Joe Spear hails from Nashville, Tennessee and is no stranger to Moondance. As a student, Joe attended our California, Belize + Costa Rica, and Rainier trips and, as he elaborates on below, these experiences changed his life for the better. Eager to find that magical feeling again, Joe returned to Moondance in 2021 to lead Northern Lights–he followed that up with summers leading Kilimanjaro (2022) and Chamonix (2023). Not a bad Moondance resume!
After completing his undergraduate degree at Tulane University last fall, Joe joined the HQ team as a Domestic Operations Coordinator in a part-time capacity while he worked on his applications for Medical School and prepared to lead Chamonix. We couldn’t be more excited to have Joe back again here in Nashville to work in the office as a Staffing + Operations Coordinator for the 2024 season.
As we begin to process New Leader Applications, Joe will be there with you every step of the way! Here’s a look inside his Moondance journey:
Whether consciously or unconsciously, I revolve my life around Moondance. Despite my pre-medical ambitions, I have prioritized my Moondance summers more than any other academic facet of my life. Moondance has a unique and contagious ability to pull you back year after year, no matter what other plans you envision for your future. It’s the heartbeat of my calendar, the North Star of my young adult life. After three summers of leading trips, I knew I was not ready to move on from Moondance or take the next step in my lengthy academic journey. Thus, I accepted a full-time offer to work in the office to assist with Staffing and Operations.
After hating sleepaway camp as a ten-year-old, I accepted my parents’ gracious proposal to attend the California Discovery Moondance trip after I finished 7th grade in 2013. I worried about succumbing to homesickness as I had a few years prior, but I was thrilled to get back to California, where I had grown up visiting family. That July, I headed off alone to meet a group of strangers and spent two weeks romping around the state. On my connecting flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a different plane flying into the Bay Area from Asia crashed on the SFO runway, causing all subsequent arriving flights to divert and every departing aircraft grounded: quite the introduction to my first Moondance trip.
I then diverted to San Jose, where one of my leaders eventually found me before we bounced around different airports, locating other nearby students. Despite the chaotic start, we could all meet in Half Moon Bay the next day to begin the trip activities. The following two weeks were arguably the most transformative of my life. Each day, I had too much fun and stimulation to worry about being homesick; our group meshed in no time, we spent our free moments playing games or running around, and I fell in love with Northern California.
Over ten years later, I can confidently say that those two weeks I spent in California changed the trajectory of my life. Upon returning home, I sought leadership roles within my Boy Scout troop and jumped on all opportunities to go camping. I returned to Moondance for another two summers on the Costa Rica & Belize, and Rainier trips. Each changed me more than the last, and I knew after finishing my final trip that I wanted to return as a leader in a few years.
Although I grew up in Nashville, my exposure to the outdoors on Moondance inspired me to pursue independent outdoor travel worldwide. In Fall 2018, I completed a ninety-day semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), focused on developing wilderness medicine and rescue skills. Before my first Moondance trip, I would have laughed if somebody told me I would complete a three-month NOLS course living outside in the cold. My NOLS experience differed significantly from my Moondance trips, but the skills and lessons I learned affirmed my desire to lead trips for Moondance.
After COVID’s squeeze on the world began to loosen, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job as a trip leader and placed on the Northern Lights trip for the 2021 summer. Words cannot do justice to the life-changing experience that was my time in Alaska. I had never been challenged so consistently and broadly, and I certainly had never experienced the frequency and intensity of the rain we felt daily. Still, those two months in Alaska were the most incredible two months of my entire life. We encountered Moose, Bears, and no shortage of crazy Alaskan residents, all of which have made for stories I will tell for the rest of my life. Watching students transform from reserved and anxious over trip fears to confident and empowered in the most testing conditions was my most extraordinary experience. I was the best version of myself I have ever been that summer in Alaska, and I grieved when the season came to a crushing close. I had never felt so fulfilled, alive, capable, and influential as I had while leading Northern Lights.
When I returned home from Anchorage, I knew I would return to lead for Moondance again. In 2022 and 2023, I was bestowed with the privileges of leading the Kilimanjaro and Chamonix trips; with each session, my Moondance experience has just kept getting better and better. I have formed lifelong friendships with my students and co-leaders, had students return to join me on different trips over multiple summers, written job and college letters of recommendation, and helped mentor many of my past students. I am hopeful that this summer, I will have my first prior students return to Moondance as trip leaders themselves!
Moondance is a special place for countless reasons, particularly its unique ability to transform students and leaders. After life-altering experiences as a student, I was amazed to have even more impactful trips and relationships once I returned to lead. While I will be a few years behind the “traditional” path toward becoming a doctor, I cannot imagine how much less complete and gratifying my life would be if I had not found Moondance. In a perfect world, I would spend every summer in the field, preaching the ways of Living in the Moment and living as goofy and carefree as possible. Obviously, we can only lead trips for a while, but if you take the leap to spend even one summer out in the field with Moondance, I can say with certainty that your life and life perspectives will forever be changed.
–Joe Spear, 3x Moondance Leader, Northern Lights + Kilimanjaro + Chamonix