A foray into the realm of cops-and-robbers, standing off and being slippery
To preserve confidentiality, the names of the boys in this article have been changed. All of the events are true.
Whether we like it or not, there is an almost inevitable association between wilderness trips and a certain degree of cultural refinement. I simply do not imagine young toughs trekking through alpine meadows, pants low on their hips in the gang style, scribbling graffiti in the trail registers. Instead, it is university students on spring break-or young software engineers and their significant others-whom I see erecting nylon bubble tents in the backcountry. Hikers and sea kayakers may be young people who never finished college, or professionals who have dropped out of the rat race to run a lodge in the Yukon, but the essential pattern is still there. The world of trails and tarns tends to be the domain of the sons and daughters of the well-advantaged, those for whom illegal activity means breaking the speed limit a little bit or not declaring a camera purchased abroad.
Perhaps for this reason there is a romantic fascination with taking juvenile delinquents into the wilderness. What will happen, one wonders, to the fifteen year-old who stole a stereo, when he stands atop the Continental Divide? Will getting there, the days of walking through forests and over tundra, the nights spent in meadows near streams, expand his soul? Will nature speak to him, civilize him, draw the pain and misfittedness out of him and leave him more mature? Certainly any person asking such questions reveals himself as contemplating, if only for a moment, an over-simplified understanding of how young people get involved with crime. But fifty miles inside the Lost River Wilderness this evening a backpacker simmering rice over his tiny stove is still compelled to ask, if bad boys could be in the wilderness like I am, wouldn't they feel the peace that I do?
I took bad boys backpacking in February of 1991 to see if I could answer that question: nine young men on probation, all fifteen to seventeen years old, convicted of crimes ranging from breaking and entering to shooting someone else's cow. They stood squarely at the far end of the cultural spectrum from the classic backpacker: young, mostly Hispanic males from a small, depressed New Mexico town, in trouble with the law before they had finished high school, their world bounded at its furthest limits by the occasional trip to El Paso or Albuquerque.
Our seventeen-day expedition was organized by a non-profit program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which we will call the Zia Center. Together with Deb and Theo, two of Zia's seasoned experts in the world of youth-at-risk wilderness trip, I would take these boys to the Chihuahuan desert backcountry of Big Bend National Park in west Texas. Deb and Theo would provide the full agenda of structures and ideas that would make the expedition work. I would contribute what I could from my knowledge of primitive travel skills, which I taught at outfits tailored to the elite, such as the National Outdoor Leadership School. But in the main I was the trainee, ready to learn as we went, and eager to see what this kind of work, which dominated the outdoor job listings that I perused, was like. I was long on familiarity in instructing history majors from Dartmouth how to keep a clean camp in grizzly bear territory, and short on experience with anybody who had seen the inside of a jail.
Deb and Theo and I arrive in Roswell, New Mexico, on the morning the trip begins. As is typical of outdoor-education road nomads, our work hours are whatever the trip needs, and today we have risen at four AM in Santa Fe to pack a white, fifteen-passenger Zia Center van with backpacks, sleeping bags, camp stoves and other assorted gear. The rising sun catches up with us crossing the semi-desert north of Roswell, a tawny yellow landscape, undeveloped and free of litter until we enter the outskirts of town We are to rendezvous with the boys at nine AM in the parking lot of the Country Forensic Evaluation Center.
Roswell welcomes us with a sign on a motel saying "We support our troops in the Gulf!" and a marquis at a nearby used car lot adding, "Good night, Saddam!" Although the Gulf War is in full swing, this is the first time any of us has seen such a sentiment displayed. Santa Fe, where we live, is something of an island of liberalism and-perhaps coincidentally-wealth in this very poor southwestern state, and the war is not popular there. These signs indicate as well as any might that we have left one American culture for another, and, much as I might relish stepping into a foreign airport and finding myself surrounded by the mysterious scripts of unknown languages, I am excited to be here. This clearly is the rugged undercarriage of the United States, and its delinquents will be a perfect test case for the refining qualities of wilderness.
Here is Al, waiting for us with his parents. a punky fifteen year old in trousers that are too long, who is smiling at me and whose file (provided to us by his probation officer) says he was arrested for weapons charges. Next to him is Angelo, the shooter of the cow, a chunky and attractive young man in a button-down shirt. This is Travis, who stole cars, wearing Doc Martin boots and a crew cut. I cannot remember at the moment the crimes of Robert, his ball cap on backwards, wearing a dark blue t-shirt and his hair cut below his ears, or Jake, with his roman nose and body-builder's muscles, wearing sneakers that aren't laced up. Tony, Ralph, Ben and Steve complete the group. Theo gathers them all together and explains the day's schedule to the "clients" (I keep thinking of them as "students"-got to learn the new lingo here): we will go over their health forms, pack the van, drive another three hundred miles down towards Big Bend, and camp late tonight just outside the Park near Terlingua, Texas.
This is not like meeting students at outdoor schools, who are likely to build initial bridges of rapport to me by referring to common experiences, such as seeing my hiking boots and saying, "How do you like those Fabianos?" or noting my volume of essays by Barry Lopez and saying "I love that book!" Travis, as I lead him into the building to review his medical form, turns to me and says, "So, are you going to strip search us?" At this moment I'm already in terra incognita. My hunch is that Travis is testing me, throwing an outrageous question my way to see whether I will respond the way that, say, his probation officer would. But I have no idea how a person with real experience in the juvenile justice system would respond to this question, and I'm afraid that no matter what I say I will reveal what a novice I am. But there's no time to really think about all this, so I just punt.
"Uh, no," I say, with a light-hearted yet distant tone which I hope will ambiguously suggest that I've done hundreds of strip searches and yet consider them inappropriate for this group. "No strip search." Travis appears to accept this.
In the office he answers all my questions about his health, and then it's time for me to try something else new for me, something specific to youth-at-risk work. "Before we get in the van," I say, "leave behind any contraband you are thinking of bringing on this trip-knives or drugs. Just throw it in the trash before you get in. Because once we're on the trip, we're ON THE TRIP for seventeen days." In this way, Deb and Theo and I have decided to notify each boy that their evaluation begins when we get in the van. A description of each boy's behavior on the trip, written by the three of us, will go to the judges who oversee their probation after we return; a good performance demonstrates an ability to act with a certain level of responsibility and can in turn lead to a shortening of probation. Each boy knows this, and we are giving them one more chance to decide to be successful, to start on the right foot.
