City Slickers: Let the Cattle Speak for Themselves

© Ray Woodcock, 2006
Indiana University


City Slickers, the classic movie starring Billy Crystal, portrays a man who rediscovers a part of himself during a two-week cattle drive adventure in the rugged American West. His rediscovery arises from the challenge itself, with minimal psychologically oriented discussion or “processing.” The belief that such a thing can happen—that, indeed, such self-driven discovery may be superior to an excessively verbalised experience—echoes the famous objection of Outward Bound leader Rusty Baillie, who said, “Let the mountains speak for themselves.”

Citing aspects of City Slickers for illustration, this article questions the efficacy and propriety of certain forms of adventure therapy processing, and offers cautionary notes on attempts to reduce great adventure experiences to words. Topics addressed include the principle of parsimony, the meaning of experiences, learning from experience, processing, training for processing, and the feasibility of relevant research in outdoor education.

[This is a prepublication version of the article published in Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 10(1), pp. 3-10, 2006.]

* * * * *

City Slickers: Let the Cattle Speak for Themselves

A popular film hardly constitutes scholarly work. Taken as an interpretation of common experience, however, a well-received movie may convey intriguing messages about phenomena of academic interest. Such is the case with City Slickers (Smith & Underwood, 1991), which was one of history’s more successful films—ranking ahead of Rocky, for example, and Good Morning, Vietnam on the all-time USA box office list (IMDB, 2004).

In the film, comedian Billy Crystal plays the part of Mitch, a middle-aged New Yorker. With his friends Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), Mitch travels to New Mexico to experience a different sort of vacation, in the form of a two-week cattle drive. Under the terse, intimidating guidance of the old cowboy known as Curly (Jack Palance, winning an Oscar award for his performance), Mitch achieves a life change that is by turns dramatic, funny, and poignant. In the end, the city boy becomes enough of a cowpoke to take charge and make the drive a success, discovering an unexpected competence and rediscovering, as well, his ability to smile.

That tale of personal achievement through adventure contains subtle commentary on the place of verbal processing. As an illustration, Curly disdains Mitch’s small talk, and positions himself as something other than a warm, fuzzy therapist. Consider this exchange:

Mitch: Hi, Curly. Kill anyone today?

Curly: Day ain’t over yet.

Somehow though, the old cowboy, with his few words, helps Mitch to achieve something in the wild that had eluded him in his comfort zone in the city. Ultimately it is action, not speech, that makes the difference. This outcome evokes the view attributed to Rusty Baillie, an Outward Bound course director, who reportedly did not wish to make his students engage in extensive discussions of their outdoor adventure experiences. Baillie’s memorable response: “Let the mountains speak for themselves” (Priest & Gass, 1997, p. 174; James, 1980).

To every thing, says the ancient adage, there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1, King James Version Bible). It is not always necessary to articulate. Even in group psychotherapy, where people assemble for the express purpose of discussion, Yalom (1995) observes,

[S]ilence is never silent; it is behavior and, like all other behavior in the group, has meaning .… [If] a group is tense and experiences a silence of a minute or two (a minute’s silence feels very long in a [psychotherapy] group), I often ask for a go-around in which each member says, quickly, what he or she has been feeling or has thought of saying, but did not, in that silence. … [But it] is a mistake to use [such] exercises as emotional space filler—that is, as something interesting to do when the group seems at loose ends. (pp. 376, 447)

In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, the movie’s suggestion is not that an overly chatty leader should completely withdraw from group interaction. Curly did, after all, burst into song when provoked. But one might recognise that, somehow, people do muddle through, making changes in their lives and achieving learning without overanalysing their outdoor experiences. In that spirit, this article presents several considerations that may mitigate the felt need to conduct formal group discussions of adventure activities.


