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The spiritual dangers of outdoor ‘adrenaline culture,’ according to recreation group Dust and Tribe

Through its unique “growth adventures,” California-based Dust and Tribe helps participants reframe their experiences with outdoor recreation to inspire community and healing.

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Ahmed Pierstorff was born in Los Angeles to a Syrian mother and an American father. A registered nurse since 1996, his life has long been oriented towards healing—not just in clinical settings, but in nature as well. 

In 2012, Pierstorff founded the group Dust and Tribe, a community focused on building relationships with the natural world to promote connection, compassion, and ultimately healing for its participants. Operating under the motto “Progressio Quolibet Veniet” (“Progress through Whatever Comes”), the group leads trips around the country that foster an appreciation for outdoor recreation and spiritual practice simultaneously.

We had the opportunity to connect with Pierstorff this month to learn how Dust and Tribe cultivates patience, self-confidence, and determination among its participants. An edited version of our conversation is below.

Your company facilitates “growth adventures.” Can you tell us what that means? 

Dust and Tribe abhors the compartmentalization of human experience. For too many of us, there is an unfortunate separation of our domestic life from our work life, with recreational pursuits considered an “escape” from both. This is a recipe for frustration and an invitation to remain dissatisfied with life.

Dust and Tribe invites participants to step outside with others who are committed to understanding adventure as an opportunity to recontextualize the entirety of our lives. Through recreational experiences like backpacking, rafting, and rock climbing, we tap into hidden reserves of courage and initiative that we then fold back into our daily lives. We set the stage for participants to inspire themselves.

You’ve said that part of your mandate is to “engage the spirit.” How do you weave spirituality into your events?

Spirituality is simply an invitation to explore our relationship to that which is greater than ourselves. We cultivate this largely through discussions on our trips—sharing reflections in a way that isn’t didactic. We are very intentional about avoiding a didactic approach, confident that the immensity and grandeur of the wilderness is sufficient to invite humility, gratitude, and introspection.

We also build interdependence into the group, often assigning trail partners or creating small “clans” out of larger groups. This invites cooperation and even some friction, which is often a function of not feeling in control. But in both cases, participants have to consider variables beyond themselves—a gateway to a spiritual experience.

Finally, we also make time and create space for the ritual practices associated with the faith traditions of our participants.

Are your trips and events specifically aimed at the Islamic community or those interested in exploring Islam? Or are other faiths welcome as well?

The work of Dust and Tribe is specifically informed by the ethics of Abrahamic monotheism as can be found in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All creeds are welcome, though participants should be prepared for an experience that is colored in some ways by Islamic tradition. Our events are alcohol-free. Modesty is encouraged, and time is allotted for ritual prayers.

How can outdoor companies tap into the same kind of spirituality encouraged by your group?

The intersection between spirit and commerce is complicated! Honoring spirit is ultimately about a perspective beyond self-interest. Production lines that are free of exploitative practices, that are ecologically sound, and that meet actual needs are on the right track. When it comes to spirituality in outdoor industry practices, the ethics behind a product are more important than the product itself.

Adrenaline culture is pretty common in the outdoor community. Does your group work with that attitude or around it?

We are vocal in our position that bravado and hubris are the antithesis of what we believe is required to live well, whether in the wild or at home. It’s in our name: Before we get too excited about who we are, we need to remember that we will all eventually return to dust.

But when that dust coalesces and eventually swirls into community, we are now in a tribal space where our strength and significance depend directly on our willingness to work within a communal framework. Our success is linked to the success of others.

All actions return to intention. To the extent that adrenaline culture supports estrangement from the community—as might be the case when an individual pushes him or herself to chase a high, or to break records—those are intentions at odds with our work. However, if the intention is to serve as an inspiration and a mentor to others by resetting our expectations of what is humanly possible, that’s a more noble motivation. We can work with that.

How many trips do you run per year and how has Covid impacted your business?

Until very recently, Dust and Tribe has been a hyper-local endeavor, running anywhere from one to three California trips per year. The Covid effect, while wiping out programming for the duration of 2020, has created significantly more demand and we are on pace to run between 10 and 12 outings this year across California, Arizona, North Carolina, and Virginia—with an expanded calendar planned for 2022 that we anticipate including international destinations.

What effect do you hope your organization has on the larger outdoor industry?

We want to play a role in shifting recreational consciousness from pleasure-based escapism to challenge-based invigoration. Expansion for us lies in creating more opportunities for practical spirituality in outdoor work and play. We also want to foster conversation about alternative business structures that are economically viable without being overtly capitalistic.

What has surprised you the most about leading outdoor adventures through Dust and Tribe?

Our belief in the wilderness as a teacher is reaffirmed again and again in some of the most remarkable ways on our trips. Men and women are sometimes brought to tears at the end of a long hike as they become suddenly aware of both their resilience and their insignificance in the universe simultaneously. Without being told to do so, participants will frequently share food, clothing, and will even redistribute gear to support one another. The speed at which our participants move from individuals to a collective validates the work and never fails to thrill us.