Trout Creek, Montana
Joe & Marilyn Frields

Visit on March 8, 2002
Loi Eberle, M.A.

It was a bit of a journey to get to 20 Peak Ranch, the residential family-style program for boys that is located in Trout Creek, Montana. Due to the surprise re-emergence of winter this early spring, I knew that I had decided to drive a road that could potentially be difficult in the ice and snow. Though not the only route, I had chosen it because my previous travels had shown me the exquisite beauty lurking around every corner. That memory sustained me as I slowly steered the icy hills, imagining the majesty of the mountains that remained enfolded by fog the entire time. I think my somewhat jangled nerves made the house seem even more cozy and inviting when I arrived. Not all the warmth, however, was a result of the well-built house. The warmth was mostly from the welcoming manner in which I was greeted by the house parents, Joe and Marilyn Frields, and Paul Clark, the therapist for both Galena Ridge Wilderness program and 20 Twenty Peaks Ranch.

They explained that while some enroll after attending other wilderness programs, most of their seven residents have stayed on after completing the Galena Ridge Wilderness program, which is operated during the summer [see the New Perspective on “Galena Ridge” at and the March ’02 Woodbury Reports Newsletter #91.] Galena Ridge was started by Paul Clark in 1993. Joe, a long-time instructor at Galena Ridge and his wife, Marilyn started the 20 Peaks Ranch in 1997. Paul Clark had wanted the residential part of the program to be at another location, away from his growing children, and Joe and Marilyn seemed the ideal couple to take over the residential portion of the program. They wanted to do it, and their own children had recently moved on to start their own families, so they had the time and space. Paul continues to be the therapist for both programs.

I was shown around their lovely home that was now bathed in sunlight that poured through the skylights as the clouds began to clear. Two of the resident boys lived in one of the simple but attractive bedrooms; the other three boys roomed together in another bedroom. Two other boys lived in the very comfortable cabin outside Joe and Marilyn’s bedroom window.

Soon all seven of the boys surged through the door. Joe had just returned from picking them up from the bus stop where the Thompson Falls High School bus had deposited them. It was Friday, so Joe collected their teacher’s comments and grades for their progress in class that week. The kids explained that they had to maintain at least a C in each class or they would be placed on academic probation. The couches and over-stuffed chairs in the living room were arranged so that we all sat comfortably and informally in a large circle. On the wall above one of the couches was mounted a large cougar Joe had shot. The boys readily started talking when I asked them about the local high school. Basically they liked it. Some of the students, at least according to the teacher’s reports I read, sometimes had an attitude problem in a class or two, but for the most part the grades were very good, and the reports about the boy’s behavior were positive.

The boys felt they were fairly well received by the other kids at school. They were not the only “program kids” at the high school; two other programs, Explorations, and Building Bridges, also attended school there. I asked how this high school compared to where they had previously been attending. They pointed out that the classes in Thompson Falls, Montana were smaller, and the teachers knew them, which they liked. They pointed out that some of the larger city schools were less tolerant of drugs than what they had seen in town. Describing a lot of the kids there as “needing a program,” they spoke about the beneficial impact they felt 20 Peaks was having on them. They were grateful that they were learning about being honest and communicating their feelings, and the importance of respect and self-discipline. A few talked about being glad they’re learning these things before they have kids of their own.

I talked with them about how difficult it is for parents to decide to send their child to a program, and how they agonize over whether they’ve made the right choice. I asked what thoughts they might want to communicate to parents in that situation. The kids expressed what I felt were insightful statements. First of all, one boy said, “If a parent thinks their child needs a program, he probably does.” Another boy, who had originally been escorted to the wilderness said, “Tell them that no matter how mad their child is at the time, eventually he’ll get to a point where he understands why you sent him, and will be grateful that you did, and will love you for it.” They also told me that it was definitely true that they started having better communications with their parents once they were in a program for a while.

These kids seemed really upbeat, friendly, and energetic. If I hadn’t spoken with Paul Clark earlier, I’d have guessed that they were “softer” kids, who had just started acting out and then had been immediately sent to a wilderness program. My previous conversation with Paul had already informed me though, about some of their extremely defiant behaviors when they first arrived. Some of them would still occasionally fall back into those patterns, but had become much more willing to participate in this household.

Some people think this is a drug treatment program, which is not really the case, although they do incorporate many aspects of the 12 Step philosophy into their therapeutic activities. They also attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in town every Friday, and on Tuesday nights if the roads are good and there isn’t a lot of homework. Over the years, boys with drug and alcohol issues have done well here. From our casual conversation, the boys expressed insight into these behaviors, and motivation to make positive choices.

Eventually, I bid everyone farewell, and we all went outside. The boys began cheerfully shoveling snow, and I headed for my car, hoping to get to my next destination before dark. We stood for a moment to enjoy the brilliant blue sky now being gloriously revealed by the quickly dissipating storm clouds. I felt very encouraged by this fine group of boys. They seemed to appreciate what they were learning from being at 20 Peaks Ranch. They had worked hard to get to their current level of understanding and I felt they had developed some important skills there that would positively affect their future.