For me, what is really new is what is going on inside me. Each boy, of course, protests that he is thinking of bringing no contraband, and my reaction is to listen to his words and try to decide whether he is snowing me or not. But Deb and Theo have counseled me to skirt this black hole of trying to separate truth from deception. Instead, while nodding at what they say, I practice an internal posture which I call "Standing Off" wherein I ignore their responses and do not form any opinions about what they will or won't do. As I understand it, it will not be time to weigh their words until much later in the trip when, hopefully, they have earned our trust. For now I withhold both trust and mistrust, and simply state my piece. It is an unaccustomed way to treat students; Standing Off directs me to be separate and cool at the time when I want to be open and warm, when I want to form bonds and assume trust. But, I feel so professional doing it.
With all the health screens done, I find Deb and Theo chatting with the boys outside in the sun. Deb is a pretty, dark haired, high-school-guidance-counselor-turned-rock-climber from Virginia; she most often works on the Zia Center's all-female youth-at-risk trips, and she enjoys this opportunity to work with boys. Theo is a sandy-haired desert rat with a penchant for blues guitar, whose laid-back style conceals his masterful apprehension of how these groups function. We're all about thirty years old. Theo has on his dark glasses, t-shirt and shorts and is hanging out with Robert and Ben; Deb is sipping a coke and leaning against the building talking to Tony. They look relaxed, as if so far the trip has been a vacation for them. To some extent I know this is an act-no point in revealing any concern to the clients-but our initial contacts with the boys have gone well and they have real reason to be pleased.
Before climbing aboard the van, all twelve of us gather in a circle on the pavement, and I make a speech which Deb and Theo have delegated to me, and which I have been rehearsing in my head, a speech to introduce Expedition Behavior. "When the going gets hard," I say, "we will be able to do this desert trip because we are a team. But there is a lot to know about being part of a good team-it doesn't just happen." I put on my best explaining voice. "On an expedition, the whole key to being a good team-a great team-is something called Expedition Behavior. It means wanting everyone to succeed. So it means volunteering to do things that help other people on the team, even if it doesn't help you very much. There's a lot of work to be done on a trip like this, and if you feel you are doing 110% of your share, well, you are probably doing the right amount.
"It means checking each other's harnesses when we're climbing to make sure the other guy is safe. It means cooking dinner for someone else who may be busy putting up the tarp or just bandaging a blister." I can feel pride welling up in me as I roll all of this out. "Good Expedition Behavior means looking out for the whole group, not just yourself. It's when you think about how to make life easier for each other, how to smooth the way for each other." Good expedition behavior is what I really love to see. It's also what the judge would really love to see.
The structures underlying a Zia Center trip begin with three basic rules: violence, threats of violence and drugs are forbidden. Then, there is the ritual of the daily "group," which is a circle for the boys to talk about the day in the evening. When we "do group," there will be three sections of the meeting, each organized around its own rhetorical question: part A: what did we do today?; part B: how do we feel about it?; and part C: what are we going to do tomorrow? Another structure is the "huddle," a quick conference which everyone must attend and which can be called by anyone to address a conflict or an emergency. There are a few logistical rules, such as smoking being limited to times when the "butt can" is set out-in other words, when work around camp is done. Allowing cigarettes on a backcountry program is hard for me to imagine, since in programs for more upstanding clientele cigarettes are strictly taboo. But Deb and Theo have assured me that with this "population" going out without smokes is a non-starter.
However, the essential core of doing youth-at-risk work seems to be more than these structural elements, and Deb and Theo have taken time over the last week to explain some of the arcane, inner skills to me. Standing Off, which I described earlier, is one. Talking the Straight Line is what I call another: that I must have the internal resolve to stay the course of confronting a boy who is making me uncomfortable. I had a chance to practice this before we even left Santa Fe, when I phoned Robert because his probation officer indicated that he was skipping school and possibly dealing drugs. He picked up the phone yelling, "You fat tub of lard!", yelled it again, and then began our conversation with "What?" I was thrown from my plan, and I was not able to pull myself together to say, "We've heard you're screwing up and we want to know how you'll be out on the trip." Deb showed me how to Talk The Straight Line the next day, calling Robert back and confronting him with his manner on the phone. I realized that I am used to avoiding uncomfortable interpersonal situations, and in this work that could be a disaster.
Deb and Theo have also been tutoring me in what I call Being Slippery. Being Slippery means revealing little or nothing about what's really going on inside me. It boils down to displaying no real patterns in my moods, in my likes and dislikes, in what might be important to me. "These guys are amazing," Theo has told me. "Once they know what makes you tick, they can play you like a violin." I can think of no more chilling statement about the challenge I face.
It is intriguing to think that I could master the art of staying one step ahead of such boys. Yet spending time at the Zia Center I have heard many stories from other staff that had phrases like "I knew he was just jerkin' me around" or "I knew they were hiding something," and I don't yet have the confidence that I can read our clients as well as these more experienced leaders can. All I am sure of is that there can be a dimension in play which goes beyond the sort of gentlemanly agreement to look out for the other guy and share what's yours under which normal outdoor school courses are conducted. There could be manipulation going on, some of it genuine and cold-blooded, some of it unconscious and intuitive. Most importantly, what seems to distinguish the really good youth-at-risk workers is the understanding that manipulations attempted by the clients do not justify an attempt to manipulate them in return. That complex issues of overt and covert control lie at the heart of this profession is shown by the number of euphemistic expressions these people have for "manipulation:" jerking me around, pushing my buttons, pulling my stings, playing with me, fucking with me, screwing with me, playing us off against each other.
On the drive south out of Roswell I am eager to build some rapport with the boys, and I deliberately position myself deep in the heart of the group, in the back seat of the van next to Robert. Theo is one row ahead, and we exchange glances on the long ride as the boys tell stories. Angelo talks of killing the cow-far more gruesome than I had expected. The cow was pregnant, he says, and they cut out the fetus with a "Rambo knife." When it died they tried to burn the body to destroy the evidence. Allen tells us that his arrest the previous week for receiving stolen goods occurred because he was walking down the street carrying an unloaded AK-47. "I've been in the Ft. Stockton Detention Center," says Jake, referring to a small Texas town ahead of us. "Last time we were down here-man, we were so drunk-we were driving: we missed the turn for El Paso by like two hundred miles!" He laughs.
I don't know how much of this to believe, and since I am Standing Off I don't really have to figure it out-but I notice a real storytelling session is in progress here. As each boy is talking, the others are an affirming and appreciative audience. Their ears are wide open, they are learning and they do not risk breaking the flow of information by saying something like, "Hey, you shouldn't have done that." Nor do they question whether these things really happened or not, because even fake stories define future possibilities in tantalizing ways. While the content of the conversation in the van is a little unusual, it's a familiar pattern of teenage boys topping one another's exploits-with the usual lies about girls and money exchanged for tales about violence and lawlessness.
