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Spring 2006 Issue
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Catching Dreams
28 years after his first NOLS course, Tobey Ritz follows an old dream and learns the importance of creating new ones in the process.
By Tobey Ritz

This is about a journey I’ve been on. It’s not the kind of journey or expedition we usually think of, although it’s about my experience on a NOLS course in 2004, 28 years after my first course in 1976. Most of it takes place inside of me, in my heart and soul. It’s about rediscovering who you are, changing your attitudes, and finding a new belief in what’s possible, and a new sense of what matters in life.

It is 1996. I’m immersed in my civil engineering career and my family. I’ve accomplished a lot and love my family deeply, but something is missing. I read an article about Scott Fischer who has died while climbing on Everest. His wife Jeannie is quoted as saying, “To ask [Scott] not to climb would have been like asking him not to breathe.” Without climbing, he wouldn’t have been truly living.

I realize also while reading the article that Jeannie was one of my instructors on my first NOLS course—it was one of the best experiences I had as a young teenager at 17 in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I remember how afterwards I dreamt about becoming a NOLS Instructor and spending lots of time in the wilderness.

I pull out an old letter from Jeannie that I saved from way back then. More and more I begin to remember my love for the wilderness, my desire to help preserve the wilderness by working in forestry, dreams that seemed to have faded and disappeared. As I look inside myself, I realize they are still there, that in some ways I have not been breathing in a long time. I start going on hikes with my family and realize that when I’m outside in nature, in wild places, I’m home.

In the spring of 2001, I take a wilderness first aid course, and I mention my old dream of becoming a NOLS Instructor to someone on the course. As she lies on the ground while we’re doing a head-to-toe exam, she looks at me and says, “You know, it’s not too late.” I laugh and say, “That’s ridiculous.” But as I drive home I find myself wondering...maybe it isn’t too late to be a NOLS Instructor, to be a photographer, a writer, a teacher.

In the fall of 2003, I decide to go to a NOLS reunion in New York City, where Lynn Hill is the speaker. I go to see if I can reconnect with NOLS. It’s great to be around people enjoying what they are doing and to hear so many people reminiscing about their courses and the impact they had on their lives. Lynn Hill’s talk and slide show about climbing is awesome and blows me away. She signs her book for my daughter, Claire: “Follow your passions and your dreams.” I go home that night and can’t stop thinking about it, about NOLS, about the what-ifs.

I send an email to NOLS asking if 27 years is too long to wait between getting recommended for the Instructor Course (IC) and actually taking it. For such a crazy question, the NOLS Admission office writes an amazingly thoughtful response that says, “27 years is a little too long to wait between the recommendation and taking the IC.” The letter goes on to say the best way to have a chance would be to take an Outdoor Educator course and get recommended. The odds are long, with no guarantees. I write back, “After a lot of thought, the application is filled out and going in the mail today. I want to follow my dream.”

Sometime later, I head out to Lander for my Outdoor Educator course. I’m excited, scared, and nervous all at the same time. Sad to be leaving my family for three weeks, hoping it will be good for all of us in the long run. I wonder if it will change me... I’m not satisfied with who I’ve become now, so much wrapped up in this material world, really it’s all an illusion.

It’s strange to think that my NOLS course 28 years ago would lead to this. NOLS is like an invisible thread that kept going until it resurfaced in my life, an undercurrent pulling me back to something that became a part of me and had a huge influence on my life.

On the last morning of the course, where civilization meets the wilderness, I’m sad to be leaving. The mist in the valley and the mountains looks soft and unreal in the early morning sun. I feel myself out of focus, as if I’m covered with the morning mist. The wilderness has softened my sense of self. There are new possibilities, new dreams. I have a chance now to change my direction.

I’ve applied for the NOLS IC and have been wait-listed. I’m hoping to go next summer.

I want to challenge you to examine how you are living your lives—is it like a contest, a race to be run, a course to be survived? Or is it something to be embraced, to go against the flow and to take risks with? Following your dreams is no guarantee of success, but it is the only way to truly live.

In the long run, the NOLS IC is a dream for me that may or may not happen. Getting accepted would just be the icing on the cake. There are other dreams now, too. In the journey toward the NOLS IC, I’ve learned how to move in new directions, and that is what is truly important. My path will not be the same now; there will be many fewer regrets. As Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.”

Footnote: I just heard I was accepted for the Southwest Mountain Instructor Course in April, and I’d like to thank my instructors Pete Williams, Pat Conners, Jeannie Price, Andy Baldassar, Sally Brown, Kendall Clifton, and the students on both courses for making them such great experiences.

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