Standing in the snow on a forest road in Cullowhee, Justin “Padj” Padgett MS ’00 pulls make-up out of his backpack to help set the scene of a mock emergency involving a trail runner and equestrians. “The horse kicks you in the head, sound good?” Padgett asks Ambrose Sleister III, a student in a “Wilderness First Responder” class composed of therapeutic youth program counselors; rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting, backpacking and mountaineering guides; and members of the U.S. Forest Service. Wielding a cosmetics container of red, Padgett suggests Sleister, a student from Young Harris College and summer raft guide, remove his rain jacket to avoid getting “blood” on it from his simulated head injury. Padgett instructs him to lie partially in the bone-chilling creek along the road and to be mostly “out,” but report feeling pain. With Sleister and other “victims” ready and the rescuers on the way, Padgett slips out of sight into the trees to meet up with co-instructor Kevin Williams ’10 and observe.
Having previously experienced hypothermia in real-life, Sleister braced for the dulling cold by closing his eyes and focusing on each breath. He lets himself sense some of the discomfort a patient in that situation might – an experience Padgett said often helps students develop empathy for those they are learning to help and gain a new perspective and deeper understanding of rescue techniques. As classmates checked Sleister’s condition, monitored vital signs, covered him with a sleeping bag and moved him to a backboard to be carried out, he shivered – and not because he was a good actor.
“I wanted it to be as real as possible so if they are ever faced with these things it doesn’t catch them off guard,” Sleister said later. “These scenarios are aimed at keeping you from finding yourself in a situation, and, I guess, freezing up and not knowing what to do. As a first responder, that’s one of the worst things you can do – someone looks to you for help, and all you can do is respond with ‘I don’t know.’”Preparing students to confidently and competently take action in emergencies and intense, life-threatening situations comes second only to preparing them to anticipate and prevent accidents from happening in the first place at Landmark Learning, a Cullowhee-based school founded in 1996 by Padgett and his wife, Mairi Padgett MAEd ’00. Committed to serving the outdoor community with education and training, Landmark Learning courses range from intensive “Emergency Medical Technician” classes to safety, rescue and instructor certification courses associated with the American Canoe Association, American Heart Association, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute.In addition, the Padgetts have created unique courses, including a wilderness lifeguarding program and a community medic class, and this spring launched the “Landmark Semester,” a six-week course in which participants gain multiple certifications and college credit through a partnership with WCU. Meanwhile, they are seeking accreditation from the U.S. Department of Education. If successful, Landmark Learning will become the first training school of its kind in the nation to be accredited.
Maurice Phipps, professor of health, physical education and recreation at WCU, said the couple provides vital specialized wilderness training behind-the-scenes for the outdoor recreation industry. “Most guests just put their lives in instructors’ hands, whether it be rafting, climbing, zipping or other activity,” said Phipps. “They seldom think, ‘How much training has this instructor had?’ and ‘Who taught them?’”
Josh Whitmore, WCU associate director of outdoor programs, said Landmark Learning’s courses and custom training have helped staff at Base Camp Cullowhee, which offers outdoor adventures and experiences for students, become, on average, more highly trained in wilderness medicine and emergency response than their counterparts at other universities. Whitmore said WCU is fortunate to have so close and accessible a school that professionals across the country attend.
“In the backcountry, extraction times could be many hours or even days,” he said. “Where an ambulance carries premade splints for unstable broken limbs, you’ll need to manufacture one out of the materials you are carrying or can find – sticks, shoelaces, belts, tape. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, we’ll just call a helicopter,’ but in most remote wilderness locations, cell phones don’t work, and dense vegetation make helicopter landing zones few and far between. It can be an alarming feeling to be deep in the backcountry with an injury and realize you have no way to communicate with the outside world. Survival depends on the choices you make.”.
