Eli Marienthal’s final big-screen film role was in 2004’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Since then, Marienthal has left acting behind and gone on to discover a love of the wilderness as an outdoor educator. He founded W.I.L.D., which stands for Wilderness Immersion and Leadership Development, and Back to Earth, where his longtime friend Jesse Sachs is his business partner, collaborator and co-trip leader.
We caught up with this NOLS graduate to ask him about discovering a love of the wilderness, his passion for outdoor education, and the outcomes of the trips he’s led.
When did you start backpacking?
Jesse and I started backpacking in the Sierras in California when we were 16 and 17 years old. It was such an amazing experience of freedom and expanding horizons in my world. He really grew up backpacking and I did not.
Once I became aware that I could really take myself into parts of the world where there were no roads, once I discovered that sense of freedom and deepening connection with the natural world came from those experiences, it really changed my life in some beautiful ways. It’s where I started to have some of my earliest and most profound experiences of feeling rooted in the world, really connected and like I had a deepened sense of belonging.
Coming off that NOLS course, did you ever expect to become involved in outdoor education?
It floated for a long time as a joke and a fantasy: “Someday wouldn’t it be wonderful to share with younger men, the sense of joy and freedom that we discovered when we ourselves were in the throes of that particular struggle—which is being an adolescent male in this country.” It always hovered in the background as a dream, an aspiration, through college, graduate school and first careers. Then the conditions for it to happen aligned a couple of years ago.
I have been an educator in some capacity or another for a very long time. When I was still in high school I started facilitating creative writing and spoken word workshops through an organization called YouthSpeaks based in San Francisco. In college, I continued to be a creative writing educator in Rhode Island, working principally in the prison system out there. So I always identified as an educator. I am still in graduate school—I’m a PhD candidate in the department of geography at U.C. Berkeley.
The wilderness has always held a really important and revered place in my personal life and practice of well-being. Bringing the two together, while it wasn’t a surprise, it seemed like the obvious thing—but was not a lifelong plan.
It became clear within our first season that this is the most beautiful expression of what we want to offer to the world. I’m so grateful to have discovered this very beautiful and concrete way to be of service to these young men.
What does a W.I.L.D program look like?
We are a skill building and mindfulness backcountry program. These courses are really designed to support young men in that transitional period between adolescence and adulthood and to really support their emotional and social well-being, as well as their capacity to be amazing and competent risk managers and leaders in the backcountry.
What do participants come back reporting they’ve learned?
The first theme that really shines through is the theme of gratitude. Young guys come back and are filled with gratitude for their lives, for the ease and simplicity of their lives at home. Very often, we have young men come and discover their gratitude for their parents. They have the experience of realizing how much their parents do to support their own lives. Sometimes we need to have these unusual experiences, like sitting by ourselves in the forest, to become aware of how grateful we are just to be alive and all of the density and interconnections, all our relationships that support and make that possible.
They really seem to get in touch with their sense of wonder and delight and connected in a big way to the realization that they have a lot of choice. They sit there with themselves, “I’m bored, I want this to be over, when’s this going to be over?” and eventually that thought pattern dissolves and they discover, “I could choose to be delighted by what’s happening.”
“By the way that the insects are dancing, they’re not buzzing around me and annoying me, they are actually in a great dance and I’m a part of it too. Wow, I’ve never actually looked at a waterfall that carefully or seen all of the textures and the layers of it. I’ve never actually watched the sun rise or the moon set.”
So these very simple natural processes can come to be filled with significance and wonder. In that way they really choose to learn that they can feel wonder and delight instead of boredom and impatience.
Did you have that same experience when you took your NOLS course as a teenager?
What I really learned on my NOLS course, for which I am eternally grateful, and is such a foundation of the work I’m doing now, is how to be safe and how to take care of ourselves. The conditions we encountered really demanded a high level of awareness and engagement with our physical well-being.
I think that NOLS experience has been part of the motivation and inspiration to merge everything I loved about my expedition with even more attention paid to inviting young people to drop into their hearts.
Have you gotten any feedback about these trips?
We see these trips as nutrient-dense superfood smoothies that introduce the youth to a ton of new language, lots of new skills and all kinds of practices. This includes building a huge new vocabulary for expressing their feelings about interconnection and the connection to the natural world and their gratitude. Then they have their whole lives to practice that.
What are your goals for the company?
We are continuing to tend and grow W.I.L.D. and Back to Earth, which is the larger company. We’re doing more consulting and curriculum and outdoor education for schools and custom trips for other content providers and working with other organizations. That’s a big intention in the years to come. Also, there are so many already existing nonprofit organizations that have really deep relationships with young people and their missions would be really well served by sending young people into the wilderness.