"This time we were in Juarez," Angelo says, referring to the Mexican town opposite El Paso, "my friends and me, and there was this old woman begging, like down on the street. And I said to my friend, 'Hey we need some money for Pepsis - why don't you steal her cup?' So he walks up to her and she's holding the cup up like this and he takes a pebble and drops it in - Clunk. And then he grabs that cup and starts runnin'! And he's runnin' for the border you know, and that old lady she gets up," Angelo starts to mimic, "just like this, and folds her chair, just like this" (he gets a laugh) "and she walks off after him. As he passes me he hands me the cup and I put it like this, down in my pants. And that old lady comes by me, goes right by. I say, 'Hi there.'" He laughs. "And then we looked in the cup, and there was just some pesos, you know, so we say to these kids, 'How much will you give us for these pesos, American money?' And they say, "Fifty cents, fifty cents!'"
Steve shakes his head in admiration and delivers the score. "That's bad," he says. Not that it really is bad: most of these guys' stories are about participating in something which is suggestive of real world crime, but doesn't quite make the grade. But Steve thinks it's bad.
"One time," Angelo says, "we were in a BIG fight, and the next morning our knuckles were so swollen we could hardly sign the papers. The recruiter, Army recruiter-I mean Navy recruiter-he says, 'If you boys like a fight, you might be interested in the Navy Seals.'"
This little vignette reminds me of "Good Night Sadaam!" again, and I have to ask myself just how endemic fighting is in the world of these boys. "Do your folks get in fights?" I ask, not wanting to encourage talk about this sort of thing, but at the same time curious to know whether in teaching the conciliatory themes of Expedition Behavior, I will be going against family traditions of bluster and conflict.
"My dad does," says Angelo, "Bar fights."
"My mom does," says Travis. "Some bitch was givin' her shit in the Laundromat, you know. She followed her home, so my mom just stopped the car and beat the shit out of her." He grins. I find it a bit surreal, a sixteen year old saying these things to me. It does look like I have my work cut out for me.
I want to ask Theo and Deb what they are thinking as they listen to the verbal traffic, if we're hearing normal content, but we won't have an opportunity to talk for a while. Our plan calls for us to mix with the boys continuously for the next couple of days, to make sure no "us vs. them" dynamic arises, and so we won't really have any "staff meetings" or even any obvious conferencing. I resort to my journal, dialoguing with myself, recording bits of conversation, noting things that are a mystery to me.
We stop driving just after midnight, in an area called "Indian Hills," near Terlingua. Here, under an immense rock which Zia Center staff call the Cosmic Egg, we get out and I am elected to give a quick demonstration, in the van's headlights, of how to use a sleeping bag. I go over what to wear inside, how to take care of the zipper, no smoking and, yes, do wear shoes if you get up in the night to urinate since there are lecheguilla and cactus growing here. I point out the lecheguilla, a small innocuous-looking succulent whose sharp spikes are positioned at just the right height to clear the top of a running shoe and stick you in the ankle.
A coyote howl interrupts my narrative from just a few yards away in the dark. It's Jake, behind some creosote bushes, being a joker. We all laugh, lay our bags down on foam pads in the dust and sleep under a starry sky.
Our next day, rappelling practice at the nearby site of Lajitas, goes well. The boys are attentive, friendly and do well at everything we teach them. We spend a second night camping at the Egg and then depart on day three for the roadhead in Big Bend. We stop at the Panther Junction ranger station for Deb and Theo to pick up a permit for us to take a group backpacking in the National Park and I stay outside to have the boys fill our water jugs from a tap.
It is my first moment alone supervising the whole set of them and I find I am riding herd on a swarm of bees. I simply cannot keep track of all nine-some are in the bathroom, some are talking about using the pay phone and some are at the faucet. I go to enter the bathroom and the door won't open because someone is leaning on it from the inside. I push harder and find Robert blocking the door and Travis probing some kind of a grate in the wall. I tell them to get back to work in a businesslike tone, but after they leave I also pause momentarily to reflect on the simple elegance of the tactic of leaning against the door: it appeared casual yet it notified Robert of someone coming in, and it delayed me. Nice.
I am unclear on what my policy should be in reacting to such mischief. What do I make a deal about, and what do I let pass? I'm not learning much by watching what Theo and Deb do because, Being Slippery, their responses often conceal what they really think. For example, just before we leave Panther Junction, Theo and I find that Ben and Ralph have stolen five rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom and stashed them in the van. Theo just rolls his eyes and calmly makes them put it all back-but is he nonchalant because little acts of mischief are normal at this point, or because he is Being Slippery? It is a tribute to his mastery of the method that I can't tell. On the other hand, when we arrive at Chisos Basin, where we will leave the van and set out on foot for ten days, Deb catches Tony, Ben and Ralph sneaking off to the Basin store to buy cigarettes. She and Theo get quite angry, call a huddle and say tersely that if there's any more mischief around cigarettes or candy before the end of the trip there will be no stops on the return drive to New Mexico. Does this mean that when we decided that there would be no more opportunities to buy cigarettes after yesterday, it was truly important that the boys respect it? Not necessarily.
I do learn tricks for circumventing the boy's natural opposition to authority, however. As we are packing our backpacks and passing out the items which belong to the group in general-stoves, tarps, maps-the boys complain that their packs are already full. The chorus echoes through the group: "We ain't got no room!" I see a classic Expedition Behavior break-down in progress. Before I have a chance to get their attention and chide them, I watch Theo take a less confrontational tack. He goes to the van and pulls out the shovel we use to dig "catholes"-personal holes in which to bury feces. He also pulls out the group's only roll of toilet paper in its ziploc bag.
"Oh, man!" he says loudly. "I almost forgot these!" Everyone looks around to see what he's holding.
"We need it, man!" Robert declares in agitation. "Somebody'll take it!" The whole group picks up the alarm and chimes in, "Somebody'll take it!" Finally Robert rises to the challenge himself and finds room in his pack for the shovel. The ice having been broken, all the other group items are divided up and dutifully packed.
Everything is ready and we lock up the van, having left the precious bag of Pecan Sandies inside to be our end-of-trip snack when we return in two weeks. We hit the trail in a long line of twelve.
One of the reasons I have often heard cited that youth-at-risk wilderness trips are effective is that the backcountry is typified by immediacy of consequences. I can see this immanent in the very landscape as we hike up through the pine trees of Chisos Basin-bury your raingear too deep in your pack, and get wet. Fail to treat a blister and get a painful, possibly infected foot. Fail to pay attention to the map and landmarks, and spend the night lost. This is not the idea of the wilderness having a reformative effect because it immerses one in peace; this is the backcountry-as-laboratory in which the cause-and-effect nature of the universe is made plain on a daily basis. This is the ideal place, say proponents of wilderness-based youth-at-risk programs, for a boy to discover that he is responsible for his own experience. It makes sense if, as they claim, a romance with bad behavior is only possible when one doesn't see any actual consequences accruing from it; wilderness then can be used to show us that every choice has perceptible sequelae. In theory at least, the boys take this lesson home with them.