The “outdoors bug” bit both of the Padgetts young. Although Mairi’s family moved a lot and money was tight, her parents committed to sending her to camp twice. Two extraordinary summers at Alford Lake Camp in Maine turned into 11. She came back year after year as a camper; a counselor; a leader of canoe trips, hikes and seven-week mountain treks; and head of the out-of-camp trips program. Camp director Sue McMullan said Mairi’s love of every part of the natural world, including a pet white rat she brought with her one summer, was infectious. “As Mairi grew, so did her leadership in our community – living with campers, helping to lead trips and sharing along the way the fascinating aspects of every path, every tree, every camping skill and every challenge that comes when camping in the out of doors,” said McMullan.
Mairi realized just how attuned she was to nature when, five weeks into a seven-week trek in which swimming in your clothes was “doing laundry,” a perfumey smell overwhelmed her. She finally connected the fragrance to two freshly showered hikers. “I can feel a difference now because of my time outdoors with plastic or manmade smells,” said Mairi. “They don’t seem right.”
For Justin, time outside was connected to family and, later, scouting. His dad, a Methodist minister, served churches in the Charlotte area and Western North Carolina, and Justin enjoyed accompanying him on outdoor youth outings. He also treasured hunting and fishing trips with his grandfather and their annual expeditions to The Pink Motel on the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee for little adventures. For him, spending time outside helped him navigate the rapid thoughts and ideas competing for attention in his mind. “Adventure, to me, is really about focus,” he said. “You can’t think about anything else but what is right in front of you.”
Years later at Appalachian State University, in addition to majoring in social gerontology and pursuing a minor in psychology, he sought a minor in outdoor recreation, which at the time was called “leisure studies.” “I told my dad I was minoring in leisure studies, and he said, ‘You’re paying for that? It costs money?’” said Justin with a laugh. “During that time, the outdoor recreation industry was not necessarily recognized as professionally as it is now.”
After Justin graduated from Appalachian and Mairi from Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, the two found themselves in the same emergency medical technician course in New Hampshire in January 1994. At the time, Justin had shoulder-length hair and a lot of tie-dye in his wardrobe, and Mairi had a pierced nose and skateboards in her car. Justin coaxed her into taking the seat next to him, saying “I am a great study partner. I’ve got a 3.8 GPA from Appalachian State. Maybe I can help you.” She accepted the seat but let him know she could hold her own. “She said, ‘I don’t think I need your help, but maybe I can help you,’” he said.
After the class they went to the Adirondacks together and watched dogsled races before Mairi headed to Maine and Justin to River’s Way Outdoor Adventure Center in Tennessee, where he developed programming including caving, climbing, ropes courses, rafting and canoeing activities to enable people with disabilities to take part. Now and then, Mairi and Justin exchanged post cards and letters but did not talk again for a year. That was when Justin, while eating burritos in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in Colorado, was advised by his mountaineering partner that it was time to take action. “He said, ‘Man, look, if you keep talking about this lady, it’s just going to make me crazy. … We are mountaineering, and you need to focus, and if you need to call her to get that complete, you need to do that,’” said Justin.
So, armed with quarters at a pay phone, Justin made four or five calls until he found someone who had Mairi’s phone number. When he reached her, he could only talk for about five minutes, but that was all he needed to make a plan to fly to Portland, Maine, to see her. The couple began to spend more and more time together while still leading trips and working at camps. They guided rafts on the Nantahala, the Pigeon, the Ocoee and world-class sections of the New and Gauley in West Virginia. To make ends meet between seasons, Mairi worked as a veterinary technician and Justin as an EMT and, later, as a paramedic.
Not long after they were married in 1996, they started to dream about owning and operating their own outdoor school. “When trip leading, we spent a lot of time teaching – that was a passion we had,” said Justin. “As soon as a student has an ‘aha’ moment, you kick into high drive.” They decided to apply to graduate school and chose Western Carolina University, which offered programs that matched both of their interests. Mairi was drawn to educational administration and Justin to human resources development. Plus, Justin’s dad, Frank Padgett, was serving as a pastor at Cullowhee United Methodist Church on campus, and the area offered access to trails and whitewater. The only sacrifice seemed to be less convenient access to rock climbing, so they sold their climbing gear. It was a sacrifice they were willing to make. “We decided it was easier to swim than fly when things go wrong,” said Justin.
