On the morning of Monday, March 16, I swiveled back and forth at my desk in the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) River Base rations room in Vernal, Utah, unsure of how to proceed. Bags of food prepared to feed thirteen 17- to 26-year-old semester students for a 15-day canoe expedition surrounded me. The students were scheduled to launch into the backcountry the next morning, but my phone kept buzzing with news of mandatory shutdowns worldwide due to COVID-19. NOLS is a global wilderness school that teaches leadership, outdoor skills, risk management, and medicine; the River Base supports extended river trips as a component of NOLS’ expeditions. I didn’t see how we could continue running courses in good conscience amidst such an uprooting global crisis.
At 1 p.m., my coworkers and I informed the students that activities for the day would be delayed as we waited for more information from NOLS’ headquarters. We trod lightly, holding no tangible information, skirting around the phrase hovering in all our minds: global pandemic. Suddenly a student blurted out, “Is this because of coronavirus?”
We all paused. Wasn’t that obvious? We realized that having been out of cell range in Wyoming for the previous weeks, the students didn’t understand the extent of the ensuing global chaos. Yes, this is because of coronavirus.
As we held space for this transparency, one of the students’ instructors approached our circle, arms shaking and tears slipping from her eyes. In a sloppy goodbye, she announced that she was leaving, bee-lining it home to Canada before the border closed. With a brisk wave, she drove away. I felt my stomach twist. I realized that we stood in the midst of crisis and loss that was unprecedented in my lifetime.
An hour later, all instructors and staff working at the Base crowded into the Program Supervisor’s office. Close the door, please. All NOLS courses, domestic and international, classroom and field, are canceled until at least May 11. All courses currently in the field will be evacuated immediately. My mind swirled with both panic and relief. Any certainty about my future, the River Base’s future, or NOLS’ future came crashing down, falling in line with the surrounding world.
We jumped into logistics. We delivered the information to the thirteen students currently at the base. Some responded with patience and understanding, while others burst into messy tears, angry and scared. We told instructors in the field via satellite phone and began to coordinate student evacuations. We delegated drivers to vehicles and routes and scattered across Utah to implement our evacuation plan. Vans and trucks brought a group from the San Juan River take-out, while cars dispersed students to fly out of Wyoming, and to the airport in Vernal. Several students stayed at the River Base, as families drove from across the country to gather their children.
Over the following four days, my coworkers and I provided food, shelter, and safety to our students. We spent nearly $1000 on Domino’s pizza, discouraged students under 21 from buying used cars and road-tripping through the desert during a global pandemic, and attempted to find support and solace for ourselves as we doled out the majority of our emotional energy to others.
As a small base under the umbrella of NOLS Rocky Mountain, we assisted in the evacuation of nearly 100 students, as locations from Wyoming to India also helped students get home. One backpacking course in Patagonia bushwhacked for nine days to a road in order to leave Chile before the border closed.
Finally, our last student drove off toward Massachusetts, a week after he’d arrived at the River Base. With a sudden loss of purpose, I began to confront my grief, as NOLS confronted the ramifications of almost $4 million of lost revenue. I cried, a lot, called my mom, ran, wrote, and restarted therapy in an attempt to make sense of the jarring loss of normalcy. My work shifted dramatically. We gathered in the mornings for hours to reflect and process together.
On March 26, another announcement arrived. The spring season is canceled and the River Base will be closing on April 8th. As the non-profit sought to minimize expenses, desperate to persist into the post-pandemic future, all operational staff’s contracts would be terminated on April 8, and salaried employees would continue in uncertainty until hearing a final decision about employment.
Eight of us have continued living at the River Base, and as we put in heartbreaking work to lay the Base to rest for the indefinite future, we also find energy and hope in our newly-formed family unit. Smiles and coffee greet me in our communal kitchen each morning, where we share our dreams from the night before. One friend spearheads sourdough bread-baking, while another is germinating seeds for a garden. I go on walks around the neighborhood, sometimes picking up fresh eggs from our neighbor’s farm stand. Sometimes we rally for mountain biking outings in the vast, Utahan desert. We often share a community dinner in the evenings, and voice our favorite things from the day. Evenings prompt either a game (Monikers and Codenames induce the most laughter) or a movie (either Disney or Harry Potter).
I feel a strong dissonance between my lived experience and the news I get from my phone and from loved ones in cities. As the world beyond me swirls in uncertainty and isolation, I have gotten to exist in a microcosm of support, gratitude, and love. On April 8th, NOLS announced the termination of the rest of the River Base employees and canceled all field courses until at least July 1st. Over the next weeks and months, we will go our separate ways as NOLS hibernates for the indefinite future. We are all concerned about the future of an organization that we care about so much, but understand that the greatness of NOLS derives from its people — a greatness of curiosity, growth, and compassion that we will carry with us into the next chapter, whatever it brings.