As we lose sight of the parking lot and the van, the operation of another feature claimed to be unique to wilderness therapy becomes evident to me: the compelling confinement of open space. Run away to what? I see that tonight at our camp near the outcrops called the Pinnacles, despite the trail running less than two miles back and eight hundred feet down to the roadhead, the hard world of wilderness will appear to go on forever in all directions. The boys simply won't be sure they know how to get back to the van. Comfort of a basic kind, such as food and companionship, will be found each day by turning towards our camp.
For this reason, structuring camp well becomes a way to build security and success on the trip. When we reach the Pinnacles, we divide the boys into two cook groups: Jake, Angelo, Tony and Steve in one, and Robert, Ben, Ralph, Allen and Travis in the other. After each group cooks its own dinner (marred only by Tony's allegation that Jake has spit in their pot of macaroni and cheese), we "do group" in the dark around a candle lantern. Recapping the events of the day in Part A, hearing that the boys are proud of the hike and ashamed of their mischief in Part B, we outline in Part C tomorrow's plan, to hike farther into the backcountry and take a side trip to scramble to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos.
It is on this rocky summit at 7800 feet the next day that I watch Robert get to the top of up the final boulder, quickly become uneasy, and after a brief moment scramble back down to the shelter of the trees. He's scared by the exposure, the ground dropping away on all sides, the enormous view, the howling wind. I find it thrilling to see everything below me on all sides; how can a mountaintop be so scary to someone as bad as Robert, someone who claims to have seen so many guns? But I realize that this summit block is a place full of an unfamiliar, raw power for him. His stories of violence do not mean he has become an essentially confident person. Far from it.
Here is a practical problem then for those who would refine the souls of bad boys by bringing them into wilderness: one needs a certain minimum sense of personal confidence and power before communing, however humbly, with the big gods of nature. In the absence of that sense, nature's most impressive moments are too much, in the same way that food can be too rich or intimacy too sudden. Wilderness may not work on those brought to it for healing the way it works on those drawn to it over the course of years. Instead, it can frighten and intimidate. The gentler aspects of nature, the ones which over time build a person's confidence and power, are in its lesser wonders: crags rather than peaks, rain showers rather than violent thunderstorms. To come to know these is a long process of growing bigger and deeper, a process of years, the real process of whatever reform nature might be able to work on a person. At the end of such a long-term relationships with the outdoors one of these boys might indeed stand in an airy place and receive its wisdom, be knocked over backwards by a revelation of the beauty and grace immanent in wilderness. But if that happens it will not be the moment of reform itself: it will be confirmation that reform has already happened, and that he has long passed beyond the phase of letting his peers think for him.
In this sense, I realize, the ideal youth-at-risk trip involves immersion in nature, but not too powerful a nature. For example, things go perfectly for us that evening. Mild squalls of rain blow in as we make camp near the South Rim, a spectacular escarpment that brings an abrupt end to the Chisos with a plunge of two thousand feet to the desert floor. The boys' cool begins coming apart, and they hurry over to us asking what to do as gusts of wind topple tarps and clothing spread out on the ground begins to be hit by raindrops. Theo sidesteps telling them to dress for the weather and simply says, "I won't listen to complaints from anyone not wearing all of his Zia clothing!" I watch them scramble to put on jackets, fleece pants and raingear. Soon they are all properly attired-or over-attired-except for Ben who won't wear the red raincoat because, he says, that is the color of his rival gang. Deb rolls her eyes and gets him to trade with someone else. She notes that he is probably not, as he claims, actually in the gang; he just wishes he were.
After dinner we convene "group" and Deb passes out a bead to each of us. This is a nightly ritual she has established where each boy adds the bead to a leather thong he wears around his wrist, and explains what he did today, what the bead symbolizes for him. Although the express purpose of our trip is the evaluation of these boys, rather than their transformation, no staff member worth her salt would pass up an opportunity to mark the journey as a large event for them, one which they deserve to capture, keep and be proud of. The boys like the beads, each one adding another day to his wrist, and I like to hear the things they say ("I learned that if I am patient with myself I can do more than I think") although I wonder sometimes if these platitudes are too good to be true.
Theo too has a ritual which he introduces tonight for the first time. He brings out one of the Zia Center's stone pipes, fills it with a non-tobacco mix of herbs, and explains to the boys how the pipe ceremony works. It's intended to be a solemn moment, but the boys begin giggling and farting and generally sabotaging the air of seriousness-perhaps again, like the mountain top, this is too much for them. We succeed in passing the pipe, but not in making an ascent into 'ritual space.' I know that this distinctive, spontaneous atmosphere of solemnity and heartfelt statements is not very difficult to achieve with outdoor school students: I have seen them take a few days to ingest the rugged living, be frozen or blown around by a little weather, and then, hit lightly at the right moment with a solemn ceremony, they step readily into ritual space. They will speak frankly and poetically about how much the group means to them, how much the place means to them, as if with words they were fixing the fabric of the world in place. Such a moment, around a ceremony like the pipe, can be a nice peek into the health of the emotional dynamics that are underlying the good Expedition Behavior. But these boys don't respond in the same way. We know that Zia Center trips usually get good results out of the pipes, so we have to conclude that tonight was not the right night, or, more ominously, that this group is lacking a fundamental underpinning and is not likely tomorrow or any other day to display some good "EB." Being optimistic we assume the former.
When the boys go to sleep, the three of us sit down together to talk about all that has happened. I am eager to discuss the little bumps in the road from the past few days. How are we doing? Is this a typical group? Do you know what Steve told me? Would you agree that Robert is in some ways weirder than the other guys? I am full of questions and overflowing with observations.
Most of my thoughts never get aired because we have so little time before we must sleep, but I do learn that for Theo and Deb everything is going relatively normally-the "usual crises." They surmise that the 'honeymoon' phase of the trip is ending and we are now entering the 'power play' phase, meaning that there will be attempts to test whether we are in charge and how far we will let things go. They suggest that I be especially careful to continue Being Slippery.
The goal is to avoid coming to an outright clash with the boys. Their tendency, Deb explains to me, will be to move us into a cops-and-robbers dynamic, one where they are the bad juvenile delinquents and we are the police who are watching them and disciplining them. If we begin to think chiefly in terms of how we can catch them at or keep them from breaking rules, we will have fallen into this pattern. Inside such a dynamic we would prevail in keeping the boys "good," but the trip would lose whatever evaluative (or therapeutic) value it had. Everything that goes well would be to our credit, and in the end we would return the boys home no more accomplished or responsibly independent than when they set out.