“Keep it simple,” goes the sage advice. Or, for those who find that advice a little too sage, the time-honoured alternative is Ockham’s Razor, named for William of Ockham (1285?-1349?). Ockham’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, says, “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” (Britannica, 2004). One might apply the principle in this context by observing that, if an outdoors experience can generate a desired result largely by itself, as in the movie, there is no need for a potentially expensive and conceptually complex processing component to achieve that same end. Ockham’s skeptical principle requires a good reason for adding complications, e.g., injecting the personality and ideas of the group leader into the participant’s thinking.

Learning from Experience

The outdoor education literature frequently refers to various forms of group discussion, using such terms as “debriefing,” “processing,” or “facilitation” (Hutchinson & Dattilo, 2001). The classic model is the circle, formed after an activity, for the purpose of talking about that activity and applying insights from it to one’s life. Beyond that classic model, there is said to be a continuum of possibilities between the extremes of silence (or anarchism), on one hand, and of tight leader control on the other (Bocher, Miller, & Simpson, 2005). The following discussion focuses upon the classic post-event circle, but has application to other permutations as well.

In City Slickers, Mitch’s moment of truth came by surprise, following Curly’s sudden departure to that great rangeland in the sky. Of course, organisations offering educational adventure experiences tend to provide their challenges in a more planned manner. For example, Outward Bound (2004) regularly “takes people of all ages deep into remote and amazing places,” and through such experiences, “you meet challenges, both physical and mental, and return with a deeper knowledge of yourself and the world in which we live” (p. 1).

What is interesting, about that statement from Outward Bound (2004), is that it focuses upon challenges posed by the experiences themselves, not by any derivative oral anticipation or rehashing. Thus, the websites of Outward Bound (2006) and of Outward Bound International (2006) contain few references to such verbal activities, and the exceptions tend to prove the rule. For example, the Course Elements webpage of Outward Bound International says, “Instructors assist by briefing and debriefing experiences to aid clear, respectful communication.” That stated purpose of the verbal component does not suggest that the objective of “briefing and debriefing” is to achieve, by collective exposition, some result that might lie beyond the power of the experience itself.

Some authors (e.g., Kolb, 1984, p. 40; Priest & Gass, 1997, pp. 17, 136) contend that thinking about an experience is essential for learning from it. That may be. But people are able to think without assistance. Besides, a leader cannot know what is going through the mind of each group member, much less change it. Characterological change is an “ambitious” goal (Yalom, 1995, p. 80), for which outdoor leaders may have a propensity for overconfidence incommensurate with their actual ability to affect clients (cf. Brookes, 2003).

To illustrate one alternative approach, Curly does offer advice to Mitch, but does so in such a way as to leave the responsibility for learning and growth squarely in Mitch’s hands:

Curly: You know what the secret to life is?

Mitch: No. What?

Curly: [Holds up his index finger.] One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothin’.

Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.

While it can be helpful to provide more detailed guidance, so as to steer group members to focus on certain areas, doing so can also flavor what the experience actually means to them (Brown, 2003). It can distract them from a rare change of perspective on life, or from a new awareness of issues that may have emerged during their experience—including issues that, by their inner compass, carry greater personal significance than do the topics that intrigue the leader.

Ockham’s Razor, and a basic respect for people’s right to allocate their time and thoughts as they see fit, suggest that a leader might hesitate to insist upon discussion. Such hesitation seems especially prudent where the discussion leader is inexperienced, or lacks sensitivity toward the clients or interest in them, or is unfamiliar with their cultures or personalities, or when clients are not ready to talk. Good conversation may have to be earned. For example, group members on a multi-day outing, accompanied by an experienced conversationalist, may eventually develop a receptivity to intensely personal dialogue, of a kind that would rarely emerge in any sincerity during a canned four-hour visit to a ropes course.


When Mitch went west in City Slickers, he joined the innumerable Kerouacs who have wandered, searching for insight (cf. Suler, 1990, p. 74). One could construe his journey as a version of the Plains Indians’ “vision quest,” which typically entailed “magical” acquisition of practical skill (Benedict, 1922, p. 2; Teit, 1905, pp. 598-599), or as a form of walkabout or pilgrimage to a place of learning or connection with nature, somewhere out there.

