street who came all the way from Kenya to instruct NOLS wilderness courses. The list goes on and on: a rock climber from New Jersey passing through town on a grand western tour; a woman who followed a rodeo star here 65 years ago and hasn't left yet; a former CEO who got tired of city life and bought a cabin outside of town. Here, it seems, some people drift in for awhile and then leave just as quickly as they came, while others settle for longer spells, trapped by the mountains and the whispering wind.
All great adventures must eventually come to an end, and all great adventurers must eventually go home. In late summer the steady flow of students through the Noble hotel began to slow down. In the issue room, they packed away summer sleeping bags and tuned up skis, avalanche beacons, shovels and sleds for the winter season. The first snowflake hit my nose on September 1, and that's about when the annual southward migration of NOLS instructors began. They loaded up their cars and trucks with kayaks, mountain bikes, backpacks and canoes and headed south for NOLS courses in Patagonia, Baja, Australia and the Southwest.
I tried to leave, too, but couldn't do it. I moved to a city for awhile but found myself on the highway leading back six months later. Apparently my adventures weren't over yet. I kept imagining the early visitors to Lander-ambitious travelers seeking challenge in the mountains of Wyoming. They ventured here by train and probably didn't know what they were doing, just like me. And many stayed longer than they thought they would, including Paul Petzoldt, who founded NOLS here in 1965. Like me, they desired more than adventure, but also wilderness and wildness and leaving behind the comforts of modern society for a true test of the self. It's what still draws hundreds of NOLS students to Lander each year. It's what set me back on the highway towards Lander. But this time I knew exactly what I was doing, glancing in my rearview mirror and waiting for the moment of return, of climbing that small hill and looking out on the gateway to the Winds.
NOLS Rocky Mountainis the oldest and largest of the NOLS branch schools. While the majority of these courses travel in Wyoming, a significant number of summer courses also visit Idaho, Utah, and Montana. Semesters may also travel to South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, or Colorado for different skill sections, while most winter courses are in Idaho and Wyoming.
While every course is different, NOLS Rocky Mountain courses are typified by travel at relatively high altitudes (8-12,000 ft.), spectacular scenery, good wildlife viewing, opportunities for rock climbing and good fishing.