Our test comes soon-the next evening. We are getting in our sleeping bags down in a dry canyon euphemistically named Blue Creek, having dropped out of the Chisos following a steep, switch-backed trail all day. We are tired, and we hear a THWOP from one of the boys' tarps. I'm not sure what that sound is, but I go out to announce quiet in 15 minutes, and see Tony jumping out of Robert's tarp and an uproar going on inside over Ben, who is in his sleeping bag. He cries he's just been punched in the eye by "them"-the boys of Jake's tarp. Ben says they invited him over and hit him. Tony claims he has come back over to tell Ben he had nothing to do with it. It's a tangled knot of un-provable allegations.
To me this is an emergency, one in which further fights may break out any moment between what have become known as "Jake's tarp" and "Robert's tarp." As far as I can tell we need to somehow keep the two rival groups separated. But Deb and Theo take this in stride. "This is meant to be mysterious to us," says Deb: it's an invitation to police them. She recommends we decline the invitation and take a low key approach. Instead of sleeping between their tarps to prevent further violence, we sleep under ours. It's a gamble, but a gamble that they are more interested in testing us than in fighting.
But I am unnerved. Fighting. This is what I am not prepared to deal with. In the unfamiliar world of JD's, I am finding that I am a match for them in composure, repartee, even Being Slippery, but once punches are thrown I'm intimidated. Would I jump in between two fighting boys? What if one attacks me? How do I defend myself and what if I fail? The idea that a trip like this, run correctly, never dipped into violence made me feel safe taking the job. Now it appears that this is untrue, but even though it might become a rough trip I can't exactly leave. Although one of the cardinal Zia Center rules has been broken, cutting the trip short for one punch seems an overreaction. And, all three of us want to pull this trip off successfully enough that we are willing to hope it just doesn't happen again.
Indeed, our desire to do the trip and have it work out well has dogged us from the beginning. Two other Zia Center programs had made the rounds of New Mexico's probation officers just before we got the go-ahead to put a group together, and we had found few recommendations remaining to us. We had interviewed not the twenty boys we had hoped for, but only twelve, and had selected nine out of those. Some of them Deb and Theo had been skeptical about, but we wanted badly to assemble a group and get out in the field. Had we scraped the bottom of the barrel and set ourselves up?
The next morning, after a quiet night, when we are supposed to go climbing at a site near camp, we put a hold on the plan until there is a huddle and the night's events are discussed. We make it clear that it is up to the boys to call the meeting.
"Theo, what are we doing today?" calls Robert tauntingly from his cooking area.
"I don't' know. I just want to drink my tea!" Theo retorts from ours.
I hear a sound coming from behind a fin of rock that rises from the desert floor about 100 yards away, so I walk over to investigate. There I find Jake destroying a cholla cactus, swinging at it with the biggest stick he can find. I can see he is frustrated-he's pulping the plant and there's no hope for it by the time I get there-but I tell him firmly that destroying plants is unacceptable. I know I sound stupid, but I can't accept him doing this in Big Bend. It's too much of a leap for me, I who have been known to seriously discuss the ethical issues of picking wildflowers on common range land. This is a National Park, the sanctum sanctorum of the environmentalist, and I'm enough of a keener about this sort of thing that already it has popped into my head that what he's doing is actually illegal.
In this way Jake and I are drawn into a little cops-and-robbers dynamic of our own. He has inadvertently stumbled upon an issue I'm unwilling to let go of, and Being Slippery eludes me at this moment. The preservation of the park stands revealed to both of us as one of the things that makes me tick. I get him to put the stick down and walk away, but now he's the miscreant and I'm the responsible adult. Just what we were hoping to avoid.
I soon have another humbling moment of Being Less Than Slippery. Robert, followed by Ben and Al, who increasingly seem to worship him, walks out of camp and goes up on a hill overlooking our site. Tony, Travis and Steve are in camp trying to call a huddle so we can get it all worked out and go climbing. I am angry that Robert has found a way to stymie their good intentions towards "group process" by not being present, so I yell up to these three boys to get back down to camp immediately. They ignore me for a long leisurely time. And then come down lazily. I feel totally ineffective.
In the huddle that then happens I hope for some clear discussion of what happened last night, who has a problem with whom, and the formation of a plan to deal with it. That would be the ideal Expedition Behavior approach, and it's not going to happen. I've forgotten about Standing Off, and I listen with disappointment to the few statements volunteered as all the boys essentially pretend there is nothing going on. Theo and Deb step in to establish that we will all now go climbing, but if there is any bad behavior when we are there we will take down the ropes and return to camp.
This is a release of tension for all of us, but my bad day goes on. Jake has indicated to Theo he suspects Robert has some contraband on him, and we decide that although we don't want to play cops-and-robbers, our responsibilities mean that we have to know whether this is true or not. While the group is climbing, I go back to our empty camp under the pretext of getting the snake bite kit and I search Robert's pack-as well as Ben's and Ralph's. I am afraid of being discovered and losing whatever shaky trust we have established with the boys, and I keep glancing across the landscape to make sure no one is coming. I feel hurried, uncomfortable and a little foolish. It is a hasty, incomplete search of their packs, done just to get it over with, and I find nothing.
The next day is largely consumed by a long hike to a place where we will stay for two nights and do "solo." Our van has been shuttled to the Blue Creek Overlook, and during the hike we visit it, restock with food, cross the road, and continue five miles further across open and flat stony terrain
"Solo" on a Zia Center trip is a twenty-four hour period when each boy is alone in his own piece of desert, separated by a two minute walk from the next boy. The Peña Spring area offers good terrain for this sort of thing-small, twisty washes winding among miniature buttes. It is full of tiny hollows and shady nooks. The solo sites are chosen so we can see many of them at a distance from our camp on top of a bluff near the spring, but they are invisible to each other. The idea is to give each boy the space to be alone with himself and think about things, and during the solo one of us will come to visit to discuss how the trip is going for him. Each boy gets a "solo tarp" in case it rains and they can take their pack with them, minus any cigarettes or matches. That's where the search comes in.
I take Robert, Ben and Travis with me the next morning and we go out to choose their solo sites. I decide to drop Robert off before Ben, because Robert might just wander over to Ben's site if he knows where it is. We find Robert a place in a small wash, sheltered by a wall of mud with hundreds of small pebbles embedded in it.
