Stories from the Field

The Baxter Award Part I: The Dream Imagined

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matt baxter

To all who knew him, Matt Baxter was a passionate, kind, gentle, funny and ravenously adventurous person. The former NatureBridge educator, who died in a climbing accident in Yosemite in April 1996, inspired children and adults alike throughout his life. It is no surprise that he continues to inspire people after his death.

Matt Baxter and the Baxter Award are larger than life. It's more than the award; it's the whole experience. Before I applied I always thought only legends get the Baxter.
Hagit Elaz, 2016 Baxter Award Recipient

“He was an outstanding educator,” says Kristina Rylands, NatureBridge’s current National Environmental Science Center Project Director and former Yosemite Regional Director. “I was an educator alongside him in the 90s, and when you think about the quintessential, charismatic NatureBridge educator — that was Matt.”

It’s difficult to overstate the joy in Kristina’s voice when she talks about Matt Baxter. 

“I remember this one Friday, Matt came bouncing into the office around one o’clock, and he quickly changed into his running shorts,” says Kristina.

“We asked where he was going, thinking he was just heading for a short run, and he cheerfully said, ‘I’m going up to Half Dome.’ Well, Half Dome is a full-day hike for most people — 18 miles round trip! But off he went and sure enough, around five o'clock, he came trekking back into the office. He had run all the way to the top of Half Dome. We were all just absolutely floored. He had just thought, ‘it's a beautiful day; why wouldn't you run up to the top of Half Dome and check things out?’ He was the most positive and exuberant person.”

After Matt’s death, his mother Kate, with the support of his father Andy and the rest of the Baxter family, established the Matthew Baxter III Memorial Fund. From that fund and the many donations that helped support it came the Baxter Award. The annual award sends a select number of NatureBridge staff around the world to live out their wildest dreams of adventure and personal growth. All they need to do to have a chance is apply.

“The application process is one of the hardest parts of the experience by far,” says 2019 Baxter Award recipient Sonia Veiga.

Sonia’s Baxter application required her to unearth uncomfortable feelings and have deep conversations with her father, whom she hadn’t seen since he moved back to Portugal almost 10 years prior. Putting such personal things down on paper for others to read and evaluate was vulnerable and nerve-wracking.

“I had like 12 different people proofread it. To have someone proofread those big, deep things was a really challenging experience,” says Sonia. “I think the healing process started with the application process.”

Hagit Elaz, the 2016 Baxter Award recipient, agrees. 

“Applying was like a journey in itself,” she says. “I put so much of myself into the application that when I submitted it, it felt like victory. I didn't think I even needed to win the award.”

Her proposed Baxter experience would send Hagit and her father to Poland, where her father was born and much of their family was murdered in the Holocaust.

“Even getting my dad to buy in was a whole journey of its own,” says Hagit. “So when I pressed ‘submit’ I was...victorious.”

For Andy Maeding and Matthew Coen, the application process wasn’t emotionally trying in the same way, but as the first recipients of the Baxter Award and friends of Matt Baxter, it had its own special meaning and importance.

“Matt was really good about bringing people together. He organized these pancake breakfasts and we did them pretty much religiously every single Saturday morning,” says Andy.

“He took me on many of my first serious Yosemite crack climbs,” says Matthew. “A lot of my memories with Matt are pancake breakfasts and crack-climbing at the Cookie [an iconic Yosemite climbing cliff].”

Andy and Matthew’s proposal was one of the first submitted in the award’s 25-year history. It detailed their plans to study and learn firsthand the sustainable farming of a remote community in Ladakh, India.

“This connectivity with Tibetan Buddhist culture really resonated with us because of the way they view existence and live a compassion-oriented life. This was also a place that Matt had traveled to and he would tell us about his adventures in the Himalayas. Within the culture of our group of friends, the Himalayas were a major draw,” says Andy.

You know, there's the dream, and then there's reality. To take that dream and that concept, and then have to go and really fulfill it — that’s a whole other challenge. An amazing challenge that Matt would pump his fist about.
Kristina Rylands, former Yosemite Regional Director

“Yeah, I think that’s part of what made it great: that we knew Matt would be 100% behind what we were conjuring up for our trip,” says Matthew.

The small committee of people reading over applications and making the excruciatingly difficult decision of who most deserves the Baxter Award each year has for many years included Kristina Rylands. She led the Baxter Award process in her time as Yosemite Regional Director and has seen dozens of bold, captivating proposals. 

“There's a part of me that always has a little Matt on my shoulder when I'm reading through those applications,” she says. “I think to myself: what would make Matt want to just stand up on a chair, pump his fist in the air and say, ‘That is awesome!’”

Backpacking in the Yukon, cycling across Iceland, SCUBA exploration off the coast of South Africa — there is no end to the imagination and creativity of Baxter Award submissions. For Kristina, the Baxter family, past recipients and others who review those submissions, a “perfect” application may not exist, but there are characteristics that the winning applications share. There are several characteristics that a winning application must contain as well. The proposed experience must:

  • Embody the sense of adventure that Matt exhibited throughout his life
  • Challenge applicants to push their personal limits
  • Represent the realization of a personal dream
  • Have a high degree of impact on the larger world community

Lastly, it must be neat, professional, well laid-out and free of errors. “Did you wear your good suit?” is the question posed by the selection committee; a reference to Matt Baxter showing up to his job interview in a full suit he kept folded in his car. Matt wanted to look his absolute best, and so should the application.

“I think those proposals that stand out are the ones where people are telling an incredible story — why is this so important to me? Why do I feel compelled to do this incredible adventure that's going to push me out of my comfort zone?” she says. “It's not just about, ‘I'm gonna walk X number of miles.’ It’s about the why. Those stories of what fuels our passions, that’s what really stands out.”

For Sonia, she wanted to hike the Caminho Português de Santiago — a scenic 380-mile trail from Lisbon, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain — to try to understand her father’s connection with his native country and heal their relationship in the process. For Hagit, she planned to travel to Poland in an attempt to uncover her family's lost history that was fractured during the Holocaust. For Andy and Matthew, they were fueled by their friendship with each other and Matt and their deep desire to form a more holistic, sustainable relationship with the land.

Of course, each of these proposals did end up being chosen by the committee in their respective years. The requisite aspects of adventure, challenge, dream realization and community impact were undeniably present in each of their applications and the 48 other winning proposals.

“Often when I would deliver the news to someone that their proposal’s been accepted, their first reaction would be, ‘Oh,, I guess I really have to do this thing,” Kristina laughs.

This was Hagit’s experience.

“I remember when Kristina called me, I sobbed,” she says. “Because I didn’t know how it was possible. I was so confused, like — wait, I already did my journey — what more is there to do?”

“You know, there's the dream, and then there's reality,” says Kristina. “To take that dream and that concept, and then have to go and really fulfill it — that’s a whole other challenge. An amazing challenge that Matt would pump his fist about.”

For Part II, we’ll follow the incredible Baxter Award journeys of Sonia, Hagit, Andy and Matthew.

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