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The Leader

Street sense becomes mountain know-how

Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999

Elias Munoz couldn't wait any longer. He was hefting his heavy pack up a steep peak in Wyoming's remote Absaroka mountain range and something told him to just go for it--to push himself past the others, past what he imagined he was capable of achieving.

Elias climbed straight up the 13,000 ft. peak. He didn't stop, not even to glance back at the others or catch his breath. His feet ached, he was suddenly frightened, and he'd never been so tired in his entire life. A single thought ran through Elias' head like a chant: 'I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.' Finally, he reached the top.

"I closed my eyes," Elias remembers of his 1998 NOLS Absaroka wilderness course, "and I walked up to the edge and I opened my eyes. Then BAM! I saw everything. Tears just came out of my eyes looking down onto the Absarokas where miles and miles of mountains abound. I got on one knee and said a prayer."

Elias' tough-guy persona breaks down as he talks about his course. Indeed, it's hard to believe this 19-year-old from East Los Angeles is the outdoor type--he wears baggy jeans, a white T-shirt that reveals a tattoo stamped on his back, and struts around more like he belongs in a music video than in the remote wilderness carrying a heavy backpack. But Elias Munoz defies expectations at every turn, easily shedding his gangster image to become a poet, an artist, and a strong wilderness leader.

He discovered the outdoors somewhere between the Discovery Channel and his father's zest for recreational camping and hiking. "I remember sometimes I'd be watching the Discovery Channel and see these people climbing mountains, and being in the wilderness and escaping everything," he says. "I felt a thrill just watching it. I'd sit there and think, 'I just wish I could do that--just be there and get away from it all.'"

Elias grew up on Hancock Street in LA's Lincoln Heights. His father, also named Elias, works for a community development agency as a compliance investigator, and his mother, Soledad, works at home. Both sets of grandparents immigrated from Mexico.

As a child, Elias got straight A's in school and loved it. But junior high introduced him to another kind of schooling--the kind that shaped his tough-guy image and taught him how to stand up to the older kids. He traveled the city streets with a large group of friends, including "Mouse," a guy who taught him about life on Hancock Street. They made it a priority to look out for each other.

Elias began to spend more time in trouble than in the classroom. He was drifting farther from his family and closer to a life of drugs, street fights, and, if he followed the path of so many others, an early death. He watched as his friends dropped out of school, let go of their ambitions, and wandered into trouble with drugs and crime. Fortunately, Elias remembered something his father always said, something about education being a way out.

"I always knew school was important because my dad constantly put it in my head, saying 'If you want a good life for yourself, you need an education.' So, I always kept this in the back of my mind, and I knew I was messing up."

Taking school seriously worked for Elias' older brother who went to UCLA on a full scholarship at age 16, earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and then pursued a masters in aerospace engineering at the University of California at Berkley. He now works for NASA designing satellites.

Elias decided to make his education a top priority but, of all the unlikely obstacles in his way, his clothing prevented him from staying in school. The baggy pants so in vogue around Hancock Street posed a threat to school board officials worried about students harboring guns. They instigated a law banning the pants in public schools. Elias finally backed down, wore different clothes, brought his grades up, and even thought about playing football. During his senior year in high school, with graduation only months away, Elias was kicked out of school--this time for good--because he came into class one morning wearing his old, baggy pants.

"For awhile," he remembers, "I really hit rock-bottom. I started getting into drugs and partying. Then I started hitting heavier stuff and just didn't care anymore. I didn't even care about myself--I wasn't doing anything."

If there was ever a time in Elias' young life that he wanted desperately to get away from everything, this was it. Out of school, and out of a job, Elias wandered the neighborhood looking for work. What he ended up running into, however, was a friend who might as well have been handing him his future.

This particular neighbor was on his way to work one morning at the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC), a program designed to get kids off the streets and into community projects. He told Elias he should join: it would give him a chance to get his education while working at the same time.

"We're out there planting trees, busting concrete, and taking care of the neighborhood," his friend said. "They teach you responsibility. It's cool. Do it."

