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July 29, 2015 / jaysmiller

The Great Elevator Talk

Logan, Utah is a western town built like a western town. The cold water of the Logan River flows through town, mountains rise at the east edge of the small city and the Wellsville Mountains tower over the beautiful Cache River Valley to the west.

Morning fog flows down the Wellsville Mountains west of Logan, Utah.

Morning fog flows down the Wellsville Mountains west of Logan, Utah.

The town design gives a feeling of wide-open spaces and uncramped landscapes, and that wide open character is strong on Main Street. Main Street is wide, very wide, many lanes wide, and with parking on each side beyond that. It’s so wide that you should consider packing a lunch before crossing the street. I was there when the street department resurfaced Main Street. At one point the surface was complete but the centerline and lane lines were not yet painted. The street was open, but people were having trouble knowing where to be and many were driving left, then right, across two or three lanes. It was odd to drive the wide street without lines. It gave a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. It reminded me that we all needed a little direction.

In our interpretive sites our front desks are staffed by a variety of people: perhaps an Interpreter, a volunteer, a clerk, or the Ranger, or the Superintendent. Each of these becomes a critical front line interpreter the moment a visitor walks in. At that moment, that front desk person is the most important staff person in the park. When a visitor enters your visitor center they need a little direction in addition to your warm welcome and beautiful smile. In your park they are in new territory. Just wandering around promotes that feeling of uncertainty, insecurity, lack of direction, and lack of purpose. “Hello, welcome, look around” is not enough. That’s that wide road without lines, without direction. Visitors need and want direction. Maslow’s basic needs of safety, security, and belonging are all engaged right here. The visitor needs to feel welcome, safe, know what to do and see first, and feel he can accomplish something. The visitor needs to know a sequence of events that serve as lines to follow. Your visitor needs a great elevator talk!

An elevator talk lasts about the time it takes to ride an elevator to the 10th floor – two minutes or so. An elevator talk is direct, clean, simple, friendly, and gives the visitor enough information, but vital information, to be welcome and to know a sequence of events to follow to begin the best experience in your visitor center, then in your park. A well-planned elevator talk gets your visitor off to the right start.

An elevator talk should accomplish these things:

  1. Welcome, smile, we’re glad you’re here.
  2. Name your site, always use the full name. The visitor needs confirmation of where they are, who operates the place and that it’s important. The full name confirms that.
  3. State your site theme so the visitor hears why your site is important. Your interpretation plan has identified overarching themes. Pick the most meaningful one and use it.
  4. Give direction. Sometimes it’s important to see the video first because it gives background, overview, and site significance in one planned package. At other sites it may not matter what they see first, but by you providing a sequence to follow the visitor has direction and that makes him feel more secure.

A sequence organizes the mind and the visit. Create a logical sequence that’s easy to understand and follow: First, see our exhibits on the left, next, be sure to see the hallway exhibits, then don’t miss the quarter-mile walk to the overlook that begins right out the side door…instant organization! ‘Lines’ people can feel comfortable following and a sequence that makes them feel successful when completed.

Maybe you have one exhibit gallery. What sequence can you give for that? “Go in there and look around.”NO. Pick out the two most important exhibits and note those. “Our exhibit gallery is (there)… its PURPOSE is to… .Be sure to see the exhibit on the left about our first settlers, and the one about the creation of the mountain.” That’s a sequence that states a purpose, shows importance, then gives direction. It provides simple organization that produces a feeling of comfort and confidence for visitors in a new place who want to know what to do.

Anyone remember that ‘O’ in POETRY? Helping the visitor organize is ‘O’ so important. A good elevator talk makes you and your park look good, and makes the visitor experience so much better than merely a weak ‘Hello, take a look around.’

Practice your elevator talk.

September 6, 2014 / jaysmiller

In Celebration of Wilderness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn recognition of the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act I’m reposting this blog from two years ago. Join me in celebrating Wilderness.

    Like music and art, love of nature is a common language
that can transcend political or social boundaries.  

                                                       – Jimmy Carter

 The Introduction Section:

     When people use the word ‘wilderness’ I wonder if they intend for it to have the meaning I associate with it. They could mean the bucolic countryside, something you might say if you take a drive in the country. But they usually they are referring to territory “further back” than a countryside with roads, fields, woodlots, cows, beans, and farmsteads.

