When I Was 11 a Tall Man with a Mustache Infected Me

[originally published on Substack]

“What’s on your goal list, Blake?”

The mustachioed man sat to my right, heading a table filled with prepubescent boys, towering over us as we slurped spoonfuls of rice krispies. Reconstituted milk dribbled down my chin as I stuttered an answer to his unexpected question.

“My goal list? Um, I don’t know.”

It was my second day of summer camp, and I’d been assigned to the breakfast table of the camp’s founder and director, Jim Wiltens.

“If you want to do amazing things with your life, Blake, you’ll want to start writing down your dreams.”

All eyes fixated on our little interaction as each boy wondered whether he would become the next target of Jim’s good-natured yet intimidating line of interrogation.

At this remote camp in the mountains of California, Jim Wiltens was god. Tall, fit, charismatic, multitalented, and naturally authoritative, every word that came out of his mouth commanded the attention of the 50 campers and dozen counselors. Everyone at the camp admired, respected, and feared Jim—but none more than the youngest, first-time campers like myself and the boys at my table.

“I’ve dived with Great White sharks, marooned myself on deserted islands, paddled the Amazon, and worked for search and rescue,” Jim continued unabashedly. “Every adventure I’ve gone on started on my goal list. You might want to take a look at John Goddard’s list.” He gestured toward a framed article in the corner of the lodge.

John Goddard, I learned while inspecting the document after breakfast, was 15 when he overheard friends of his father complaining that they’d never accomplished their dreams. Not wanting to suffer the same fate, John sat down at his kitchen table in Los Angeles and penned 127 life goals. Now, in 1994—when Goddard was 70 and I was 11—he had completed more than 100 of his objectives: summiting high peaks, exploring remote rivers, studying “primitive” cultures, visiting iconic cultural sites, learning to pilot different crafts, reading great works of literature, building a telescope, and milking a poisonous snake.

Apparently Indiana Jones did exist—and he had a clone. One stared at me from behind a frame; the other commanded my breakfast table. Both were tall white men; both had mustaches.

Like Jim and John, I hailed from suburban California, where I dedicated my young life to schoolwork, rollerblading, Magic: the Gathering, AmericaOnline, and beating my brother in Mortal Kombat. My dad, a successful small-businessman, occasionally took us hiking and skiing but never overnight camping. Life was straightforward, happy, and basically privileged in a sunny, post-Cold War, California-boom-times kind of way.

But now I found myself suddenly questioning the value of routine and predictability. Because here were these seemingly normal dudes from the suburbs leading lives of adventure, challenge, and intrigue, armed with no more than a goal list, topographic maps, and a “can-do“ attitude. Jim and John made anything seem possible if you only had the temerity to dream bigger: a romantic vision of infinite possibility reinforced by the isolated and idyllic nature of the wilderness camp. (It’s easier to dream big when you’re surrounded by pine trees, freshwater lakes, polished granite, endless sunshine, and no actual members of adult society beyond 20-year-old camp counselors.)

My young brain wheeled, marveled, and relented. These guys were onto something.

“Okay Jim, I have a goal. Two goals actually.”

Two days later, I’d returned to the breakfast table determined to say something impressive.

“And what are those, Blake?”

“I want to get to triangle, and I want to go on the ascent.”

Triangle was code for the camp’s advanced windsurfing class, in which you got to cruise around in a triangle-shaped section of the lake. The ascent was an intense 3-day backpacking trip, one that only a few campers qualified to join each year.

“Those are some pretty big goals, Blake. You might need to come back for another session of camp to accomplish them. But if you keep your attitude up, you’ll get there.”

I did not achieve either of those goals in my first two-week session of Deer Crossing Camp, but I did go home determined to return—which I did the next summer, an “old timer” at only 12 years old, feeling like a veteran versed in the camp’s lore and byzantine rules. I showed “new timers“ the ropes, helped set up the activity board each morning, and worked steadily toward my windsurfing goal, building a sense of confidence that middle school would fail to tear down in the months that followed.

At 13 I returned for four full weeks, finally became a triangle windsurfer, and bonded more deeply with the counselors. My respect for Jim deepened as I learned that, beyond his outdoor and travel accomplishments, he was also a multiple-time author, a workshop leader for Silicon Valley schools and tech companies, a proud eccentric (having once dredged a river for gold and frequently dressing up in full costume as Leonardo DaVinci), an occasional rapscallion (having once snuck into Alcatraz), and a father, too. Like a Sheryl Sandberg for 13-year-old boys in mid-nineties, Jim showed me that I could have it all—career, family, home, and high adventure—if I only followed the framed maxims on the camp walls, all of which he devised himself:

True leaders first learn to lead themselves.

Success is 90% attitude, 10% experience.

Extraordinary people are ordinary people with extraordinary amounts of determination.

The following year I skipped camp to go on my first international adventure—living with a homestay family in Chile for a month, doing full Spanish immersion—only to return in 1998, for a final, triumphant summer at age 15: the big man on campus, the hot-shot windsurfer, the alumnus who had come home (with some jokes in Spanish, to boot). I made a camp girlfriend—something that never happened back in the real world—and finally achieved my long-held goal of joining the ascent trip.

Though I would ultimately spend five more summers at Deer Crossing Camp from age 20-25—serving as camp counselor, assistant director, cook, and deputy director—the real work was already done by age 11. Jim Wiltens exposed me to a different way of living. By orienting myself around adventure, by refracting all my light through this one lens, I would never wake up as a soggy old adult complaining about never achieving my dreams. Incubated in the safety and beauty of the High Sierra, the adventure virus quietly reconstructed my value system, mixing California libertarianism with New England transcendentalism, Silicon Valley with Jack Kerouac, John Muir with Tony Robbins. As an operating system for life, it all made perfect sense to my 11- to 15-year-old brain: Dream big. Set goals. Embrace challenge. Stay positive. Fight complacency. Never settle.

Thanks, Jim. And if only it were that simple.

[Learn more: Deer Crossing Camp / Jim Wiltens / John Goddard]



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