For Coulter Stone, place has always been a defining element in his life. As a kid born-and-raised in Jackson Hole, place was his playground — where he played games, hiked, and waded in streams. It was his outlet to explore the natural world. As a teenager, place became his laboratory — where he went to school, did research, asked meaningful questions, and got hands-on experiences. As a college graduate, having left, returned to, and left Jackson again, place grew into community — where he discovered his passion for teaching, formed impactful relationships, and learned the power in collaboration. And now, as a young professional, place is where he’s making a difference — where he’s inspiring a connection to earth, fostering healing, and instilling values of self-reliance, self-care and resilience in young people. Those of us who’ve had the pleasure of knowing Coulter know this: for him, place isn’t just a thing to be visited; place is a whole-hearted experience, an immersion, a never-ending relationship, and at the end of the day, a feeling of coming home. We got the chance to hear from Coulter about what “place” means to him, how it’s influenced his work, and why empowering young people to be stewards of nature is his biggest dream.
Your experience at TSS, and with place-based education, has transcended so many points in your life. Tell us about that journey.
My TSS experience started back when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. I remember my parents dropping me off at a park in town. There was no Jackson Campus yet and they didn’t want parents to drive all the way to the Kelly Campus. We would play games, initiatives, and ice breakers before hopping in the vans and going to the Kelly Campus for the day. We would go on hikes, wade in streams, and look at macroinvertebrates. We would learn about all the things that are in our backyards but never really took the time to notice. I got to be a participant at TSS.
Starting in ninth grade, I decided to enroll in Journeys School. At that time, it operated out of the Mad Dog Campus and the high school was housed in a triple-wide trailer. Most of the faculty were TSS grad program alumni. Nate McClennan and Heather Marks were my Science and Math teachers. David Porter taught English and Drew Overholser taught Social Studies. The first thing we did at Journey School my freshman year was hike up to Goodwin Lake in the Gros Ventres Mountain Range. We had spent a week or two prepping and then spent a week conducting research projects–doing actual field science research. My senior year they had this capstone component where I was to choose an experience and become immersed in it. I basically stopped going to school for three months to shadow a general surgeon at the local hospital. He would have me research and write essays on appendectomies. I would scrub in and observe surgeries in the operating room. When he was on-call I would be pulled into the ER in the middle of the night to watch him do emergency surgery. When I look back at that experience, I think that’s quintessential Place-Based Education. When we talk about Place-Based Education, we usually talk about the kinds of experiences I had as a kid. I got to wade in the streams and look at macros. Journey School expanded what Place-Based Education really means for me. It really clicked with and harmonized with the entire town of Jackson. Getting hands-on learning in the local medical center with a local doctor made me feel way more connected to the town of Jackson. It was no longer just a “I’m a teenager and I’m going to go do something stupid with my friends”. Instead, I was transitioning to “I’m a teenager and I’m figuring out what it means to be an adult”. I was turning from a user of the system to more of a participant and citizen. I think Journey School really helped me do that.
High school graduation. College. Lots of long car trips from California to Wyoming and back. A waging war between studying, fun, and a desperate need for hamburgers. Exams. Thesis. Graduation. Bio degree. Then the story continues after college.
After college I came back to Jackson. While I was growing up, I didn’t realize how connected to it I was until I left. In coming back, even today at 30 years old, it has this really comforting, settling experience. It’s not that my parents are there and the house I grew up in is there. It’s that I know the names of every single mountain; I have been to the tops of most of them. I know the names of every single species of tree. I can identify most of the birds. I can walk in to the town and see the same general surgeon that I shadowed in high school. I know some of the town council men and women because they are friends of my parents. When you know a place so strongly there’s an emergence that happens. It’s not just about the peaks or the birds or the people that you know; it’s something greater than the sum of the parts. It weaves you into this greater web of things and makes you feel more connected to it. It’s that John Muir quote, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”. The same is true for all things, especially for a place like home.
When I came back to Jackson, I was trying to find a job that could help me use my degree in biology and I knew I really liked TSS. I signed up for the AmeriCorps Internship and that was amazing experience with a tremendous amount of learning. Afterward I became an instructor. It was during this time that my continuation into adulthood happened. I learned what it meant to be a professional working in the outdoor education industry. I learned to love teaching. I became a lead instructor. While I was teaching, I decided to get a master’s in science education. I was teaching full-time while going to school and it was actually the greatest way to learn. I was reading about educational theories for a week and then writing a paper on it. Then the next day I would lead a group of middle school students into Grand Teton National Park. I would use the techniques and theories I had been learning about to help me deliver content, teach lessons, and connect with the students. I would have immediate feedback and experience on what I was learning in my studies. A large component of effective Place-Based Education for me is Experiential Education. Over that year I grew so much as an educator from immersion.