     Maybe they mean backcountry. I see that as something more remote than the countryside: deeper forests, fewer houses and fields, more wild than tame – or maybe that is my southern upbringing talking. Here in the temperate forest our backcountry is filled with forests. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABackcountry could be tundra or plains or desert or alpine or swamp or other somewhat remote, mostly natural landscape. Maybe backcountry is the undeveloped areas of a park. It could be a few hundred or a few thousand acres, but some see these countrysides as ‘wilderness.’

    I see even more separation, more distance, less of man and more of nature in wilderness. I occasionally get the privilege to join Dr. Joe Roggenbuck and friends in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That’s a long and descriptive name; it’s the official name. There is The Boundary Waters, a beautiful mass of lakes and connecting streams in the woods of northern Minnesota. Here you’ll find seaplanes, motorboats, roads, homes, outfitters, and lodges nestled around the clear lakes and the north woods of the Superior National Forest. The area is rustic, charming and beautiful. But within that, there is the Wilderness. When you enter the Wilderness you know it, it’s marked on the ground and on maps, and you feel the Wilderness. It’s as though the atmosphere around you changes, and there are no planes, homes, or motorboats, only the water, the rough portage trails, the glacier-carved land, and you and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAyour canoe and your paddle. What you bring is what you have, what you take home is a lot more of yourself.

 The Digression Section:

     We perceive things oddly, yet we think we perceive things completely and entirely. Yet, our perception is … about us. It begins and ends with our own memory and our first impression, our first ‘seeing’ of a place. When we see a landscape we accept it as what we see – a field, a forest, a canyon, a trail through the woods, a stream through a forest. That glance of a few minutes or a few days becomes the basis of our naming that place “wilderness.” We can expand our perception into understanding through experiences and research – Gold flowersgaining knowledge and understanding of the place. We slowly change our first-impression perception “sense of place” into an understanding-of-the-story “sense of place,” a deeper, more meaningful “sense of place.”

     That forest we first perceived as “wilderness” may be owned by a lumber company and may have been logged three times. It may have had roads and railroads crisscrossing it; it may have been homesteaded, even have been a small community. Our glance revealed an untouched place, but history tells a deeper story. With that added knowledge and experience our “sense of place” changes, it evolves as we gain an understanding of the story of the land.

The Back to the Topic Section:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut what about this word, wilderness? Environmental activist and writer, Edward Abbey wrote:

            “Wilderness is not a luxury,                                                 but a necessity of the human spirit.”

 Is that wilderness just the countryside? Is it backcountry? Is it parkland? Of course the answer is a resounding: YES! … but, not exactly. True Wilderness is so much more.

      On September 3 of 1964 something extraordinary happened. After over sixty drafts and eight years of work Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, The Wilderness Act. It created the legal definition of Wilderness in the United States, protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, and created a mechanism for designating Wilderness Areas to the National      Wilderness Preservation System.

      The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of Wilderness:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“A Wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

     Oh, one more thing: that little ‘w’ in wilderness changed forever. A capital ‘W,’ Wilderness, denotes lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System. This very special status of protection tells you these lands are among the wildest and most remote in the nation. They are even dangerous. You are own your own out there. It’s you and nature, and the challenges can be many. Want nice roads, developed trails, and a soft bed? – There are plenty of places to go for those things, but Wilderness with a capital “W” is not one of them. In Wilderness, man, and signs of man, are short-time visitors who do not remain. In Wilderness the land itself is supreme.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA     Passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act was not easy, but it was remarkable. The Wilderness Act is one example of the success of tireless efforts of conservationists and elected officials who worked together for a greater nation, and during that era passed to our generation the gifts of protected places, clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, places for outdoor recreation, wild rivers, and more. Today, we largely take these laws for granted. I encourage you to celebrate the people and legislation that has created America’s great environmental legacy, and work to keep the legacy alive.

      Interpreters, include these great environmental laws in your programs, including why and how your own site was selected and preserved. Our audience is two or three or four generations away from these events and have little emotional or physical contact with the places or benefits we reap from these laws (they do breathe the air and drink the water!). When people leave your site, they should appreciate the work of those who brought your site into existence.

