Where Do We Sleep? Wilderness Therapy at Work

To a RedCliff wilderness therapy staff member there are few things more invigorating than waking up in the wilderness. Whether it has rained, dumped snow through the night, or is a perfect fall morning, there is something special to us about waking up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing more than miles of desert. This should be no surprise though. After all, we chose to be out here.

For the new student, however, nothing about the experience seems enjoyable and the completion of the most basic tasks can seem difficult. First comes the question of using the bathroom….find a tree. Then it is water…hike to fill up from a stream and chemically treat the water. Then heat for comfort and cooking. A variety of sticks, stones, cord, and skill provide all the fire we need. And when the dishes from that first dinner have been cleaned and the sun starts to set, without fail the students ask, “So, where do we sleep?”

On the best nights RCA staff and students lay their heads down on the soft desert sand. It is cool to the touch and above them is a black sky that is littered with stars. A cool breeze rustles the juniper trees, providing the perfect excuse to curl deeper into your sleeping bag. And yet it is difficult to pull your eyes away from the sky above.

Other nights, when the temperature drops and water threatens to fall from the sky in every possible form, the students are required to put a roof over their heads. Group tarps are broken out, cord is unraveled, a pair of sturdy trees is found, and rocks are moved to provide a comfortable spot to sleep. Students must work together at this time, ensuring that everyone will stay dry and warm through the night.

The typical shelter at RedCliff is made up of a large blue tarp strung between two or more sturdy juniper or pinon pine trees. It is attached to the trees and pulled tight with the parachute cord or lengths of 2-inch webbing that the students also use to make their survival packs. An A-frame, or shuttle, is made using rocks, sand, logs, or snow weighing the sides down ensuring that rain and snow will run off easily and that the wind won’t blow the sides loose. In bad weather the open ends are tied shut, keeping body heat in and rain or snow out. In these simple shelters hundreds of RCA staff and students have laid down to sleep in all sorts of weather.

When the hike ends and camp has been found, it is up to the students to assign and complete camp chores. They ensure that the group with have a comfortable, if temporary, home out of their spot in the wilderness. Those students on shelter duty are responsible for the group’s comfort during the night. A poorly made shelter will put the group at the mercy of the wind, rain, and snow, creating a situation in which a good night’s sleep is nearly impossible. A well made shelter can stay dry and warm, even when temperatures dip below zero and snow fall is measured in feet, not inches.

In the morning, or sometimes the middle of the night, the quality of the student’s work will become clear. The weather and the students will make comments on the shelter, exposing a student’s laziness and carelessness or congratulating their ingenuity and hard work. 

Each student at Red Cliff is expected to learn the skills necessary to live in the wilderness. While the staff ensure that the students are safe and work hard to teach these skills, it is ultimately up to the student to ensure his or her own comfort at RCA. While each student is given the tools to thrive, it is their own choice to use these skills and it is often this choice that sets the groundwork for therapeutic breakthroughs during a student’s stay at RedCliff.

So, as the day ends and camp is set the students must find it in themselves to create a home in the wilderness. Whether it is their first shelter or their thirtieth, each student knows the importance of the work they are doing. If the job is done poorly the group may be cold and miserable. If it is done well, the group will stay warm and dry, and whatever the outcome is each student knows that they wereresponsible for it. –By Ryan Hill, Weekend Director