Chili pepper chef pants have a certain flavor and status. They are bright and loose. They imply that the wearer is hot. And they may become a symbol of achievement among river guides and adventure travel outfitters the world over.
The first annual Hot Chili Pepper Pants Achievement Award went to longtime global white water rafting icon Joe Willie Jones. Joe is the president of the International Rafting Federation, a staunch supporter and creator of river protection movements, and a gnarly, kick-ass rafting guide from way back. His accomplishments are large, his character exceptional, and, based on how he styles his new pants, has good looks without compare. For these reasons and more, Joe is spicy trouser worthy.
This past fall, I had the pleasure of presenting some ideas on why and how river guides can be heroes in the hotbox climate change effort and other critical social movements. As a speaker at the World White Water Rafting Summit in Costa Rica, I suggested that river guides — and adventure travel outfitters overall — have the setting, enthusiasm, and authority to manifest change in their communities and the world. My talk centered on the opportunity and obligation that guides have to do what they can to protect their local environment and improve their local economies. I wore the colorful chef pants when I shared a story about why they had some importance in the grand scheme of things. (That’s another long tale — or fable. Suffice it to say that the indelible pepper print played a key wardrobe component in an abjectly embarrassing but powerful event that took place in a tiny airplane bathroom at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.)
I knew as part of my speech that I was going to honor Joe as a guide who is leading the charge for change. At the last minute, it seemed appropriate to give him my cayenne chinos as a symbol of this recognition. So I did, and the Hot Chili Pepper Pants Achievement Award was born.
Because Joe is a good sport and a natural leader, he came up on stage and accepted the award with humility. And that isn’t all. Most good leaders know when to set ego aside in the name of camaraderie and universal growth. Joe set his aside in that moment, as he has for decades. He gracefully took the trousers, removed his shoes, and pulled the pants on. He then strutted around the stage as a freshly birthed sartorial wonder, showing the roaring-with-approval crowd that Gisele Bündchen and the Kardashians had nothing on him as a runway model and fashion icon. He went big on stage as he has in life, and the rest of us are the better for it.
So what exactly do adventure guides and outfitters have in them to be able to go big, to get big things done? Like keeping free-flowing rivers from being dammed, creating vital environmentally friendly micro-economies in tiny middle-of-nowhere towns, and breaking down barriers in order to help previously marginalized citizens and less fortunate cultures flourish. There are five key common characteristics: Connection. Hope. Inspiration. Leadership. Influence.
Adventure guides are deeply connected: connected to their respective communities, to nature, and to important causes. As an example, river guides are reminded each day of the value of living freely and meaningfully because their work uniform is a life jacket. This alone is a connector. When everyone in your group is wearing one, you are uniquely and powerfully joined together. When you add a shared passion for their environment, townspeople, clients, and each other — and the common courage to act on that passion — it is clear that guides are deeply connected to many things.
Above every rapid, at the base of any climb, or upon a trailhead, adventure guides are laced with hope, and they infuse this in others. The journey’s goal is to have fun, face risk, feel rewards, practice safety, embrace the present, and then return home with a renewed sense of purpose. Guides start every trip with this hope. In addition, because of the challenges involved in any outdoor adventure, guides are fundamentally hopeful that all will turn out well. Hope for good and hope for better is in a guide’s soul.
Guides that lead wilderness trips are inspirational. They show others through action and word that each one of us can achieve meaningful outcomes in our lives as part of purposeful pursuits. Ask any guide the reasons why they lead trips. A consistent top answer is because it helps inspire people to live their dreams, as they are living theirs.
Adventure guides come to their occupation for a variety of reasons. Some want to help protect the environment. Others want to share good times with people from all walks of life. Some want to illustrate to family and friends that it is possible to make a living doing what you love. Some guides are loud. Some are quiet. Some are young. Some are old. Some are big. Some are small. But they all have one thing in common: In one form or another, these workers provide guidance, encouragement, empathy, security, and care to strangers and colleagues alike. These are the endeavors of those willing to take charge, to lead. Guides are leaders.
Lastly, guides have influence. Guiding requires and inspires trust. Guests depend on their trip leaders to safely participate in adventure. Clients place their physical well being largely in the hands of their guides. Guides also share insights and concerns about the natural worlds they travel through with their clients. Trust in the wisdom being imparted is an outcome of the client-guide relationship. Guests also depend on guides for having fun amidst risk. In this regard, clients trust their guides with their emotional and spiritual well being.
Guides are tacitly and explicitly granted the right — by their clients — to direct them into and through perilous and peaceful situations. In this role, guides have an obligation and opportunity to influence how people see and interact with the world. This is an incredibly powerful position, and it’s vital that it’s not abused. Given their connection, hope, and inspiration, guides use their position of influence wisely and kindly, with humility at the fore and common good at the base of every interaction.
Joe Willie has taken this obligation and opportunity to great heights. He is a standard-bearer for the rest of us, who can also elevate to make lives and places better. Joe was instrumental in growing the rafting industry into a global phenomenon, where people have life-changing experiences and epiphanies. Joe has led and participated in countless efforts to protect wilderness areas, from California to Chile. He has played many roles in movements that led to the denial of dams and the preservation of pristine waterways. And he has helped establish systems that make adventures safer so that future generations of guides and guests can be blessed by good times in idyllic places.