And so Elias did. For an entire year, he shot out of bed at 6 a.m., arrived at work an hour later, and was doing push-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and running drills before the real workday even began. When he wasn't planting trees, or talking to a group of elementary students about energy conservation, Elias managed to work towards his GED and earn a high school diploma.

Another important piece of Elias' future fell into his hands that same year, the NOLS course catalog. The LACC was passing it out to workers, announcing a scholarship opportunity for three corps members to embark on a NOLS course the following summer. Elias took one look at the catalog and could hardly believe it--NOLS offered something he'd been looking for his whole life.

He won the scholarship and found himself transported from a hot summer in LA to a remote wilderness area in the middle of Wyoming. And he wasn't alone; there were 12 other students from all over the country; 12 strangers who, upon first glance, might as well have arrived from another planet.

At first, Elias' city background seemed to drive a rift between himself and the other students. But everyone quickly learned that they did indeed have one very important thing in common: they were all in a remote wilderness setting learning the essentials of backcountry living.

"The only way to make it out there is to unite; you gotta come together; you gotta be able to communicate. If there's no communication, the whole course could go wrong. That's what I learned. It made me so much stronger, because now I feel like I can communicate with anybody."

For 30 consecutive days Elias learned the skills necessary to travel in the backcountry--how to camp in grizzly bear territory, read topographical maps, set up camp, establish solid leadership skills, and practice Leave No Trace conservation ethics. Hard skills aside, he also learned a lot about himself. Somewhere between hiking miles along rugged trails each day, charting travel routes, participating in first aid and weather classes, and baking bread under a "twiggy fire," Elias found time to explore his own fears and visions for the future.

"I found myself out there," he says. "I found out what 'Elias' really wants. And I came in touch with sides of me I had forgotten about."

According to Elias, his three NOLS instructors taught him much more than the technical skills needed to lead others in the backcountry--they were as much a part of the life-changing experience as the stunning Absaroka mountains. There was Dave Baraff who was what Elias calls a "straight up guy" unafraid to tell it like it was. Ted O'Callahan was a listener who always seemed to have the words to make Elias feel safe and confident. O'Callahan also inspired Elias to start writing poetry. Kenyan instructor Gichuru Muchane drilled Elias on the hard skills necessary to have a safe and fun expedition.

Elias ran into O'Callahan recently in Lander, Wyo. "I went up to Ted and gave him a big hug, and I never do things like that. I couldn't restrain my emotions. I'll never forget my instructors because they were there with me in an experience that changed my life forever. I'll never forget them. Never."

As for the future, Elias' plans are entirely driven by that month in the Wyoming mountains. He wants to become a NOLS instructor and hopefully start up his own outdoor program for Los Angeles youth. It's been a year since his course, and Elias spent this summer in Lander, Wyo., working in the equipment room at the NOLS Rocky Mountain Branch. He enjoyed life in a small mountain town but has since returned to his neighborhood to help others discover the outdoors.

"I didn't want to fall victim to the streets," he says. "I didn't want to just be another statistic. I don't want my name written for me on the walls. I want to make a name for myself. I want to be somebody in life, I want to help my people and take care of my neighborhood. I want the kids to be able to grow up just like they do out in Lander."

Elias seems determined and perhaps a bit sad as he talks about the future--a future that, for so many of his friends and relatives, has led to drugs, gangs, and an early death in the streets. It becomes more obvious as he continues reflecting on his NOLS experience that his life has been fused with these mountains.

After Elias' grueling hike to the summit, after he spread his arms out and took in the majestic scene spread out below, he sat down and waited for the others.

"I started thinking," he remembers, "that my life is just like this mountain. It's hard going through everything, but if I can hike as hard as I did up this peak, I can get over any obstacle in my life. It's all in the mind, you know. Don't give up. Keep on going. At times you might get scared--it might be scary or overwhelming, you'll be tired and you won't want to continue. But if you try hard enough and get through it, it feels that much better knowing you've accomplished something and didn't give up and let it get the best of you. You beat it."



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