True to such models, Mitch needed no map. His epiphany would emerge at an indeterminate point along the way, this side of the eventual destination, in an insight fueled by experience. Despite his garrulousness (or perhaps because of fatigue with it), the movie-going public responded positively to a tale in which, ultimately, he succeeded through his newfound ability to act—not through his old, familiar gift of self-expression. It is as if some force within his life were propelling him into the very sort of situation in which all power would fade from his glib façade. There, mere words would have no more effect against the raw elements than would any magic employed in prior centuries by native residents of the selfsame locale.

The discovery, for Mitch, was that talk can create its own self-sustaining momentum—a sense that one is doing something interesting, and possibly of some value—that swells and wraps around itself until the line of the circle yields never-ending progress to nowhere. There comes a time to rebel against all that. Consonant with the premises of experiential education, there comes a time to acknowledge that cognitive manipulations of linguistic symbols do not begin to accommodate the primeval impressions that come flooding back into consciousness when one becomes opened to wilderness, after so many years of a person’s (indeed, a culture’s) absence from it. “Nature!” one imagines the travel ad: “It’s not like any place you’ve ever been.”

Many people are unable to get out into the wild very often. It can be tremendous just to be there; and even after the initial shock wears off, the mere exposure remains inimitable, as its fingers massage down into the bone. When the effect begins to take hold, the idea that some of Mitch’s fellow dude cowboys would bring along a coffee grinder (or, one might now say, a cell phone) starts to seem ridiculous. One suddenly wonders whether Curly was more than a crusty old throwback—whether perhaps he had achieved an advanced comprehension of language, and its limits, through extended comparison against the irreducible outdoors.

Ironically, it appears that, the stranger or more powerful one’s experience—as when one attempts to recount a vivid dream—the more words may pale by comparison. Those who experience a tragedy, for example, may suddenly discover that it becomes vastly more difficult to try to explain it, now that they finally know, firsthand, what they are talking about. To require someone to put a deep experience into words is to imply that its power remains secondary to the force of language; it is to deny, to the participant, the option of accepting it on its own terms.

Language is exposed for what it is, when one gets back in touch with reality. People have long remarked, for example, that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” that “words cannot describe” a feeling, and that “actions speak louder.” What is surprising is not that there are such limits on the force of these little sounds that come out of people’s mouths. What is surprising is that people have ever managed to persuade themselves that any other conclusion were possible.

Meaning of the Experience

The vision quest, although unfolding in a place that may be considered special, is eminently a quest for a vision. Mitch, in New Mexico, was not seen tracing back and forth across the barren land, hoping to stumble upon some unique physical vortex of clarity. Nor was he locked in a closet, trying to locate a thought already present to mind. The premise was, rather, that meaning would come into existence—new meaning, never previously grasped—at the intersection of his unpredictable encounters with new people and adventures.

It is often said, within the outdoor education literature, that learning occurs when the student has an experience, reflects on it, and then applies the resulting insights (e.g., Kolb, 1984; Hutchinson & Dattilo, 2001). As one approach to such reflection, Luckner and Nadler (1995) recommend being more aware of the experience while it is occurring. But there is, in that recommendation, an objectivist implication that one’s mind is somehow separated from the experience, as if in a laboratory—that the experience is going on over there, as it were, and the mind is observing it from over here, and that one can simply adjust the degree of attention that the mind is paying to the experience, without simultaneously affecting the experience itself.

That, of course, will not fly. The experience in question is the experience of a human being, who presumably comes equipped with a mind. The experience has no meaning to that person apart from the involvement of that mind; and when the mind is engaged in one way, the meaning is different than if the mind were engaged in another way. In Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) “flow” construct, for instance, a state of mental absorption results, not automatically from some action distinct from the actor, but rather as a result of a combination of the two. Hence, awareness of an experience or contemporaneous reflection on it (or the lack thereof), is surely an intrinsic part or source of the content of that experience for the person in question (cf. Fenwick, 2000).

