Posted by Michelle Patten
When you picture an outdoor adventure guide, I am probably not the person that comes to mind. I am a female autistic math major living in Dallas most of the year, yet somehow I ended up working at a summer internship in Glacier View, Alaska that changed my life. From day one, I felt somewhat out of place. Everyone around me was majoring in outdoor education, environmental science, or geology, and there I was, the nerdy and shy mathematician. We all had a desire to share the outdoors with other people, but even so, I felt different.
I spent a lot of time this summer leading tours on our zipline at Glacier View Adventures. Often clients would ask what I do during the year, and I’d mention I am still in school. They were always surprised to hear I’m studying math on a full scholarship. I had a lot of people asking, “Why are you here?” and “How does that relate?” and honestly, those people were just as confused as I was.
I always thought I was going to become a college professor and teach for the rest of my life. Then last summer, when I was 19, I suffered a stroke and my whole perspective on life changed. I wanted to have some adventures and experience the world, and I wanted to help others do that too. So, I applied for various outdoor internships, which brought me to Alaska for the summer.
For a while I thought that I was not particularly good at connecting with clients on the zipline. I’ve never thought of myself as a social person, especially on the fly (I guess that’s the autism for you). I was so different from the vast majority of clients that came through each day, and I only got about an hour with them before they left and I would never see them again. I found myself often wondering if the work I was doing even meant anything in the grand scheme of things. But about a month into my job, one trip really left an impact on me.
I was standing on top of the zipline tower, with a mother and a young boy who seemed to have questions about every little thing that was going on. His mother turned to me at one point and apologized saying, “I’m sorry he has so much to ask, he has autism.” And I was able to turn back with a grin on my face and say, “Don’t worry, I understand, I do too!” I then looked at the young boy and saw his face beaming. He was so excited to see someone like him doing a really cool job as a zipline guide! I understood why he was asking so many questions, and I was happy to take the time to help him enjoy the zipline experience. Spending a few extra minutes ensuring that he had a positive and hopefully exciting experience made this one of the best trips I led this summer!
I had a few more interactions guiding clients with various disabilities, including a handful of other autistic individuals. I found these experiences to be rewarding because, in the short time that I had to interact with disabled clients, I was able to form incredible connections that the customer might not have experienced otherwise.
This winter I am working to continue bringing disabled people into the outdoors as an adaptive ski instructor, and I could not be more excited for the opportunities that lie ahead in my guiding career. I may not be your standard outdoor adventure guide, but there are a lot of people out there who are not your typical adventurers. Getting to work with those people and give them amazing experiences is the reason this random mathematics major ended up in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska for the best summer of her life.