I have him shake out everything he is bringing for solo and we squat down to consider it. He hands me his coat first, then his sleeping bag-and at this moment I dimly perceive that he is trying to introduce some design into the search. He is not behaving oddly, other than the fact that it is unlike Robert to be so organized, positive and willing. He shows me that he has rolled his food up in his solo tarp, and, with a single motion, one of his hands presents me with the food while the other carelessly tosses the tarp's stuff sack aside. It reminds me of an old sleight of hand trick. So instead of examining the offered food, I pick up the stuff sack and there in the bottom is an empty cigarette pack. It looks old-maybe it is from a previous Zia trip-so I put it in my pocket without pausing and go on with the search.
After leaving Robert, I drop off Ben and Travis at their sites and repeat the search process with each. Then, alone in a sandy little hollow, I pull out this cigarette pack and give it a second look. It is an old, faded, white Marlboro wrapper with a foil inner liner. I decide to be thorough and I pull the liner out. There, lying between the foil and the wrapper is a small, twisted paper object, a hand-rolled cigarette of some kind. Its being hidden so carefully suggests it is contraband and not tobacco, but my goodie-goodie background leaves me poorly prepared for this moment: how am I going to know whether it's marijuana or not? I sniff it-I know what burning pot smells like-but the tobacco smell from the pack is so strong I don't get any other odor. I look at it, and I have to admit that it's a pretty tiny, paltry cigarette if it is made of tobacco.
I go back to Robert's site, where I act as though nothing has happened and I help him put up his tarp. I am keenly aware that he does not know whether I have investigated the cigarette pack, and the ambiguity strikes me as a power I have over him. I tell him I'll be back to talk later about how the trip is going for him. I wonder what he's thinking.
Up on the bluff with Deb and Theo we take a moment to savor the prospect of twenty-four hours in a lovely campsite without the boys. The weather looks excellent. Then I reveal my find. They both groan in disappointment.
Theo checks out the item and pronounces it a joint-no question about it, it's obvious. That determined, I propose the argument that Robert's "lawyers" (the ones in my head) are making-that the cigarette pack with its hidden contraband was left in the stuff sack on a previous trip. Not likely, says Deb, who had pulled and checked all of the gear prior to our departure from the Zia Center.
My assumption is that I will have to confront Robert with what I found, but Deb suggests that the point is not what he did, but how responsibly he chooses to deal with it. There's no need to go see Robert about this now. Let's let him have his solo, and relax up here, and let him think about it. Will he sit in group and talk to the other boys openly about it, now that he's caught? Will he deny it all the way? These are the important questions.
The possibility that Robert will choose instead to run away across the desert does not occur to us. But at three PM we look down and to our surprise see Robert, Ralph and Al standing in Ben's site. I expect Theo to go down and tell them to get back to their sites, but as usual he does something completely enigmatic-smiles and waves to them. "If they want to fuck up it's their party," he says, smiling. He is still good at avoiding cops-and-robbers. But about three minutes later he appears to think too much time has passed, and he directs me to go on down. I descend into the maze of tiny washes and ridges, and as I approach Ben's site the three other boys run away as if they are escaping from a POW camp in a movie. I tell Ben he's on solo and can't have any visitors-which he knows.
Deb notes that beyond the immediate problems of a joint and boys breaking solo, we also have the long term problem that these four guys whom we've just seen together don't seem motivated to do the difficult Mesa de Anguilla portion of the route, a complex series of canyons where we plan, in the final days of the trip, to rappel and hike our way down to the Rio Grande. This part of the trip is not exactly a pleasant prospect with half the group continuously acting out. We agree we will have to go back to Roswell early if we cannot maintain safety.
Now, all seems to hang in the balance. Ben is like a caged animal, pacing back and forth at his site, throwing rocks at the dirt wall, and saying, "This sucks!" Then he walks off to Roberts's site claiming he needs water. Suddenly we see all four boys jogging east, clearly on their way out of the area.
Immediately the presence of "runaways" triggers for Deb and Theo an emergency mode of action that overrules their usual flexibility. By Zia Center policy the boys cannot be left unsupervised, so Deb and Theo grab water bottles, fanny packs and light clothing to pursue. Leaving me with the five boys out on solo seems reasonable since they are behaving well and are our five best clients. Deb and Theo's plan is to follow the boys, talk to them and convince them to return. But it is only about five miles back along the trail to the road we crossed yesterday, and if the boys are determined to Run the back-up plan is to call the police and have them picked up. In the sixty seconds we have to talk about all this (I jog alongside them, discussing contingencies, as they head out of camp) we know there is no way to predict whether Deb and Theo will be back before nightfall, how they will find shelter or when they will next eat. It seems the best we can do at the moment.
Now the sole authority figure left on site, I walk down to inspect what may have been left behind. At Ben's site I find a paper airplane with a drawing of Bart Simpson smoking a pipe. At Al's I find his wallet with pictures of his mom and sisters in it. These boys are just kids, I think.
At nine-thirty PM it has been dark for four hours and I crawl inside my sleeping bag, although I am crazy with wondering what has happened to Deb and Theo. Jake and Tony have come off solo to join me in camping-they watched the whole thing happen in the distance and they are too weirded out by their fellows running away to stay alone. I myself cannot remember ever having felt lonelier. The night is cold-40 degrees-clear, no wind, and pitch black. I desperately want news. I love taking young people camping in the desert but I know now that I have no idea how to run a trip like this and I absolutely depend on my two co-workers. I wake up incessantly, listening, and hope that Deb and Theo are riding around in the back of a warm police car in Alpine, Texas, the nearest town, 85 miles to the north. I wonder if they have had to split up, and whether they know where each other is. At four AM I wake up and can no longer sleep. I wish I had something to do, an emergency packet to break open, instructions to read. I keep thinking about how poorly prepared they were when they left. No flashlights, no warm clothes, no sleeping bags, no stove.
I tell myself that this is life before the telegraph, telephone and radio. You would simply live without knowing what is happening at a distance until someone came to tell you. You would quell your fears by carrying on, so at dawn Jake and Tony and I go down and fill water bottles at the spring. I visit Steve, Travis and Angelo at their solo sites. They too want news; I have none. I have no heart to sit down with any of them and formally discuss how his trip is going. This will have to wait.
I want to minimize my time out of my campsite because that is where Deb or Theo will return to. I feel needy of reassurance, ready to quit, in over my head-so if they walk in I want to BE THERE. I want to draw courage out of their presence. I'm eager to banish these morbid fantasies: me, the sole remaining staff survivor of an epic Zia trip that ended with the mobilization of a Search and Rescue team. I'm sure I can handle whatever emergency responsibilities fall on me, but it is their companionship I hunger for. Nonetheless, when I am away from our camp I leave a big note for them on the ground, pinned down by four rocks, which I hope will make them smile and will communicate that everything here has been just fine. "Hi and welcome to Peña Spring. The doctor is out. Please make yourselves comfortable and I will return shortly."