     We are good at walking through the forest, patting the bunny, touching the snake, and watching the hawk soar, but in the end, your audience needs to understand that they can enjoy those things only because someone fought to save a special place: your place, they place where they are standing.

July 16, 2014 / jaysmiller

Use a funnel to find your special place

You may have a special place –a place you can return to and connect to good memories, or have peace and quiet, a place to think and restore surrounded by your favorite comforting things. For some this may be in your room surrounded by memories and books, for others this may be a library, and for others it may be outdoors along a trail, river or on a mountaintop. Your special place is chosen by you and has meaning to you. Parks, historic sites, nature centers, and similar places also have select and specific places within them that hold special meanings and significance, but we seldom think of our sites that way, and seldom take the time to seek out the location with the most significant meanings attached to them. A funnel can help.

My interpretation planning process begins with a funnel. That is, I begin with a discussion of the general resources and the many potential interpretive topics within a site. Through questions and activities we narrow those to a few of the most important. From those, reflecting on mission, significance, audience, and site resources, we move deeper into the funnel to narrow the field further and identify the highest and best topics of interpretation. I ask – If you could tell your visitor only one thing, what would that be? Or, if a visitor says he has just fifteen minutes to spend at your site, what single place tells the most important story of your site?

This generates a lot of discussion. We easily interpret many things – a little here, a bit there; rabbits on Friday and snakes on Saturday. But it’s often a challenge to identify one topic and one place that speaks to your site’s most important story. Far too seldom do talk the time and ask the questions to seek out our most important story. Often, this procedure leads to a totally unexpected place.

An 1830s home in HIstoric Washington State Park      I remember leading interpretation planning at Historic Washington State Park some years ago. The state park is filled with historic houses and stories abound at every turn. Which is the most important, if we could save only one structure what would it be? If we had to stand in the location where this history ‘shouts the loudest’ where would that be? There were many responses and a very satisfying discussion: This famous person? …That significant event? …This iconic structure?

The Southwest Trail passes in front of the 1836 Courthouse in Historic Washington State Park      The funnel-down discussion helped us focus and made us think differently. Eventually we agreed that none of our ‘regular places‘ was THAT place. Rather, we would guide the visitor to the middle of the old gravel and dirt road that leads into town from across the tracks and through the woods to the north, a place that was not a flashy stop on the town tour. Through the funnel-down process we recognized that The Southwest Trail is what brought people to Washington; every structure, every event, and every story there is connected to that old dirt and gravel road.

Identification of this place introduced a new resource, new interpretation, and new value to Historic Washington. It reshaped our approach to interpretation.

More recently, I led this first phase of interpretation planning for Wilmington State Parks in Delaware. A goal of the planning process is to identify strong themes for the site. We identified three, including:

The Brandywine River in Wilmington Delaware          The power of the Brandywine River and the passage of time connect us to people and events that changed Wilmington and the Nation.

The Brandywine River flows through the site, so this message could be used in several locations. But that’s not good enough. We needed to identify a single location where this theme echoed with clarity and strength. Where in the park does this theme come to life? We decided that there is such a powerful place:

Bridges across the Brandywine River reflect changes in commerce and technology.     Standing at the south end of The Swinging Bridge over Brandywine River, the visitor can see the clear, flowing river and the sluice that diverted river water to the several mills. Above and upriver are several bridges built at different times and in different styles.

These distinct features are tangible evidence of changes in industry and technology in Wilmington. Understanding the history is meaningful to this site, but also significant to understanding the growth of this Nation. Across the eastern states, then in all areas where rivers were available, this pattern of river/industry development occurred. As people begin to understand the industrial development pattern based on the river here, they can understand one of the important growth patterns of the nation.

This concept of message (theme) combined with a meaningful location focuses site interpretation. It replaces what is often a somewhat random and general topic selection with a thematic message that focuses on a significant resource or event of that site and engages the visitor in that unique site experience. As a result, the visitor takes home your story and remembers your site as significant and meaningful.

That’s a good thing.



June 30, 2014 / jaysmiller

I saw it on Facebook: What if we spend time and money to train our staff …

I saw it on Facebook – and I liked it. I had heard it before, and I’ve heard managers say the first line with heartfelt belief, and I can understand why.