Similar conclusions apply to backward-looking reflection. As Luckner and Nadler (1995) say, learning is a “continuous” construction of richer and more complex meanings (p. 177). Experience does not end when one climbs out of the saddle or takes off the backpack. One’s perspective on the day’s physical activity may change as a result of nighttime discussion around the fire. In City Slickers, extensive verbal analysis of events would have played to Mitch’s strengths. For example, upon seeing Curly’s likely reluctance to engage in extended fireside recapitulations, Mitch might easily have concluded that the strong, silent style was a weakness, not worth learning from, rather than possibly being a superior adaptation.

At night, the day’s adventure experience typically comes to an end and slips into the past. In that sense, it cannot be changed by any retrospective treatment adhering to its surface through the application of supplementary words. But words can alter its present meaning for the participant. The message of City Slickers—of indeed, all manner of leisure experiences, beginning with childhood play—is that the unprocessed version of a story may be not only sufficient but superior: It may cost less; it may be more universally available and less vulnerable to reflective distortion; and through sheer repeatability by dint of affordability and availability, it may be more able to impress its lessons upon the participant over time.

Distortion is of particular concern where the retrospective context differs markedly from the earlier, experiential context. Who has not faced, at one time or another, the difficulty of explaining an earlier action (e.g., a bit of rowdy misbehaviour committed in the company of one’s friends) when one is situated in an entirely different context (e.g., sober inquiry by one’s concerned parents)? The day’s activity on the mountainside, or in the saddle, did not have a fixed meaning that was locked away in one’s soul until the moment of fireside contemplation, at which instant it emerged, intact, for disinterested scrutiny. What the participant says about it in the evening, and to some unknown extent what s/he thinks or remembers about it thereafter, may turn upon how the discussion goes. It could happen, for example, that someone who came across a remarkable insight during the ropes course exercise may have a dismaying experience when trying to convey that insight to peers afterwards, potentially rendering the experience or its meaning regrettable in that person’s subsequent recollection.

The discussion circle does not attempt to be a neutral forum (cf. Thomas, 2004, p. 133). It attempts to be educational. As such, it can be all too reminiscent of the classroom, with the same potential to call forth befuddlement or pomposity from leaders, and sly intellectual bullying or defeated shirking from students. As Brown (2003) observes, often “It is the leader’s version of what the students have said that becomes confirmed as the accepted reason for being on camp or for having a successful day, rather than the students’ versions” (p. 31).

In the discussion circle, one is typically not developing strengths of a type that would be applicable to the adventure itself. One is not free to move forward on one’s own power, for instance, but must rather remain immobile, wait one’s turn, and be reminded—immediately after one’s success in some challenge activity—that one might never fully escape the posturing, disempowering world of external control and social positioning. Tacitly, society and debriefing orthodoxy, personified in the discussion leader qua gatekeeper (cf. Brown, 2002), commonly prefer a form of “group” discussion that is not a vehicle of careful inquiry into each participant’s true needs and views. That kind of processing could take weeks or months (cf. Yalom, 1995). Rather, such discussion may provide the leader (and his/her paying client) with an excuse for self-assurance that “everybody” has met and has “discussed” things, in a bean-counting accretion of insipid verbiage that is largely parasitic upon the main event.

This is not an environment that the leader facilitated in City Slickers. Curly did not advance the sometimes silly preoccupations of his citified followers. If they needed him, they went to him. Otherwise, his style of leadership conveyed the message that he had better things to do—and as a man of the outdoors, he probably did.