At nine AM, to my I tremendous relief, I see Theo approaching alive across the morning-lit desert. I jump up and run to meet him, hoping to have just a moment with him outside of the earshot of Jake and Tony. But the boys give us space and he tells me the tale. He and Deb followed the boys across the desert for hours, sometimes coming close enough to have conversations, but afraid to get any closer because the boys were acting violent and throwing stones. They had headed straight for the road. There Deb and Theo had lost them, so, thumbing a ride to the Castolon ranger station, they had called Zia. The Park Service notified the Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas's state police) and quite quickly a patrol car picked the four boys up hiking towards Study Butte. All this before dark last night. According to the patrolman, all he had to do was stop and tell them quietly to get in the car.
But our four runaways had already visited the Zia van, still parked at the Blue Creek resupply point. When Deb and Theo had gotten there, it told a sad tale of a juvenile fantasy about running forever and never getting caught. A window was smashed and the whole contents vandalized. All of our wallets had been searched for credit cards and cash, and their contents were scattered across the desert. The ignition key slot had been ripped off. Some of the certificates of course completion, which we had ready to give out proudly at the end of the trip, had been found and burned. They had ripped the west Texas page out of my road atlas. They had pilfered the food and cached some of it close by in the desert. They had eaten the Pecan Sandies.
The boys had been taken to detention in Ft. Stockton. Theo and Deb spent the night at the van wrapped in a spare sleeping bag, and this morning Deb had driven off to repair the damage to the vehicle. Now, Theo said, the new plan is for her to meet us tomorrow afternoon at a site called Terlingua Abaja, on an old dirt road at the foot of the Mesa de Anguilla, and we will attempt to resume the trip with the five remaining boys.
We take the final three off solo and the group looks far too small: Jake, Tony, Angelo, Steve and Travis. It will be a while before the invisible envelope around us shrinks to hold us snugly. When outdoor educators talk shop they sometimes compare a group losing a member to a body losing a limb, and having lost half of our members the boys will be in shock for some time to come. Theo and I, however, veterans of many an evacuation of an injured student, are familiar with the feeling of losing someone from a group, and we are going to make the mental adjustment much more quickly. We think it actually may be kind of fun to continue the route now, do the mesa with these guys. But to the boys it looks impossible. When Jake and Tony hear that Robert and the rest are not coming back they ask the obvious and practical question, "Who's going to carry their stuff?" In my tired and depleted state, their inability to see through this current challenge annoys me.
The next day Theo and I are kicking back at a lunch break on the hike to Terlingua Abaja when Jake walks over to Travis and punches him - right in front of us. This is my moment of fight truth. I throw myself bodily between Jake and Travis. I don't think they will hurt me and I feel my confidence is strong. But the fight is messy. Travis isn't fighting back, so I am just restraining Jake, mostly football blocking, trying not to actually grab and hold him. None of his anger is directed at me, so it occurs to me as I am dancing around him that he threw this punch only to stop the trip. (One of the other boys later says, "Jake is desperate, man, he'll do anything to stop this trip!") I try to remember the restraint training that Deb and Theo and I have had, but the crucial opportunity to grab Jake from behind does not come. I am yelling, "Calm down! Chill out!"
Theo is doing crowd control, trying to keep Angelo, Steve and Tony out of the fight. I can't separate Jake and Travis at first, so I yell, "Theo, I need some help over here!" But for some reason he does not come. At one point I grab Jake from behind and he does the Judo trip move, where he sweeps my leg out from under me and we both go down. I decide just to keep holding on to him, so I fall on my back in soft sand and he comes down on top of me-it is kind of fun, like wrestling as kids. Then he gets up, but I hold on to his feet-it is silly. He doesn't kick me. He is just trying to get away.
When we finally separate them, Theo looks at me-we have one clear moment when everything just seems to stand still-and says "Do you want to take Jake?" "No," I say, realizing for the first time that I am acquiring a sense of judgement regarding what I can and can't do here, "I'll take Travis." Jake is too much for me. But moments later as I am talking to Travis (who is angry but not furious), Jake comes charging across the desert with an apple-sized rock in his hand. "Don't do it, Jake!" someone yells. I go into a sort of basketball blocking dance with him and he throws the rock ineffectively to one side. In the chaos that ensues Jake is on top of Travis, and Angelo is on top of Jake. Angelo has Jake in a head lock and is choking his air off (later: "I was only gonna hold him 'til he went unconscious!"). We get Angelo off him, although I think, damn, it is a good restraint. Finally Jake takes off running across the desert and Theo follows him.
I sit down with Angelo, Travis, Tony and Steve to wait to see if they return. I am now so far outside of my element that I discover I'm actually kind of comfortable. It seems done now: the goal of the trip no longer has anything to do with evaluation, with being touched by wilderness, with Expedition Behavior. It is reduced to safety and survival, which is a concrete task I feel up to. It will just be me and Theo trekking with these five guys across the Chihuahuan desert in the hot sun, stopping fights, no complex agendas.
As if to confirm that we have passed the apex of our hopeful trajectory up towards Expedition Behavior, and are now falling back towards the ground somewhere near our launch point, Steve starts telling us a story about a fight. "There was this time," he says smiling, "me and them all were at Jake's house-all our girlfriends were there and everything-I pulled a gun on this guy because he knocked over my beer. He was giving me shit and all and he reaches over and knocks over my beer. I stepped forward, pulled out that gun and said 'Let's step out into the yard mother fucker and I'll blow your ass into the street.' We went out there and Jake and all them guys jumped on him and were kickin' him and shit. Then I put my knee right down on his chest, pointed the gun at his face, pulled the hammer back and said, 'You want to die, mother fucker?'" Steve grins. "Then I just let the hammer back down and walked away." He pauses. "His mom was there and she was freakin' out and shit. Man!" He shakes his head and smiles.
Jesus, I think. I have no trouble Standing Off now-I don't even care if his tale is true. I'm done with these guys as far as I'm concerned: all I want to do is get them back to the van. The whole idea of this trip seems like lunacy to me, although I keep pondering the disturbing fact that most Zia trips are successful, and at this point would be preparing to ascend onto the mesa. Where have we gone wrong?
Theo and Jake return. Jake declares he wants to quit, stop the trip and go home to Roswell. I couldn't agree more, although I don't say so. As we resume this dry, hot hike among the creosote bushes, which offer no shade, Jake convinces the other four as well that it's time to quit. They stage a sit-down strike on a dusty dirt road during the final two miles of the walk to the van, demanding we bring the vehicle to them. It's very hot, and we're not surprised by their lack of motivation. Because Theo and I cannot really leave them unsupervised, we make a show of walking on around the next bend, but when they don't follow we too stop and wait until the boys finally get up and continue on.