     What if we spend the time and money to train our staff … and they leave?

The statement is a logical outgrowth of fiscal responsibility and that’s a real concern. There is a cost to training. What if we make this investment in our staff, including volunteers, and they up and leave? OUCH! In many interpretive sites we have full-time staff, part-time staff, and volunteers. Certainly the part-time staff and volunteers might move around – a lot. They join us for a few months then find a better paying position or leave for a variety of other reasons. That’s the way it works, unless there’s an intervention!

The Facebook quote I read recently continues:

Manager: What if we spend the time and money to train our staff – and they leave?

Training officer: What if we don’t train our staff – and they STAY?

Surprisingly, just days after reading this on Facebook, a training manager told me he couldn’t hire me to do a training workshop for his educators and volunteer docents because his boss said: We have a large staff and a lot of turnover. What if we spend the money to train our staff – and they leave?


     Given the scope of most corporation or agency budgets, good training doesn’t cost that much, yet reaps significant benefits. By spending relatively little time and money to train staff well, employees are much more likely to stay, and be much better employees, to boot. They will be the ones we want to stay.

Good training goes beyond teaching practices and procedures. It’s an intervention that changes normal patterns. Good training builds trust and loyalty as it teaches your philosophy. It creates community among the staff and establishes your agency culture within each employee – full-time, part-time or volunteer. Training leads to each employee finding a common set of goals and their own purposeful relationship to your mission and operation. All this leads to building a team, staff retention, customer satisfaction, and it increases the total success of your organization.

Training is not only for those persons doing a particular task for your organization, but should include the chain of command that directs and evaluates the work. In the field of interpretation, interpretation training is not only for interpreters. If we train interpreters, educators, docents, and first-contact staff in the best practices of interpretation and customer service, their managers should also be trained to understand those best practices and to manage to achieve them. This makes the entire organization stronger and better equipped to set goals, provide direction, perform to the fullest, and evaluate success.

I have seen this happen using the National Association for Interpretation’s Certificated Interpretive Guide training program. After using it as a foundation for interpretation training for several years, we approached management about using the same training for managers. The concept was that if manager are to manage interpretation they need to understand what we teach our interpreters. There was some consternation about managers having to take interpretation training, but I pointed out that this would not be interpretation training for interpreters, but would focus on techniques for managing the interpretation function of the park, complete with goal setting, teamwork, monitoring, and evaluation. The argument worked, and over a three-year period all state park superintendents completed the CIG program, with a lot of emphasis on how to use the CIG concepts to manage park interpretation. This put managers and their park interpreters on the same page. Along the way we built a team, strengthened agency culture, and generated understanding and support for interpretation. It was all good.

The question: What if we spend the time and money to train our staff and they leave? is a glass half empty. Let’s fill it up. If we train our staff well they will stay, and we will all be better for it!

November 22, 2013 / jaysmiller

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

I’m pleased that my friend Lari Jo Johnston agreed to write this piece for my blog. You’ll enjoy it.

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

first day

Lsri Jo’s first day at the Nueces Delta Preserve.

In January 2008, I was fed up with my life. I wanted a change and gave myself an ultimatum. Within the coming year I was going to find a job that brought me joy. I gave myself 12 months. I don’t set goals – I set deadlines. I made a list of all of the things that would make me happy. For the next 11 months, I actively pursued opportunities within that list.

One early spring day I took a day off from work and went on a field trip with my daughter’s 2nd grade class to the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program’s (CBBEP) Nueces Delta Preserve. I could not get over the potential of the preserve, but I certainly did not see myself interpreting nature there.  The following fall, a 5th grade teacher at my daughter’s school handed me a business card and said I should apply for the education position. I looked down and to my surprise; it was the position at the CBBEP Nueces Delta Preserve. I filled out the application, and waited.


In CIG training Lari Jo explains how students make memorable connections to the resources of the Nueces Delta Preserve.

The elementary school was taking a field trip to the Delta Preserve in late November and asked if I would go because the teacher was new and was nervous. Knowing the facility was without an educator, I did what any good teacher would do, I recalled the area, created activities based on state standards, and made a field journal for the students. It was a complete success. The teacher was impressed and the CBBEP field biologist hosting the trip told me I should email the director and tell him how successful our trip was. Well actually, he told me to tear their program apart, but I could not do that. I waited 48 hours, then carefully worded my email to the Director.

