The Road Less Traveled’s founders and Directors, Jim and Donna Stein, have been offering summer travel and adventure programs for teens for the past 28 years. However, many years before Jim and Donna sat down at their kitchen table with a yellow pad of paper to start The Road Less Traveled, Jim discovered his lifelong commitment to education and leadership in the wilderness.
When he was 15, Jim participated on Man and His Land, a nine-week wilderness experience with Nelson Wieters, founder, director, and pioneer of the first wilderness adventure program offered in the western United States. After he had such a phenomenal experience as a participant on Man and His Land, Jim went on to lead and direct expeditions for Nelson for nearly a decade.
Our office team sat down with Jim to talk more about his experience with Man and His Land and how it influenced him and Donna to continue the legacy of Nelson Wieters and found The Road Less Traveled.
What is Man and His Land, and how did you first get introduced to the program?
Picture this – a skinny kid, showing some promise as an athlete but still painfully shy and extremely sensitive without any semblance of who I was or someday wanted to be. This was me, Jim Stein, in the run up to the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school.
I’d grown up in the suburbs, going to resident camp in Maine, and even though I was admittedly a bit lost, I was smart enough to realize that I wanted something different.
When Nelson Wieters, founder of Man and His Land and assistant professor of Recreation and Outdoor Education at George Williams College in Downers Grove, Illinois, came to my house and shared a video with my family of his students backpacking, swimming in waterfalls and climbing the famed Mt. Rainier, I stood straight up and said I wanted to go. Thankfully my parents were on board!
What is your most vivid memory from your first trip with MHL?
The most memorable experience was hiking 16 miles in too-tight hiking boots (I couldn’t feel my big toes) to get to Glacier National Park’s Hole-in-the-Wall complete with 16 waterfalls. With each turn, I persevered. In those nine weeks, we traveled all across the great American West, including all of Rocky Mountain National Park, traversing Havasupai Canyon in Arizona, summiting Washington’s Mount Rainier, and rafting the Gates of Lodore on Utah’s Green River.
How do you think Man and His Land has shaped who you have become?
That summer allowed me to do things I never imagined possible. With careful instruction, I was able to climb a mountain, hard-shell kayak a raging rapid, and scale a mountain’s flat face with only my fingers, toes and wits to rely on. When I returned home my parents didn’t recognize me: I’d lost weight (remember I was already skinny), I’d grown 4 inches and my newly found self-confidence was immediately evident as I hopped down from the bus, smiling.
The impact of Man and His Land reached far beyond the summer – it helped me realize that challenge is healthy and achievable, even when significant. It introduced me to other fascinating cultures and by doing so helped me develop compassion and respect for others. The experience also helped me understand our impact on the land and helped me foster a sense of stewardship to the planet and the living things that inhabit it. Those nine weeks introduced me to how groups function, that the needs of a group must supersede the needs of any individual participant, and that it is imperative to participate positively and support others.
How did your experience with MHL inspire you and Donna to start RLT?
After leading and directing expeditions for Nelson and Man and His Land for nearly a decade. I moved on to the corporate world – the environment that I was involved in was centered around a definition of success that I had trouble embracing. That making a profit and not stopping at anything in order to achieve it was the most important thing. That outlook did not embrace compassion for others, respect for other cultures, “ethical honesty,” development of the full human being, commitment, being of service, or protecting and respecting the planet and the living things that inhabit it. Nor did it celebrate the uniqueness of each individual.
As Donna and I started our family, we decided that we wanted to raise our children embracing the values we believed in. One sunny summer afternoon in Chicago, we purposefully took pen to an “illustrious yellow pad of paper” at our kitchen table and made a choice to follow a dream – that’s when The Road Less Traveled was born. We had no idea where it would lead us or what the future would hold, but our hope was to create a one-of-a-kind, life-changing experience for youth that would transform people’s lives around the world.
Our adventure programs are designed to help our participants find ways they can succeed, whether it be cooking the best quesadillas, hiking Norway’s highest peak, or looking into the eyes of a wolf for the first time. All of these experiences take our participants outside of themselves, their comfort zones, and push their boundaries, resulting in an important milestone in their development. We strongly believe that allowing teens the chance to feel great about themselves in the outdoors is vital at this time in their lives.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading more about Jim’s experience with Man and His Land. It has been exciting to see many former Man and His Land participants reach out and enroll their own children on programs with The Road Less Traveled. If you’re seeking adventure this summer, check out The Road Less Traveled’s 2019 travel programs!