They founded Landmark Adventures and began offering guiding services and outdoor instruction based out of their basement apartment and “The Camel,” their 1992 four-wheel drive truck. They chose "Landmark Adventures" to represent their commitment to incorporating the diverse landmarks and touchstones students need to find their way, and they used the school as a platform for their graduate school projects. They led trips and taught outdoor skills as well as CPR and first aid. They later added swiftwater rescue and wilderness and emergency medicine to the course offerings. Many of their early clients were colleges that hired them to facilitate programs and businesses for which the Padgetts hosted group initiatives and teambuilding as part of corporate training and development.
What they quickly realized was that they did not want to compete for clients with their friends and colleagues at other outdoor schools and companies. What they preferred was to facilitate and teach certification courses and classes needed by those, who like them, had a passion for working in the outdoors. They acquired additional training and qualifications needed to teach instructor-level classes. As Jon Lowrance, a Landmark Learning alumnus-turned-instructor says, students with no prior medical training would leave the school knowing how to handle injuries such as open fractures, head trauma or seizures “at night, outside, in the rain, in the snow and with no ability to call 911.”
The couple’s teaching styles proved complementary. “Mairi’s directness, pragmatism and compassion offer excellent balance to the humor, paramedic and wilderness experiences and boundless energy that define Justin’s classroom presence,” said Shana Tarter, assistant director of the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute. Meanwhile, the Padgetts enjoyed the group dynamics and immersing themselves in the subjects as well as hearing their students’ adventure stories and aspirations. “As guides ourselves, we knew the same language,” said Mairi. “It became a very easy piece of our fabric.”
In 1998, they they put a lot of energy into designing and creating a nine-day, multicertification course called the “Landmark Trip Leader School.” “We told ourselves, ‘We are graduating from graduate school soon, and either this is going to work and is worth our energy, or we have had a hobby up to this point, and we need to use our degrees and get real jobs,’” said Justin. When students came from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina to participate, the Padgetts went all in. They streamlined Landmark’s courses, focusing on what outdoor educators and trip leaders needed and eliminating services such as leading trips. “That was a turning point,” said Justin. “We went from being Landmark Adventures to Landmark Learning.”
While continuing to teach at venues from community centers to trailheads to the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, the couple committed to building a base for Landmark Learning in Western North Carolina. Without any financial backers, without grant assistance and while trying to pay back student loans, they took out a high-interest loan with a one-year balloon payment in spring of 2000 to purchase nearly 30 acres of land with a small cabin on Cane Creek in Cullowhee. “It wasn’t secure, but back then it seemed to match our adrenaline junkiness, and it was the only way to move forward,” said Justin.
Although the couple loved their creekfront land, the house appraised at zero-dollar-value and turned out to need more work than a new coat of paint and siding. As they pulled back its crumbling layers, they found newspapers dating back to 1927 in the walls and sofa cushions and clothing in the insulation. When they asked an acquaintance who came to fix the initial, nonfunctional plumbing if he could help shore up the house and make it a little more square, he told them, “You can’t polish a turd.”
Thus began the Padgetts’ education in construction, permits and building codes as they rebuilt the house around itself. They lived in their truck and bought supplies with credit cards. They spent days off on tasks ranging from rebuilding the original walnut foundation to installing drywall. Helping them was Matt Cole, a Penn State student who had taken one of their courses and was adamant about being their intern. They told Cole they didn’t have a place for him to stay, but he wanted to come anyway. He slept in a hammock under an apple tree, and his assistance with course logistics, construction and cabinetry, and other initiatives proved invaluable.