Within a week, I received a call from the Director. He wanted me to come in for an interview. After two interviews, I was not sure what to think. He said he would give me  a call when they made a decision.  At 4:30pm on December 24th I received that call. He offered me the job. It was the best Christmas gift ever.

On January 5th 2009 I walked into a highly secure building owned by the Port of Corpus Christi for my first day of work as an environmental educator for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program.  I was not sure what to expect. I found out that the education program reached 25 teachers and 200 students a year. What was I supposed to do the rest of the time?  So I got to work. In that first year, we saw 2,000 students and 150 teachers. IMG_2081Every year I have seen growth in the program. This year we saw nearly 12,000 students and 300 teachers. I often get asked how I continue to grow the program. Well, I started out  with what I knew. Education was the key. I wanted connection and interpretation to be strong, so that is what I continually work toward. We now have a staff of 2 and part-time staff of 3 and we work together to interpret the land while considering state standards and tests scores.

IMG_2018What makes the Nueces Delta Preserve special? Passion. Each and every one of my staff and volunteers is passionate about the delta, the connection we make with students and teachers, and the curriculum we create here. The job has been the best Christmas present ever because it is a gift that keeps on giving. I get to influence the lives of thousands of children and teachers each year, not to mention that they influence me as well.  So, as we go into this holiday season remember that you too have the best Christmas gift ever. You get to influence peoples’ lives in a very special way. Go forth and spread the interpretive good news!

Today, Lari Jo is Director of Environmental Education at the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries’ Nueces Delta Preserve near Corpus Christi, Texas. As part of her continuing advancements at the preserve, she asked me to lead Certified Interpretive Guide training for her staff. This week she was notified that she, her staff, and volunteers have successfully completed the requirements and are certified. Congratulations!

September 2, 2013 / jaysmiller

Six ways to push the rope uphill: Interpreting UP the chain of command.

It’s been said that after purchasing the land and building the facilities there’s only one thing left that can attract visitors and keep them coming back: interpretation. 

“Out of sight, out of mind,” is true. It’s easy and comfortable to do our research, present our programs, hear the good words from the visitors, and be that quiet person in the background. But …out of sight, out of mind … if you’re out of mind you, and interpretation, will not be part of decisions. Budgets, construction, acquisition, and funding will always be high priorities, interpretation—not so much. Like Avis’s old ad, we must try harder. We must be visible.

      1—Get serious. Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” and “The Main Thing” are two of my earlier blogs that are particularly relevant to this discussion. Interpretation is purposeful and that purpose is related to the site and agency mission and connecting the visitor with the resources that tell that story.  Before your interpretation can be perceived as more than mere fun and games, merely entertainment for the visitor, you must identify your deep messages. This knowledge can give your work the importance of purposeful interpretation.  Interpretation planning can identify your essential experiences and compelling stories. Knowing which stories are your most important can define your site experience and reshape your interpretation strategy. Each site should have this first phase of interpretation planning in place, for with that you have something of value to push uphill. You have gone beyond being the park jester.

     2—Invite your supervisor and others in the chain of command, even those way off in the central office, to your programs and events. Not every program, but selected ones. Be sure you let them know you understand they are busy and let them also know that you have something pretty special going on and if they can make it you’d like them to attend. You understand that they can’t attend everything, but an occasional invitation lets them know what you are doing and puts your work in their sight and mind. You become visible.

     3—Use the manager’s meetings. Most organizations have a monthly staff meeting and many have annual workshops. Be sure you, or the topic of meaningful interpretation, is included. It’s easy for these meetings to focus on budgets, buildings and maintenance and omit interpretation – underscoring the outdated concept that interpretation is merely an extra, just entertainment, not really important. It’s up to you to communicate with supervisors when the meetings are being planned and get on the program. Several years ago I got approval for a 1-hour session at the annual superintendent’s workshop where I recognized five of the best interpretation programs in the park system. I helped select the programs, based on quality and the program’s ability to set an example of a best practice program that others could model. But I didn’t present the programs, the superintendent had 10-minutes to tell why the program was successful. This meant they had to talk with their interpreter, learn how the program was conducted and why it was successful. This single hour focused on interpretation made good programs visible and that means a lot, and it became one of the most popular parts of our annual superintendent’s training, and continues today.