After I left TSS, I moved to Ann Arbor, MI and started teaching in an alternative education classroom and I immediately tried to integrate what I had learned in my masters and TSS. I wanted my students to go outside and have more hands-on Place-Based experiences. A student wanted to learn about how to tune a piano, so I connected them with a local piano tuner and got them in front an old piano. We detuned the entire thing so that the student could go back and retune it. If a student wanted to learn psychology, we would find a local therapist. If it was sunny outside, then PE that day was held in a park, in the neighborhood. Classroom is too stifling? Better go to the local coffee shop. All of this was much more engaging, impactful, and meaningful than sitting and listening to a lecture from a PowerPoint (which I did do every once in a while, because you have to). A lot of those students who started out as very isolated, removed, academically placid, depressed, and unengaged were just flourishing. Students with no notion of success were graduating high school, going to college, and/or starting their own businesses. That’s the power of Place-Based, Experiential Education.
What does place mean to you?
I still don’t exactly know the answer to that. It’s intangible. I can tell you what my places are. I can tell you all about Jackson and the Tetons. I can tell you about the places that I’ve hiked or broken trail. I can tell you all the peaks that I’ve backcountry skied. I can still smell and taste the Snake River after being dunked excessively by Big Kahuna rapid. I can tell you explicit details about the campsites that I camped at: exactly where we had the water set up, what the cook site looked like, was the tent spot comfortable. Place, like emotion, is something really personal that only the person experiencing can fully understand. The whole idea of place is both amorphous and yet concrete.
How has your connection to place inspired the work you currently do?
I kind of compare and contrast everywhere I’ve lived to Jackson, which is not fair to other places. However, when I moved to Durango, Colorado I immediately felt that same resonance that I feel in Jackson, that same sense of “I’m home.” Today, I work at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. Open Sky provides therapy and healing for students from all over the country and even the world. It means so much to me to see our students come to this place that affects me so deeply. I am always hoping that by the end of their stay, the experience resonates for them as well. Even if they are resistant to it at first, it is my hope that in 10 or 20 years they look back and think, “that was an amazing experience. That’s the closest to nature I’ve ever been.” Even if it’s a pebble that they pick up and carry around in their pocket for 12 weeks, it is my hope that they always remember their wilderness experience.
What impact do you see this having on your participants and their families?
Living out in nature for 9-12 weeks takes a lot of self-care and resilience. You have to fetch water, chop wood, make fire, boil the water to cook your food. There are no lighters or matches in the field and so we do traditional fire-busting, which entails harvesting sage, making a bow, building a nest, and rubbing two sticks together to actually make fire. Each little thing you’re doing, you’re using tiny pieces of what’s around you to make it happen. So, connection to place inherently happens because you have to take the time to actually notice what’s around you. The act of taking care of yourself through nature is such an empowering therapeutic process. There’s so much healing involved. We also work closely with parents while their child is enrolled in the program. Many parents come out and participate in a Family QuestTM, where they are in the wilderness for a couple of days with their child for a family therapy intensive. This gives us an opportunity to work with the whole family as they experience the healing benefits of time in nature.
What has been your most rewarding moment since embarking on your journey in wilderness therapy and Open Sky?
At Open Sky, we have students who seem “stuck” or aren’t making healthy choices, perhaps due to drugs, alcohol, depression, grief, trauma, and/or other mental illness or other events in their lives. Sometimes the students say hurtful things to staff when they arrive. This can really tear at your heartstrings. We take the time to tell students how much we care about them and how we’re here to keep them safe. We listen to them when they tell us what they need and what they feel. Most students at the end of their stay (the same students who said the hurtful things in anger and fear) give you a huge hug and expresses gratitude for your support. It is incredible to be a part of and to witness.
What are your biggest dreams for the impact Open Sky or wilderness therapy in general will have on the world?
Open Sky’s mission is to inspire people to learn and live in a way that honors values and strengthens relationships. On top of that, one of my personal goals and reasons I work in the outdoor industry is to empower young people to be stewards of nature. Many students who come to Open Sky come from urban areas with little to no prior exposure to the wilderness. They are stuck in front of screens and social media. They come here to work on personal growth and healing. But later when they are choosing their careers, making decisions in the organization they work for, choosing where to go spend their free-time, or voting in the polls, hopefully they look back at their experience in the wilderness and it nudges them in the direction of responsible stewardship. I’d like for them to remember the weight of that rock they kept in their pocket or sage brush they harvested from to make their fire set. I hope that they can feel an emotional grounding when they think about natural spaces. Then when it is time to make that decision, they can also work towards healing the earth, like themselves.