“We were in a race,” said Mairi. “When it got cold, we needed to be able to move indoors. Second, if we weren’t able to flip the whole thing within the year, we were going to be in a world of (financial) hurt.” A week before the first frost the building was sealed in. They were soon able to refinance and pay off their credit cards. Within a few years, the campus came to include a 1,200 square-foot classroom, bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, a pavilion, a gear room and a recycle station. There also now is a bunkhouse and primitive camping area that transforms during courses into “tent city.” The deck attached to the office and the office itself feature a forest view and the sound of the rushing water of the creek, and the size of the campus has grown to 40 acres.
Landmark Learning also achieved steward forest classification. The couple adopted a 20-year plan for land management to improve forest habitat health. The steward forest designation enabled the Padgetts as private landowners to benefit from state forest service resources and knowledge. They were able to buy seedlings for as little as a nickel to help reforest the property, which they also have opened to WCU students in biology and environmental health for research projects.
Meanwhile, skills learned at WCU, including research methods, program design and statistics, proved crucial to developing curriculum for courses and creating new courses such as “Community Relief Medic,” which evolved from a class called “Mission Medic” that they developed while working and kayaking in Ecuador. Years later, while talking with mission teams en route to Haiti at the Miami airport, Justin realized an adapted version of the curriculum could benefit the many volunteers he met who he said had “golden hearts,” but limited, if any, medical training or understanding of how to safely and efficiently serve in a disaster area.
Another important element of their course design is fun. Final written exams are “lovingly referred to as a celebration of their knowledge,” according to an entry in the Landmark Learning blog. Hands-on, lifelike scenarios woven into the curriculum include unexpected twists to leave students questioning and thinking. “We believe when someone has fun doing what they are doing, which is largely what happens in scenarios, that memory lasts way longer than a PowerPoint, a lecture or a comment from an instructor,” said Justin.
Students have written Landmark Learning after their courses to share examples of how they used what they learned – from assisting at car accident scenes on the way home from their classes to caring for patients with injuries from broken ankles to seizures on remote trails and in the desert. But what the Padgetts hope is that there won’t be many stories – that their students learn enough about accidents to prevent as many as possible. “The best trip leader is almost like a neurotic parent,” said Justin. “You have this premonition about this thing that could happen, and you do everything you can to rule it out.”
Annual enrollment in Landmark Learning courses has grown in the past decade from several hundred to more than 2,000, and among them are “Landmarkians” – students who return for more courses. The cadre of the school’s contract instructors, whom the Padgetts select based on their experience as trip leaders and as dynamic, effective educators, has grown to several dozen. Also on staff are a full-time instructor, logistics coordinator and student services coordinator.
This spring, the school launched what Justin has dubbed the “mothership” of Landmark Learning – the Landmark Semester. In six weeks, students become EMTs and Leave No Trace master educators as well as proficient in wilderness medicine and comfortable with canoe instruction, swiftwater rescue and wilderness lifeguarding. What they take home are seven certifications and up to nine hours of college credit. “Many college programs are not able to provide some of the very specific professional development courses and certification programs we offer, and the Landmark Semester takes folks that have completed or just completed a program such as parks and recreation management and catapults them into the outdoor recreation industry,” said Justin.
Also this spring, Landmark Learning hosted a site visit related to its quest to become accredited from the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training. The Padgetts want to be able to transfer college credit directly, thus saving students from the expense of paying Landmark Learning tuition in addition to college tuition for each course. They also want to make sure their practices are as robust as they can be. To prepare, Mairi spent a Saturday in front of a computer reviewing information that, in the end, left her grateful for her experience at WCU. “I felt like saying, ‘Thank you, Kevin Pennington. I just used my entire graduate degree in 10 hours,’” she said, referring to WCU’s former director of higher education programs at WCU.
Up next for Landmark may be more construction in Cullowhee. Thirty-five percent of courses are taught on site, and the Padgetts say students would benefit from an updated and larger classroom and would enjoy better bunkhouse facilities. They are even considering replacing the office and classroom they worked so hard to build. “Part of what has helped us is the ability to change on a dime,” said Justin. “When we realize we need to change a policy or a practice, we don’t have to wait for a committee meeting or months for the ideas to be discussed. When we say, ‘It’s crazy, we should do it,’ we do it.”