      4—Create an awards program. This can start at one site, or at an annual interpretation meeting or volunteer banquet, or as part of a national or regional organization, or as part of a system like state parks. There are many benefits including that all important visibility factor. In addition to visibility, this is another way to recognize best practice programs, which then become models for others to emulate. Plus, these are fodder for the news media and that means positive visibility for your site.

      5—Start an interpretation newsletter. This doesn’t have to be difficult and doesn’t need a mailing list of 100…maybe three is OK, so don’t let it get away from you. It can be a one-page newsletter, or a blog, intended to communicate positive information and best practices about interpretation to in-house staff. It can expand as you wish and might include volunteers or be something your visitors can sign up for to keep up with events and programs and to plan future visits. Plus, as a courtesy you send it up the chain of command. The point is that this is to be positive: stories of success, good programs to model, visitor comments, interpretive resale ideas and success, interpretive income, and praise for interpretation and interpreters. Also, this doesn’t have to be a monthly document. Think about producing it quarterly. That’s not so often and you’ll have plenty of information to choose from.

 6—Speak their language. Know the benefits of purposeful, resource-connecting interpretation and be proud and confident in what you do. If you want supervisors to listen and to appreciate interpretation, then know your audience and use their language and appeal to their interests. Interpreters have made a living off of little platitudes like making people feel good, helping people like nature, creating good experiences, patting the bunny and doing cute things. Those are OK, but that’s not the world managers live in and those cute things aren’t going to garner much respect. You’ve got to know how interpretation makes your supervisors’ world better, and it does. Get off those feel good, tree hugger things and talk business: talk money, talk visitors, talk protecting the resource, and talk generating repeat customers. Briefly, good interpretation brings people to your site, fills lodging and restaurants, promotes the site, generates revenue, makes friends for the site, and instills a sense of deep meaning and value to the site.

      It’s been said that after purchasing the land and building the facilities there’s only one thing left that can attract visitors and keep them coming back: Interpretation. No other part of management comes close to the good you do. Know it; talk about it; be visible. Be in their sight and in their mind.

August 9, 2013 / jaysmiller

Is Maslow missing?

I just returned from meeting new friends and together, exploring new territory. It was a challenging but memorable experience and I have some new gadgets, a bucketload of pictures and wonderful memories to show for it. ImageI’m very glad I did it even though the night I returned to a hotel after backpacking in the high elevations for four days I told my wife that if I ever mention doing something like that again to just slap me. Now, a few weeks have passed and I feel ready to head into the Wilderness again. I’ve already bought a new pair of boots—good boots with good soles! But that’s another story.

We had five participants and four leaders on this expedition—a pretty good teacher student ratio, and things went well. The altitude sickness I was fearing did not make an appearance, after hiking miles each day from 8,000-feet to over 12,000-feet I had no muscle soreness, each morning I felt refreshed and ready to go again, my new tent was just right (and I would soon learn that it could withstand hours of heavy rain with no problem). Things went well in the high country of Colorado.

ImageThere were nine of us on this trek to photograph wildflowers, lakes, and rocky peaks, but one person seemed to be missing. And not just from the hiking and camping part, but from the very beginning, from the first communication. That was Abraham. You know him – Abraham Maslow.

There were several issues where Maslow’s assistance could have made the trip more enjoyable and us more relaxed and better prepared. Maslow, a psychologist from the middle of last century, defines seven  ‘levels’ of psychological accomplishment and explains that a person must pass through each level, or feel comfortable with each one, before he can move to the next higher level. The highest are understanding, aesthetic and self-actualization (Where you really want to be on a mountaintop experience!). The lower levels are the basic needs of safety/security and belonging. Maslow says that if you are continually concerned with your safety and well-being you will think of little else – your first instinct is to survive and to know what is going to happen to you.

