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What’s it like to spend the holidays in wilderness?

Open Sky Alumni Student

Article contributed by Alumni Student Laney C. 2017 – Team Firefly (Adolescent Girls)

My stay at Open Sky began in October 2017, which to me seemed like the worst time of year to begin. How was I going to go through the most important holidays without my loved ones by my side, let alone living outdoors? Halloween was approaching and I knew it was just the first of many holidays I would have to endure in the wilderness. At first, I dreaded this idea. Thoughts of home flooded my mind, I questioned what I was missing out on, and I was overcome with doubts and worries.

As Halloween came around, I was convinced nobody in the wilderness would even know it was the 31st. I mean, we didn’t know what time it was after all! However, to my surprise, all of my staff woke us up that morning in costumes, with as much excitement as I once had as a child trick-or-treating!

Open Sky staff in costumes on Halloween
Open Sky field staff get into the holiday spirit on Halloween!

Throughout the day, the staff made sure to get us into the spirit of Halloween by setting up different activities for us. We painted pumpkins, painted each other’s faces, and played games. They were such simple gestures, but it meant so much that our field guides wanted only to put smiles on our faces.

My emotions were heavier on Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving had always been about family. I wondered how I was supposed to acknowledge that day without the presence of my loved ones. Ironically, this day became one of the most important and transformative days in my wilderness process. Open Sky staff had us look at Thanksgiving for what it’s truly supposed to be: a time to show gratitude and come together as a community. It was clear that everyone in the Open Sky community wanted to make this day as supportive and easy for everyone as possible, as it was going to be an emotional time for most of us.

Holiday Feast at Open Sky
Field Director, Hannah Wilson prepares a turkey with all the trimmings

We spent the beginning of the day sharing our raw emotions with one another, offering each other support, relating with one another, and coming together as the new family we were becoming. In the afternoon, we came together as an entire Open Sky community and held a talent show. This gave all of us a chance to get in touch with our “inner child,” and connect in a playful way. It gave all of us that sense of community that Thanksgiving was all about.

Open Sky Holiday Talent Show
The Open Sky Thanksgiving Day talent show tradition continues…

Thanksgiving was the first day in my life I felt supported and safe enough to get up in front of a large group and share my own voice. For the talent show, I got up and sang in front of the entire Open Sky community. I’ll never forget the empowerment and love I felt on that day. I never knew a group of strangers in the desert could make me feel so at home.

Open Sky students perform at talent show
Laney performs in front of the entire Open Sky community at the Thanksgiving talent show.

Later that night as we gathered for dinner, we shared our gratitudes with the group as we did every night. But this time things felt more genuine than they ever had within our small group. I still missed my family, of course, but I knew that nothing could replace the memories and experiences I was creating within my wilderness group.

Celebrating Hanukah at Open Sky
Happy Hanukah from out in the field!

As Christmas and Hanukah and Kwanza rolled around, I was nearing the end of my stay at Open Sky. After seeing how important it was to the guides to make our Thanksgiving as special as possible, I was excited to see what they had in store for these holidays. They knew each holiday carried special meaning for a lot of the students, and in that, a lot of emotion was to be expressed and honored. Students and staff of different heritages were given a chance to share their own traditions and culture with the group in many different ways. We sang songs, shared stories, and danced together.

Christmas really stands out to me during this time, as it is the holiday my family and I celebrate together. Throughout the days leading up to Christmas Day, students in my team spent time making the most creative gifts to give each other. Christmas morning, our staff gave us stockings and we spent the day making other meaningful gifts out of nature. Things like smudge, pieces of fire sets, hand-made necklaces, or artwork. All of these gifts may not have seemed like very much to someone outside of our circle, but to us, they were priceless.

Thanksgiving dinner preparations in the field!
Christmas dinner preparations in the field!

On this day, just like on the other holidays, all of the staff expressed the importance of community. We came together once again as the whole Open Sky community to play, share, and compete with one another. It again allowed us a space to get in touch with our playful sides, and not lose that sense of belonging and family that is often associated with the holiday season. For dinner on Christmas, just like Thanksgiving dinner, we prepared special meals outside of our usual wilderness cuisine, like ham, bacon, and pie. This made the day that much more special to all of us.

On New Year’s Eve, the whole day was centered around thinking and talking about the idea of new beginnings. We all had things we knew we wanted to leave behind with the year coming to an end, as well as things we had learned or wanted to bring into the new year approaching. The staff took their time to share their own goals or thoughts around what the transition to the new year meant to them in their own lives.

Adolescent girls celebrate the holidays in wilderness therapy
Laney (second from the right) celebrating the holidays with friends in Team Firefly.

In the final moments of 2017, we stood together and shared our deepest hopes and dreams for the new year and threw our thoughts on the past, written on scraps of paper, into the fire. This symbolized the opportunity before us to begin our new year with a clean slate. The staff then surprised us with lanterns that we set off into the night sky.

New Year’s Eve was my last day with my group at Open Sky. This time I wasn’t sad that I was in the desert, I was sad to be leaving it. That night, I cried as I sat with my newfound family and the staff that made us feel so safe, supported, and loved.

Students release lanterns into the sky on New Year's Eve.
Students release lanterns into the sky on New Year’s Eve.

Throughout the holiday season this year, I am thankful to be with my family again. The spirit of gratitude, sincerity, playfulness, and togetherness that was so integral to the holidays at Open Sky is something I cherish with my family and relationships back home. I am grateful every day to Open Sky for helping my family and me get to a place where we can truly appreciate each other and ourselves. It is because of Open Sky that I am able to feel the joy and connection with my family that I do today.


Read our other holiday-related blogs to learn more about holidays in wilderness therapy:

Traditions, Feasts and Fun: Celebrating the Holidays at Open Sky Wilderness

Reflections from Thanksgiving in the Field

November 9th, 2019

Open Sky Alumni Student