"In the mountains you are a hiker, not a drug addict." There’s nothing new about nature being a place where you can find serenity and peace of mind. But that it also can be an important tool on the road to a drug-free life, fewer people think about.
Twenty years ago, former drug addict Are Lerstein began to think about the possibilities nature could give people in his situation. Today, he is the general manager of “Medvandrerne”, an organisation that gathers former and current drug addicts, and goes into the wild.
- I was high, and sat with a friend in an apartment and talked about how one day I wanted to bring my substance-using friends outdoors, and create new memories together. Twenty years later, the dream has come true.
For Are, nature has always been a place where he has been able to seek refuge and refill on energy.
- Nature has always been a good place for me, a place where I got the energy to be able to relate to society. In my childhood I often ventured out into the woods by myself. In my youth, crime and drugs took charge, but after many years of drug abuse, nature played a big part in getting my life back on track.
He started the project “Medvandrerne” in 2017, and has since gone on annual trips with former or current addicts, who want a change in their lives.
- The project has become something much bigger than just going on hiking trips. Nature and the presence we find there, symbolises much more. It is about seeking the only thing achievement can be measured with, pain. Pain hurts less when you are in the safe company of others. It's about creating memories together, pursuing new dreams and changing habits, and for some - maybe creating a new identity. In the mountains you are a hiker, not a drug addict. It is much easier to meet other people on those terms. There is too much focus on ending things and on limitations. “Medvandrerne” have a different approach, we turn things around and ask "What can you do?"
The goal of “Medvandrerne” is to build bridges to other arenas in the community. It's about believing in a life without drug abuse, and a better quality of life. Are compares “Medvandrerne” to a bonfire. It is alive, and its development depends on what each person contributes with and "throws" on the fire.
- Outdoor experiences often provides great motivation to take action in everyday life. And the bonfire invites people to talk. When a participant who has been very quiet suddenly brings out a birch twig, rips off pieces and throws them on the fire and starts talking about important stuff, then you realise the importance of this initiative.
Many are searching for the “perfect” day hiking, but Are hopes for resistance, to challenge those who’ve joined the trip.
- I always hope that we get some resistance along the way. I hope the sky turns dark, that the wind starts howling, and we need to stand together. I hope for aching backs and sore knees. This shouldn’t be a silver platter experience. A perfect day is pain, tears of joy and frustration, maybe anger, but most of all, care for each other.
Medvandrerne’s annual summer trip in 2019 went to Rondane. One of the participants panicked when they came to the first river crossing. She had never hiked in the mountains before.
- But everyone hiked through Rondane, and several summited seven 2000-meter-peaks. At Rondeslottet, everyone was very tired, some were grumpy, but suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and the view turned out to be amazing. When we finished after nine days, no one wanted to go home, and everyone agreed that the most memorable experiences had been the challenges.
Medvandrerne’s trips are completely alcohol and drug free, and are meant to be safe arenas for the participants. Are explains that people who have hiked with the group call themselves "Medvandrer” in retrospect, thus bringing a strong sense of belonging and inclusion.
- There is a tremendous strength in not standing alone. I would like people to join more trips, so they can share their experiences with newcomers. You learn a lot from sharing your experiences.
One thing that is important to Are is the equipment they use on the trips. It should be of good quality, and sustain the challenges they might encounter in the wild. All participants receive a pair of hiking boots, which is somewhat symbolic. Few people would have been able to afford it, and it commits them to use it.
He encourages local groups around Norway to start up, and wants to build equipment depots that are accessible for people who want to go hiking. Here, Helsport comes in as an important partner.
- We have members in Oslo, Bergen, Rogaland and Hallingdal, and have the long term goal of establishing more local groups around the country.
Are has met many hard core criminals and people who’ve been in and out of rehab, who, when going into the mountains, suddenly find themselves in a safe environment for the first time, which encourages them to get new habits.
- It's not about ending something. It's about starting with something new. To get a new habit, you have to repeat the same thing several times. Go for a hike. Again and again.