What has emerged are strong affiliations, partnerships and relationships, and a reputation of quality. Michael Belcher ’09 MHS ’12, an emergency medical science instructor at Southwestern Community College, said he has not only worked with Justin in the field as a paramedic but also with students who decide to further their educations at SCC after taking a Landmark Learning course. “Landmark Learning is setting the standard for EMS education not only locally, but nationwide,” said Belcher.
Deb Sweeney Whitmore, a Landmarkian herself and director of program operations at the North Carolina Outward Bound School, said the Padgetts offer high quality from classroom instruction to customer service. Phone calls to Landmark Learning often ring only once before they are answered, said Whitmore, who is married to Josh Whitmore from WCU. “Our staff would say hands down they have a great experience with Landmark, and Landmark is getting a reputation as a leader in the Southeast for outdoor instructors, whatever their mode is,” she said.
Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics national organization and a past Landmark Learning instructor, pointed out that Landmark is one of only seven organizations in the United States approved to offer the highest level of the Leave No Trace trainings available – the “Master Educator” course.
“Our organization looks to bring only the most qualified organizations on to offer our course,” said Lawhon. “The quality of Landmark is reflected in what Justin and Mairi have instilled as their standard, and it’s a high standard. They integrate Leave No Trace into everything they do, and they require their instructors to do the same. They really walk the talk in terms of their commitment to stewardship, and through their programming they are empowering their participants to teach others, train the world and make a difference.”
The Padgetts recognize that while they may not yield the same kind of financial rewards as some of their classmates working in more traditional corporate settings, they believe their work is important and extends to everyone their students go on to serve. “We love our students, the subject matter and the skills we are teaching,” Justin said. “Sometimes, to our financial detriment, our decision-making is about relationships and not bottom lines.”
Through their work, they also want to advance the profession and protect the environment. They are involved with industry organizations, present at conferences and join efforts to improve national standards in the industry in such ways as helping co-author a wilderness medicine field guide. In 2012, the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine presented Justin with the Mountain Laurel Award, which honors an individual who has made extraordinary, lasting and substantial contributions to wilderness medicine in the Southern Appalachians.
In addition, how they teach and how they live are connected to their ethic of helping others, said Tarter from the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute. “From the ‘Community Relief Medic’ program, to their work with underserved communities in Ecuador, to their contributions in the local community, they role model service,” she said. “I believe students who engage with Landmark come away with a new perspective on how to help.”
For some, the perspective changes everything. Jon Lowrance came to Landmark Learning as a college student studying outdoor education, and conversations with the Padgetts on the porch and while paddling down WNC creeks pointed him in a new direction. “They lit a spark in me to pursue a career in health care and experiential education,” said Lowrance. After training as a wilderness first responder, he was an EMT and then a nurse in addition to continuing his outdoor pursuits and becoming a Landmark Learning instructor. He worked in critical care and is now in graduate school at WCU studying to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
For the Padgetts, service ranges from tracking a possible threat to the Jondachi River in Ecuador to attending community revitalization meetings and working in a community garden in Cullowhee, and they participate as a family with their 8-year-old daughter, Ellie, and 5-year-old son, Alex. They have watched the outdoors come alive for their children as they hike, tube, paddle and ride scooters together. What it’s really all about for them – what they do with Landmark Learning and what they do in service – is encouraging people to have the skills and knowledge to be able to enjoy the outdoors and protect it, said Mairi.
Over the years, they have seen an increasing amount of use and traffic at the rivers and trails where they teach and visit, and they are glad. “If you don’t create a love for the resource, you can’t create a voice for that resource to protect it,” said Mairi. “We encourage people to go out and play, but to play appropriately with risk management and risk prevention in mind so these resources can be enjoyed for generations to come. I wish for all kids that they have a chance to go outside, climb a mountain or go down a river.”