For Travis Gay and her family, NOLS history is a part of life.
It started twenty years ago in the summer of summer of 1995 when Gay headed to Alaska for a month-long sea kayaking course. She said that course “was a crossroads in my life, and it definitely took me on a completely different trajectory than what I would have done otherwise.”
Twenty years later, she was helping her oldest daughter, Emma, pack for her NOLS backpacking course. She was also preparing to go to Alaska, and Gay said that “it struck me, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exactly 20 years ago that I did my course.’”
Though it surprised Gay in that moment, the connection is no accident. Gay’s husband, a NOLS grad from the Semester in the Rockies in 1986, bought the lodge that once served as the home and headquarters of NOLS and its founder Paul Petzoldt in 2005. He then began a loving and dedicated restoration of the building.
Gay describes her husband as “an old-time musician and historian, and because he loves the history of music he loves the history of this house … I think he really honored this place and what it meant [as he renovated it].”
Ice axes became door handles, and Paul Petzoldt’s office became 16-year-old Emma’s bedroom. Gay said that “you can still see written on the shelves ‘small, medium, and large,’ like where wool pants or whatever piece of gear they were using [used to be] … you almost feel like you’re walking between these two worlds between the old part of the lodge and the new part of the lodge [which was renovated after a fire burned the second floor].”
Renovating the house, while it was a personal mission, also involved the local NOLS Teton Valley community. Tom Warren, a student on the first NOLS course with numerous first ascents in the Wind River Range, even helped replace the roof of the lodge after it burned. Though the renovation is complete, they, “still find the wildest stuff in this house. Like boxes of wool pants, hotel pans, all these really old saws that they used to build the house, and the house was built in ‘73. And then we find pictures, [too.]”
The lodge, though their private home, is always open to friends and the odd instructor or student from the 1970s and 80s looking to reminisce over the place where they once lived:
“This house has a lot of … just has a special feeling in it. And we still try to honor that. We have people that come from all over, lots of guests, NOLS friends, musicians, because we feel like this place housed people for years and years … and I feel like we are frequently a stepping stone for people on their journeys, wherever they’re going.”
For Gay, her journey from Alaska to Alta, Wyoming has kept her close with the NOLS community.
After her course in Alaska in 1995, she said “I instantly started trying to network to get a job there the next summer.” She worked the next two summers as the Alaska assistant manager and then manager of rations before returning to the lower 48, staying close to the NOLS community as she helped out with rations and in the kitchen in the Teton Valley.
When I asked Gay whether she noticed any similarities between her and her daughter’s experiences in Alaska, she immediately said, “The one thing that stood out is just how impactful the instructors were for the both of us. I still keep in touch with two of my instructors … [and] I feel like I heard that loud and clear from Emma. We got one letter from her [while on her course] and she went on and on about how important the conversations she had with them were and how special [they were].”
She added that, “I think she came back feeling very empowered. I feel like, as an educator myself … kids just all too often don’t have the space in life to make mistakes and figure out how to fix their mistakes and move forward, and I just felt a lot of gratitude that Emma was able to have an experience, make errors, [and] correct those errors.”
Gay and her husband had decided together that a NOLS experience was essential for their three children before they went to college, and she wasn’t disappointed. When Emma called her from Alaska after returning from the backcountry, she said that, “it’s taught me the way I want to be in the world and the way I don’t want to be in the world.”
For Gay, “as a mom those are the things that are just really special, because I feel like those are things that I want to instill in her, and the fact that she walked away from her NOLS course saying that, I mean it makes me get teary-eyed just talking about it.”
Being in the wilderness was a powerful experience for Gay, her husband, and her daughter, and living as they do in a place that fostered relationships with people and the wilderness, they will continue to thrive and keep that connection going in their family and community for years to come.
NOLS turns 50 this year!