At Teton Youth and Family Services’ residential treatment facility Red Top Meadows, where troubled teenagers from across Wyoming come to work out their behavioral problems, the process often lasts a year, sometimes two. During that time, when the kids aren’t in school sessions, they spend a small portion trekking through the desert and the mountains, simultaneously probing the worlds within and without them.
During the Red Top graduation ceremony, when they recount favorite memories from their stay, the backcountry adventures — 24 days backpacking through the Tetons, a week ski touring and sleeping in snow shelters, and more — seem to leave outsized impressions.
For Teddy Nichols, who organizes the outings, it’s a point of pride to hear those anecdotes from “a population that I think really needs to be introduced to the therapeutic benefits of shared experience in the outdoors.
“To get that extended opportunity to be in the wilderness, with the same group of people, is really powerful,” Nichols said. “For these kids to realize they can do that … is quite an eye-opening experience.”
Much of Nichols’ own childhood played out in natural environments. In Toledo, Ohio, on the western tip of Lake Erie, he was raised “in the classic suburban American home lifestyle.” But his family also camped often, and for years he attended a “rustic, outdoorsy” summer camp.
It was only in college, though, that the outdoors became inseparable from his life plans. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, Nichols and “a whole crew of college buddies” migrated to Jackson in 2011 for a season of ski bumming.
Soon after that he met some of the staff from Red Top while working the front desk at the Teton County Recreation Center. A couple weeks later he began substituting at the treatment center. Red Top quickly hired him for a full-time position, and a few years later he replaced his retiring predecessor, Mark Ames, a pioneering practitioner of wilderness therapy who had held the post since the 1980s.
Now, half a decade later, he has just bought a house in Victor, Idaho, with his fiancée Sydney Millyard, and their dog Koda, and he doesn’t hesitate to say that he has found his dream job. He had known for years that he wanted to work with young boys, to be a positive influence for them. He considers it one of his main goals to offer himself as a role model: a valuable member of society they can see themselves in.
Before Red Top, Nichols had already spent a few summers running youth leadership and cultural exchange programs for teenagers around the world. These days he works more on the back end: planning trips, dealing with permits, handling emergencies.
But whenever possible, “I try my best to take advantage of the ‘wilderness’ aspect of my job title.” Though he isn’t spending weeks on end in the backcountry, he hikes in to meet the groups for days at a time.
Back at the office he stays engaged in the day-to-day fun stuff.
“I was playing capture the flag yesterday,” he said.
He’s still able to form relationships with the boys and support them through the treatment process.
When Nichols tells people about his work they may imagine these moments and invariably say something like, “Oh, your job must be so rewarding,” he said. But it’s not that straightforward. There’s no guarantee each kid will have anything resembling a breakthrough.
“There’s pretty serious reasons why they’ve been removed from their communities,” he said. “They’re the kids getting pissed off in math class and flipping their desk and punching the wall and then they get suspended for two weeks.”
For many children Red Top is “a last-chance stop” before juvenile detention or psychiatric care. And in that final opportunity, many do make enough progress to avoid more drastic measures and return to their families. Often, Nichols said, the backcountry trips represent a major leap in that progress.
He has considered why they have such a profound effect. For one, many of the kids have had “very minimal exposure to, to put it bluntly, more than their trailer-park existence in Evanston.” To virgin eyes the Teton peaks and Utah canyons are dazzling and humbling, capable of shifting a person’s ideas about themselves and the rest of the world.
Learning to overcome and navigate these novel landscapes may also show them they can conquer challenges in other realms of life: poor social skills, poor self-esteem, depression, rejection.
Beyond that, though, Nichols noted that the wilderness simplifies everything. The “ins and outs and the monotony of everyday life” recede, until you need only water, food and shelter. Once you’ve accounted for those needs, you have nothing to do but admire your surroundings and — more importantly, in Nichols’ view — enjoy the company of friends.
In the backcountry, when each member of a group is interdependent, the consequences of their actions also grow clearer.
“They’re connected to things greater than themselves on these trips,” Nichols said. “They’re carrying the tent, and the other kids that are a quarter-mile ahead of them on the trail need them to get to camp.”
With that perspective, often fundamentally new to them, the boys are primed to rethink their place in society. This past summer, Nichols said, one especially strong boy kept hiking ahead of the group. He showed little empathy for the others. But by the end of the three-week backpacking trip through the Tetons he learned that he was “just one piece in this puzzle” and even began taking a lot of weight from the others.
Nichols counts himself lucky to witness these epiphanies, but they don’t always come. Often he feels more as though he’s helping the kids lay a foundation upon which they can build better relationships when they return to their communities.
These lessons may not even be apparent to the boys until they’re long gone from Red Top. But sometimes, when Nichols hears from them later on, he sees the evidence of his success.
“When a kid calls back after they’ve left our program to say that, ‘When you were telling me that and I was screaming at you to f--k off, I just want to let you know you were right, and thank you for sticking with me and not giving up on me,’” he said. “Those are the moments I find rewarding.”