A Therapy Program in the Wild

ALMOST THREE YEARS AGO, John Wyman ’10 traded his corporate office in Times Square for a starkly different work environment—the desert plains and mountains of central Utah. There, Wyman is an advanced field lead at Elements Traverse, a wilderness therapy program for young adults battling issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addiction, and suicidal behavior.

“I was an economics major at Middlebury, so a career in finance initially seemed like the right fit,” Wyman says. “But my first job out of college as a transfer pricing consultant in Manhattan was grinding and unfulfilling. I was only there for a year—I knew it wasn’t right for me.”

Wyman had always been passionate about the outdoors. He grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, where he spent much of his time inventing backyard and driveway sports with his older brothers, Peter ’05 and Hank ’07. When he first heard about wilderness therapy from a friend, Wyman was intrigued. He decided to take a leap of faith, applying for an opening at Elements Traverse and joining the company in 2016.

Wyman quickly fell in love with his new life out west, the splendor of the landscape and the rewarding nature of the work.

“ET is a small company, and we usually have somewhere between six and 12 clients at a time, on a rolling basis,” Wyman explains. “They’re typically between the ages of 18 and 25 and stay with us for two to three months, all of which they spend living outdoors—rain, shine, or snow.”

The trips take place in the desert and, during the hotter summer months, up in the mountains. As a field lead, Wyman spends one week on, leading the excursions, followed by one week off.

“It’s a very unique environment,” Wyman says. “As staff, we’re trained to be hands-off. It’s a non-abstinence program in the sense that we don’t tell our clients what not to do or how to live. We’re there to give them the tools to make better life choices, but ultimately the goal is for them to come to these healthy decisions on their own, through therapy and emotional support. It’s kind of like an emotional education.”

Therapy at ET is both individualized and group-oriented, with styles including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and mindfulness. A licensed therapist meets with each client weekly, but a big part of the program is the frequency of “emotional check-ins,” which Wyman helps facilitate on a daily basis.

Wyman demonstrates some basic knots. JOSH RUCHTY

Wyman demonstrates some basic knots. JOSH RUCHTY

“At various points throughout the day, or whenever anyone feels the urge, we encourage clients to talk about their feelings,” Wyman says. “Creating this safe, supportive, connected space is one of the elements I love most about my job. The level of emotional sharing and realness is unparalleled to anything I’ve experienced. It’s a very therapeutic environment that’s amazing to live in.”

Wyman stresses that ET is not a boot camp; the trips are not overly rigorous, consisting of moderate hikes and basic wilderness and camping skills. “The wilderness therapy industry has changed a lot over the past decade, and there’s much less of an emphasis on physical strain,” Wyman explains. “ET encourages clients to slow down, breathe, and hone fundamental skills like fire building and pitching a tent.” This simple, mindful way of living is what gives clients the interior space to generate personal change and empowerment.

In the field, Wyman works with clients doing moderate hikes and learning basic wilderness and camping skills. JOSH RUCHTY

Wyman credits Taft for instilling confidence in him from a young age, confidence that ultimately prompted him to stray off the beaten path and pursue a career that some may call atypical.

“The experience that always comes to mind is my senior project,” Wyman recalls. “I worked with Hunter Yale ’10 to build a boat that we launched into the pond. It felt like such an ambitious goal from the start, but we were given the freedom to try, and you know what? The boat floated. I’ll never forget that.”

—Carola Lovering ’07