The story typically opens with a young man, comfortable if not complacent in his life, who is called to leave home on an adventure. He first resists the journey. Sometimes even a family member discourages him; they are all too comfortable with the status quo.  Some precipitating event – overwhelming or even tragic – finally forces the young man to answer the call to leave his home and his childhood to take the hero’s journey.

Author Joseph Campbell described the heart of the hero’s journey as entering the mythological woods and encountering a trail of trials until he wins a ‘prize’ that he returns to his community. The story has been repeated throughout human history and in all cultures, from the tenth century’s Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf to the 20th century’s Luke Skywalker.  These myths and tales have mirrored the fact that throughout human history young people have taken part in traditional rites of passage and ceremonial events to mark their transition from childhood to adulthood.  In many modern societies these customs and transitions have largely disappeared, and many young people seem to remain perpetually immature and rebellious, even as they move into their twenties. 

Enter wilderness therapy programs, outdoor experiences that allow teens to once again take part in their own heroic journey, often as reluctantly as the heroes of ancient lore, but also often with equally profound transformational results.

Gil Hallows, Executive Director of Aspen Achievement Academy says, “Our whole curriculum is based on the hero’s journey. In all parts of the world and in all societies people have sent their teenagers out on a hero’s journey of self-discovery to come to terms with who they really are and what their contributions would be back to society and their family. In the post-industrial world we have lost that.”

Gil Hallows further explains, “The effect is profound. The wilderness experience gives teens a rare opportunity to take this powerful journey.  And the fact that teenagers are so hungry for this kind of transformational journey is illustrated by the profound gains they make, gains that are often permanent. Our young people are hungry for healthy, productive ways to discover what is missing from their lives so they no longer seek their purpose in unhealthy ways.”

Even the greatest heroes of literature were often reluctant to take on the challenges of their journey. In stories these challenges might be monsters or demons. In our world the demons are alcohol, drugs, addictive computer use, and high-risk behaviors. Metaphors play an essential role in these wilderness journeys. Students begin as mice, then become coyotes and buffalos, and then graduate as eagles. Personal myth-making is an essential part of the rite of passage. 

Theologian and psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Each one of us is now forced to do for ourselves what in previous ages was done by family, custom, church, and state – namely, create for ourselves the myths that will let us make some sense of experience…Myths carry on the essential task of trying to create meaning out of our lives and actions, in a world that doesn’t notice or care.”

Many teens feel isolated and alone. During the wilderness experience they connect with the group and discover their role in the larger community, the ultimate goal of the mythical hero.

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“In the typical hero’s journey,” says Gil Hallows, “There are guides and messengers who help him along the way. In wilderness programs, these helpers are field instructors, therapists, and each other.  Students who have already completed much of the journey help the newer students who are who are still struggling with their demons.”

Many parents today feel frustrated by their teens’ seeming lack of motivation. They worry that their children don’t seem to want to discover what matters to them.  In the past, a rite of passage would send a signal to adolescents that adulthood is upon them and they must now challenge themselves and decide how they are going to contribute to their family and community. 

“An important part of the journey is catching a glimpse of the new identity. The identity has been there all along, but it has been obscured by negative patterns of behavior. Through the journey in the wilderness, students get the opportunity to develop their strengths and discover the gifts that are already there.” Gil Hallows explains.

Most wilderness programs include a period of time where parents join students in the wilderness. This allows teens to anchor that new identity back to their family and home community.  

“We do this symbolically at Aspen Academy,” explains Gil. “When the parents come here for the reunion with their children, the students become the caretakers. They lead the hikes, build the fires, and cook the dinner on the fire, symbolically giving back to their parents. It is heartening to watch as parents and kids understand the impact of the journey for the first time.  Their teenager was so rebellious a month earlier and they are now saying thank you mom and dad for giving me this gift of discovering who I really am.” 

The journey is not over when students leave a wilderness program. Gil Hallows explains:

“They have acquired new skills and self-confidence, but more importantly, they now have a touchstone that they can fall back on:  whatever obstacles they encounter later in life, they always know they not only survived but thrived in their wilderness journey. They now know that there is not much the world can throw at them that they cannot meet head on.”