When we meet up with Deb and the van we make the boys explain their stance to her. Jake is obstinate: the trip is over. Steve is wavering. Angelo is apologetic and exhausted. Travis wants to go on. Tony is silent. We open the van to them to identify their possessions from the heap the vandals left. Any remaining resolve they have to pursue the trip melts away as they view their duffel bags rifled, wallets invaded. They are struck dumb by the act of being robbed, although most of them has perpetrated such an act at least once. The rot implicit in the vandalism is devastating to the boys' sense of camaraderie.
Deb and Theo are still hopeful that the boys will come around, once they have had something to eat and their blood sugar levels begin to rise. As the evening cools I feel more optimistic myself and decide I could certainly go on. I just need to watch out for what happened to me today: the faltering of resolve that comes with dehydration. In fact, perhaps foolishly, I stretch my personal investment to believe we should go on. Then I get a sharp reminder that it may not be my choice: Jake scents victory when our shuttle drivers show up to take the van away to the final roadhead and we ask them to come back for it tomorrow. "They didn't take it-that means we're leaving!" he shouts triumphantly. In a most unprofessional mood, I hate him.
We need these guys to come together as a team, a new group, and resolve to stay out in the desert five more days. We hike across a creek to get some symbolic distance from where the van is parked for the night, and make camp. Deb announces now is the time to decide: do we go or stay? In the dark, Steve says he now wants to stay, and he talks Angelo into it. Soon they are all arguing with Jake, but they don't really want to push him. The source of his unwavering desire to go home is unclear. At this point all of the boys stand to look good in the final report for agreeing to go on, so what is up with Jake?
Deb takes a walk with him, and Theo and I get a chance to debrief the fight scene earlier. He feels guilty for not having jumped in to help me, but I assure him I now realize that he had his hands full too. And, I add, I have been enjoying the way all afternoon and evening he and I have been trading off "angry"-the one who appears to be feeling unreasonable. We've been using this to make sure one of us remains distant from the boys, an incentive for them to compromise. I feel I am learning how to play this role, where the key skill is to make it clear that I am angry about behavior which is going on, not at the boys themselves. Theo and I grin as we imagine making a presentation to new Zia staff. "That's what the work is like:" we say as we show slides of the melee, "one minute you're kicking back and the next you're working REAL hard."
It is with wounded pride that I hear the next morning the boys' decision to quit. I know that Jake has us-he can threaten to do anything, to cut ropes while we are rappelling on the mesa, to start other fights-but somewhere I have been nursing a dream that we are the super staff team that can pull the trip out of the ashes. Now, although I know I have used every trick I know (or imagine I know) and that the three of us have exhausted our stash of strategies, I fear our boss at the Zia Center will be critical of us. The thought of someone alleging that we could have done things differently and prevented the whole fiasco is painful: I feel I have tried so hard and been so confused on this trip that no one deserves to criticize me.
At the Study Butte Store my frustration, self-doubt and anger boil over. Jake gets out to go buy cigarettes and I tell him to get back in the van. Then I follow him into the store and say angrily, "Do you know how tired I am of chasing you across the desert, Jake?" When he realizes I mean to ask the storekeeper to refuse him cigarettes, he runs out and across the road. I follow him and begin yelling as he walks back to the van. I yell at him how disappointed at him I am, and about what a good guy he was, about how he could succeed if he wanted to. I expect him to yell back at me, but to my surprise he just walks back to the van. I feel cleansed and dirtied at the same time. Cleansed for having released all that emotion-dirtied for having directed it at Jake.
As we drive north, I have to laugh at the notion that this work is somehow comparable to normal outdoor education. As near as I can tell, there is no comparison, save that they both take place in the backcountry. Consider my three-step model for running ordinary outdoor courses: 1) develop an initial rapport with the students through sharing with them the common perception of the wild as beautiful and society as uncomfortable; 2) obtain the status of a friendly and generous hero by knowing the students' thoughts before they do, by doing easily what they find new and intimidating, and by presenting them with them new opportunities and skills which are terribly exciting yet just within their abilities; 3) use that rapport and status to encourage them to emulate you, to take charge of their lives and pursue their dreams regardless of pressures from their parents. When I try to apply this model to youth-at-risk work, I am left only with questions: 1) develop an initial rapport with your clients-how? 2) obtain the status of a friendly and generous hero-how? 3) use the rapport and status to do what-encourage them to be like you? None of the landmarks from conventional wilderness instruction are useful here. It is a fundamentally different work.
Wilderness therapy and evaluation, in another sense, however, seem to stand upon the shoulders of ordinary outdoor teaching because mastery of the backcountry and the ability to teach people to live comfortably there are now just prerequisites to the real work. Youth-at-risk leadership is an advanced project for the would-be master wilderness mentor, and my first foray into it has left my head whirling.
Our boys on the other hand seem a bit triumphant. On the way north, we drive into an Immigration and Naturalization Service checkpoint on the highway, a routine station set up to look for illegal immigrants heading north. "La Migra!" the boys shout tauntingly in the back of the van as we pull in, using the slang name for INS. They remain quiet as the officer asks us a few questions but once we are cleared and begin to pull out there is a chorus of "Que hora es?" and "Buenas Dias!" from them with the thickest Mexican accents they can manage. I cringe, expecting the INS to pull us over again, but they don't. They're Standing Off. They've seen what they needed to see.
As we pull into Roswell minus four boys now in jail in Texas, there are two conclusions I have come to. One is that wilderness, by itself, does nothing to reform the juvenile delinquent. This should be obvious, but in many ways I had to experience this trip to see clearly the failings of the idea. This is not to condemn youth-at-risk work, but rather to highlight the importance of the selection of the group and the competence of the staff. The backpacker wants to believe that troubled people will be healed by wilderness, but the real truth is that wilderness does not so much heal as refer one back to parts of oneself that have been forgotten. People of a basic integrity, plagued with self-doubt in a complex society, find wilderness to be affirming, a place of peace; but young men who have lost the path of how to fit in acceptably need to be referred back to more than themselves. They need good direction from without.
The other conclusion is that I have laughably little natural talent for this work, and I cannot, in good conscience, go out now on another on-the-job, live-fire training exercise like this. I was lucky this time: now I need classroom instruction richly supplemented with role playing before I hit the field with JD's again.
In Roswell, as we approach the Forensic Center to drop the boys off with their probation officers, we see a car pulled over by a patrolman on Main St. The boys hoot and holler at the stupid driver for getting caught. Then as we get closer, Steve says in wonder, "Man look, there's that cop who busted me-Hernandez!" Although I will have many miles to drive tonight before I am back in my element, our clients are home.
© Copyright 2000, Morgan Hite