The Theory of Processing

As Hattie, Marsh, Neill, and Richards (1997) have remarked, much of the theory of experiential “education,” including reflection and application phases, arose “in isolation from the educational world,” with “little incorporation of research on group dynamics, attitude change, educational theory, and cognitive processes” (p. 77). Research into the efficacy of this isolated body of thought does not show that germane components thereof (notably, processing) make an appreciable difference in outcomes (Newes, 2001; Combs, 2001). Indeed, reviewing research by the field’s supporters, Brookes (2003) notes an enthusiasm exceeding the available evidence, as well as a disregard of contrary findings; likewise, in their review of extant research, Wolfe and Samdahl (2005) find a failure to examine “instances where a facilitator’s intervention caused more harm than good” (p. 34).

To some, such remarks may merely suggest that what is needed now is “solid research” documenting what one may already believe about “outcome and process” in outdoor education (Newes, 2001, p. 92). But as Wolfe and Samdahl (2005) note, the operative assumptions could be entirely mistaken, in which case there might be “little rationale for the continued use of challenge courses” (p. 40). There is a good chance that processing does not work as advertised; that, therefore, no significant body of research will ever materialise; and that processing as now conceived may actually be capable of profound waste and damage.

According to Luckner and Nadler (1995), the theory in question—that students learn by reflecting upon field experiences and then transferring the fruits of reflection to daily life— comports with a constructivist perspective, in which reflection plays a key role in learning. Fenwick (2000) confirms that Kolb (1984), often cited by outdoor educators, does adopt a constructivist approach to learning. In this case, however, as Fenwick also indicates, inward reflection is handled as though it were distinct from outward experience. Rather than treat people as inseparably part of what they experience, the theory behind verbal processing supposes that meanings arising from a learner’s reflection on a given situation are not specific to the context of the discussion, but instead retain a persistent shape across multiple contexts. It is supposed, moreover, that the discussion leader may appropriately dwell upon conscious reflection, when conscious factors may be the mere tip of the iceberg of pertinent mental phenomena—when, that, is, the guiding processes may be occurring without the person’s conscious awareness and may not be subject to his/her efforts at self-direction.

Efforts to improve stable character traits through verbal processing may be misdirected if the behaviour in question varies with the situation, or if learning is not really a matter of identifying and tweaking enduring mental constructs. Brookes (2003) urges a more situation-aware perspective. Citing the research of Ross and Nisbett (1991), Brookes evokes the prospect that outdoor education theory arises, in part, from a certain perversity in human interpretations of behaviour. He points out, in particular, that people tend to believe in the existence of persistent inner traits—traits of a type that experience plus processing are believed to affect—and that they tend to cling to that belief even after being shown that a given behaviour results from situational factors. In brief, recognition of the potentially dominant role played by situational and unconscious factors could significantly affect processing research and practice.

The People Behind the Processing

City Slickers did not get bogged down in debriefing arcana. Mitch and his buddies were not seeking a verbal experience, and Curly’s job did not require a degree in counseling. Unlike the situation in many adventure therapy programs, there was no offer of therapeutic services. This, too, kept the enterprise simple. Among other things, it removed the risk of being prosecuted for the unlicensed provision of mental health services.

If the outdoor education field desires respectability, though, there should be some limits beyond which such prosecution does occur. Alvarez and Stauffer (2001) put it too gently when they say, “Ideally, the facilitator [in adventure therapy] has been trained to provide therapy as a helping professional (e.g., a social worker, psychologist, or counselor)” (p. 91). The better statement would be that a person who claims to provide a form of therapy should be trained to do so, not “ideally,” but as a matter of course. One may justifiably wonder whether such training is present, however, when there exist thousands of ropes courses and other outdoor education venues whose personnel are not necessarily certified or trained in any particular way (Attarian, 2001), or when barely half of the organisations accredited by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) expect their staffers to have college-level schooling (Maningas & Simpson, 2003). Surely one should pause, as this author did, when a 22-year-old man, returning to college to finish his bachelor’s degree, spoke enthusiastically of his previous year’s experience as a leader of wilderness expeditions. “Where else,” he asked, “would I have this kind of opportunity to try out my ideas about psychology, on real people, without a degree?”