ImageWe weren’t concerned about absolute survival, though the risk of not surviving is always present in Wilderness. But we did have to be prepared by carrying our own food and shelter, clothes for comfort, warmth, rain, and of course perhaps the most important element for getting in, out, and about – boots. Plus, participants were from all over the country – from California to Ohio, several had never been to Colorado or in this type of high country. Solid information about where, when and how was critical for our preparedness and psychological comfort – Maslow’s first level. Early communication was  sketchy and trip details were kept a mystery for a month, but as departure time drew near they came through with locations and elevations so we could look up weather (the area was getting a lot of rain, and that was a worry), and then we received an equipment list, and a few days prior to the event, they answered questions.

ImageThey did a good job of selecting a meeting place that was easy to find. We were able to buy last minute items and organize for the drive to the edge of the Wilderness. Once there, with packs on our backs, we gathered to glance at a map and discuss where we were going, then, in a slight rain, we followed the leader off into the wild. We walked up and up, and up … and up. Level ground doesn’t exist here and every step is paid for with a deep breath less than half full of the oxygen I’m used to at 350 MSL. Over about four hours we climbed from 7,000 feet to 8,500 feet to our campsite at Geneva Lake. ImageIn our group some people were fast hikers and some slower. There was no organized stopping place, no stop for conversation, food or water. This surprised me as I have been trained that in physical activity you want to stay ahead of your metabolism and not use up your store of energy. One rule is: “drink every 20-minutes, eat every 40.” Stopping and gathering the group every hour, reminding folks to eat a granola bar and take a drink, and using the time to check on everyone would have strengthened the appearance of good organization and we would have all felt better, stronger, and cared for. Once you grasp that drink/eat concept it’s not hard to apply in many situations. The ‘drink 20, eat 40’ concept is a good one for day hiking or other activity anywhere. It keeps you hydrated and your energy level up.

Image This was a photo safari so we stopped often to photograph (and breathe!). The leaders were very good at letting us move at our own pace and they split up to be sure we each has a leader with us – nice, subtle leadership. Well done.

At the campsite at the end of each day we needed individual time to organize, refill and purify water, and do several other things as the daylight faded. It’s here that the second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs left us. We were left to our own devices to fix dinner and ramble about. Our tents were close enough. It’s not like we were hundreds of yards apart (more like five feet), yet we needed some structure to pull us together psychologically.

ImageA campfire would do the trick. We’d gather around, share some food, tell some stories, ask about tomorrow, and generally laugh, talk and bond around a good old traditional campfire. But we couldn’t have a campfire. Instead, we each prepared our water, lit our stove, and prepared our meal more or less alone near our tent. The centerpiece of a camping experience, the social focal point of a campfire, was missing and not replaced, and there is the flaw.

There has been a lot written about the need for a campfire in the backcountry—and the consensus is that it’s not needed. A backpacker doesn’t need to leave the charred remains of nightly campfires along his path through the backcountry. A stove is cleaner and more efficient for cooking. But in a group, the campfire is not for cooking, rather, it creates a social gathering place where for 10,000 years stories have been told and societies, tribes, and campers have bonded. Without a campfire how do you create that focal point where stories are told and ‘belonging’ is strengthened?

ImagePerhaps simply ask everyone to bring their stoves to a central place and cook and eat together. Perhaps select the central gathering place first, then set the tents so that the gathering place is recognized and established. Perhaps designate someone to have a stove going each morning to boil water and let everyone know to take their water there to boil, and have coffee and oatmeal, tea and Pop-Tarts, together to start the day and get the latest info on the day’s trek. Perhaps have an evening meeting time where we drink hot chocolate and share stories, discuss events of the day, and go over maps and routes for the next day. All this is merely leadership bringing the group together, being inclusive, and asking leading questions to motivate discussion.

Those evening and morning times as a group are critical for review, bonding and planning—cross pollinating Maslow’s defined need for belonging and acceptance as a full member of the group.

ImageNow, no one was an outcast. We were a good group, concerned, helpful, sensitive to others, observant, conversive…but there was a slight feeling of not knowing much about each other and an awkwardness of having to ask, which could have been overcome with some evening ‘belonging time’ around dinner together.

Image In spite of these small flaws, we each had a memorable experience: we explored new territory as we climbed high trails to crystal clear lakes, fields of wildflowers, and dramatic views. No one was left behind, everyone was encouraged, no one got sick or injured, and thousands of pictures were taken. Even with Maslow missing around a campfire, that’s got to be success.


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