Wilderness of the world: Reconnecting with nature helps struggling teens, families heal

Canyon Lake in the Tonto National Forest along the Apache Trail in Arizona. (Stock photo)

Canyon Lake in the Tonto National Forest along the Apache Trail in Arizona. (Stock photo)

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST – “There’s a certain element of trauma that comes when you are removed from your comfort zone and taken to a place you don’t really know or understand or want to be in,” said Dan Santovin, who works with troubled youth and their families in the Anasazi wilderness behavioral program.

Teenagers and young adults in the program hike deep into forests, including the Tonto National Forest northeast of metro Phoenix, for a minimum of seven weeks, living primitively and learning from guides — the trail walkers who accompany them — and therapists, known as shadows.

The program is meant to help struggling young people and their families deal with substance abuse, depression, self-harming behavior, bipolar disorder and other concerns. Back home, parents participate in workshops and weekly therapy sessions before reuniting with their children in the wilderness. The process teaches everyone to respect and trust one another again.

The bulk of the work is done in the forest, between the participant and trail walker. Each week, they hike 10 to 25 miles, sleeping on the forest floor in sleeping bags and mastering survival skills.

“There’s something about walking that is very therapeutic,” said Santovin, a trail walker for Anasazi, a Mesa nonprofit that was founded in 1988.

Eric Taylor was 17 when his parents sent him into the woods.

“I wasn’t happy about that, but I went and I had an incredible experience,” he said. As a trail walker now, he can relate to the teens who arrive on the trail angry and upset.

“When you’re out here, you leave your whole life out there … All the people, places, your whole environment is gone,” said Hana Rain Olsen, a walker in the Sinagua program intended for age 18 or older.

“If you can live in the wilderness out here where you have nothing, then you are going to thrive in the wilderness where you have everything. We call it the wilderness of the world.”

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