Every now and then, poor outdoor leadership gets someone killed (e.g., Janofsky, 2002; Salt Lake Tribune, 2003). More often, potentially powerful mental health interventions are “used indiscriminately, without thought,” making them trivial and ineffective (Sakofs, 2001). Inexperienced or untrained group leaders may also fail to realise how much harm they can do in the processing arena. As Yalom (1995) describes, a poor leader can unwittingly create dynamics of shaming, subgrouping, ostracism, favoritism, and deskilling among group members, thereby potentially fostering clients’ mental health issues. In addition, a poor leader’s ostensible wish to “help people” may mask an unrecognised desire to reap the praise of group members vying for his/her attention and acceptance; s/he may confusedly assume that such praise means s/he is actually doing a good job of bringing about therapeutic change in their lives.

To be sure, one cannot assume that the mere possession of a mental health license guarantees good results from verbal processing. Social workers, psychologists, and counselors are human. Whether experienced or not, many do not excel at their work. Nor are they consistently able to make optimal use of the consummately important client-therapist relationship (cf. Walborn, 1996, p. 173). Among other things, certain issues may bring out unrecognised biases. For example, client demographic features (e.g., gender, age, socioeconomic status, intellectual level) may attract their favor or disfavor, with potentially profound effects upon outcomes (Yalom, 1995, pp. 224-232; Seligman, 2001, pp. 539, 542).

For many reasons, talk-oriented approaches are not the only option. Good results may sometimes ensue from the efforts of a professional trained in such activity-oriented practices as recreational therapy (cf. Austin, 1997; Jin & Austin, 2000) or psychosocial occupational therapy (cf. Stein & Cutler, 2002, pp. 188, 229; Mutrie & Faulkner, 2003, pp. 82-85). Similarly, adventure therapy does enjoy an advantage, to the extent that its interventions derive from activity itself, as distinct from classic psychological notions of verbal processing in which the therapist’s personality or preoccupations could easily become obtrusive.

A Concluding Perspective

People may believe, based on informal conversation or clinical experience, that talk results in action. Then again, one might infer that, where action is the goal, action could logically be the primary therapeutic medium as well.

The addition of a verbal processing component vastly increases the number of variations that may impact therapeutic outcomes. One might consider, for example, a review of the evidence base pertaining to youth psychotherapy by Weisz, Doss, and Hawley (2005), who detect more than 3,000 relevant studies. From those 3,000, they are able to identify 236 methodologically stringent studies that test 383 different psychotherapeutic treatments, varying across numerous vectors, including the involvement of others, such as parents, in addition to the child; the use of individual or group formats; the form of treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral; total hours of treatment; and so on. At present rates of research, outdoor education will never assemble a comparable database, much less address the persistent shortcomings that Weisz, Doss, and Hawley (2005) identify in the psychotherapeutic literature.

If outdoor education researchers are ever to establish a compelling empirical basis for their work, it would seem unadvisable to begin by exploring endless possibilities at random. Instead, parsimony recommends determining whether the experience is indeed capable of speaking for itself. After developing a foundation based upon the distinguishing experiential and outdoor features of outdoor education, it may or may not seem essential to undertake further empirical investigation of the assorted speculations currently offered to rationalise the endless possible configurations of verbal processing.

Moviegoers, voting with their feet in favor of City Slickers, were not proving the scientific viability of its premise. They were, however, mutely testifying that psychologically oriented talk therapies have their limits, and that experience is a powerful, pervasive teacher in life. Outdoor education possesses a remarkable opportunity to ally itself with that teacher. It would be disappointing if the opportunity should be squandered in a vain attempt to reach beyond the field’s manifest capabilities in pursuit of some chimera of articulable profundity.



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