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I stumbled on a rock that was barely sticking up, my legs were that tired. Flailing for balance, with the pack working against me, I slipped in the mud and almost went down. I still couldn’t believe this was really happening. I couldn’t believe my dad had done this to me.
For five days Al had been leading us into the most rugged corners of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, coaxing and pushing us over the passes and into the peaks, through good weather and bad weather, mostly through bone-freezing rain and sleet. “October in the mountains,” Al said with a grin. “You live a whole lot closer to the edge.”
The going was always either straight up or straight down—we rarely followed trails. There were eight of us, four guys and four girls including me, all serving nine weeks in this outdoor education school from hell. Al called his program Discovery Unlimited, but we called it Hoods in the Woods, the name we inherited from the previous waves of misfits who’d come through the place.
Al kept us marching all day under heavy packs, grinding us down in preparation for . . . for what? He would never say when you asked him. He’d only reply with a wink or a knowing grin. Hike, freeze, starve, break out the ropes and carabiners and risk your life every day—for what?
“Just a mile till camp, guys,” Al said. “Think about a sunny day.”
I couldn’t. I could see nothing but the frightening dark tunnel that was my future. I saw no images there, no hopes, only blackness. All my happy images lay in the past, all the happy scenes with my dad when it was just the two of us. I tried to dwell on the good times as I walked, but those pictures, those voices, only intensified my feeling of loss and left me staring once again into that black tunnel.
“How’s it going?” Suddenly Troy was walking at my side.
“Okay, I guess.”
“You don’t look so happy.”
“I’m ready to be in camp. When Al says a mile, you know it’s two or three.”
“It’s part of his charm.”
We jumped a little creek and started up a steep slope. Soon neither of us had enough breath to speak, but thinking about Troy took my mind off me. He seemed much older than the rest of us, just from the way he carried himself. It was like he was sizing up this whole situation from the outside. I’d been wondering if he was going to be friendly, and now it seemed he was.
Camp at last. I found a dry spot under a tree and eased my back against its trunk. Troy sought me out and sat cross-legged, up close. “Does the climbing scare you, Jessie?” He was looking at me with the calmest and clearest blue eyes I’d ever seen.
“Yes,” I allowed, looking away.
“I thought so.” He said it knowingly, in a way that promised help. When I looked back to his eyes, they kind of locked onto mine and wouldn’t let go. Apparently he never needed to blink, and he wasn’t going to look away. His eyes seemed to be challenging me to . . . to what?
“I’m doing okay so far. . . .”
His eyes let me go. For now, I thought. I was fascinated by him. Someone was yelling that he was supposed to be one of the cooks. Troy reluctantly unwound his long legs and said, “Catch ya later.”
We drew in close to the campfire that night, putting off as always the moment when we’d have to get into our freezing bags and face the shivering hours of the night. We knew Al would make his speech about the next day and of course he did, as he poked the fire. “We’ve got the climbing skills down now, guys—it’s time for a true test. After that we’ll head back to base camp for hot showers, real food, and our beds.”
I pictured the little log cabin that I shared with Star, and how good it would be to stoke the potbellied stove until the stovepipe turned red. So what was this big test going to be?
“Tomorrow,” Al announced, “you’re going to climb Storm King Peak, elevation thirteen thousand, seven hundred fifty-two feet. And it’s no puppy. You’ll know you’ve accomplished something. We’ll draw straws this evening for climbing partners. Troy, you’re going to be the navigator—you haven’t led yet.”
“Nothin’ against Troy,” Rita said in her nasal, right-at-you New York accent, “but if this Storm King is such a big deal, why not let Freddy lead? We know he’s good at it.”
I glanced over at Freddy. The campfire light flickering on his deep brown skin, black eyes, and shaggy black hair revealed, as usual, nothing in the way of response. True, I thought, he’s capable, but he’s practically mute. I’d much rather follow Troy. I had reason to believe that Troy cared whether I lived or died.
Al was shaking his head emphatically as he spread the topographic map out on the ground. “Troy will do just fine. He’s your leader for the climb. Star, you’re shivering—come into the light and warm yourself up. Folks, everybody needs to develop these skills, every one of you. Sometimes there isn’t going to be anybody else around.”
“But we travel in a pack,” Adam pointed out with his trademark mischievous grin. Our redhead loved nothing better than sidetracking a conversation. “So whoever’s going to lead can study the map and the rest of us followers can go to bed.”
“Seconded,” said Pug, the Big Fella, stretching one giant leg out toward the fire and nudging a piece of wood into its center.
Al scratched behind an ear, amid the wiry gray hair that stuck out beneath his wool cap. He was rocking slightly on his haunches; he preferred to squat rather than pull up a log or a rock. He reminded me in his body language of an aborigine or a tribesman from the Amazon, right out of one of the slide shows my dad used in his anthropology classes. “Sometimes,” Al said slowly, “sometimes self-reliance is the key to survival, but other times cooperation is. Let’s everybody study this map, and then tomorrow, on the mountain, we’ll pool our knowledge. Whenever somebody’s wondering if you’re doing the right thing, bring it up with Troy.”
“What if the right thing, the way we figure it, would be to go into Silverton for burgers?” suggested Adam.
Everyone had a smile or a laugh, including Al. With Adam, there was never anything at stake. He was so easy.
I could sense Heather getting ready to object, and I braced myself for her voice, which I found jarring and oddly mismatched with her broad shoulders. When she thought something was unfair, which was most of the time, her voice rose even higher than its usual pitch and her speech came out squeaking and gasping, because she couldn’t talk and breathe at the same time when she was upset. “What I don’t get is, we can all cooperate on the climb, right, except for you, Al. You won’t help us at all, right?”
“That’s what this is all about, Heather—you guys have the skills now. You make the decisions, you make the choices, you live by the consequences. You’ll be on your own. I’ll just tag along for the scenery.”
Troy, I noticed, was attending to all this. Watching, listening, but withholding comment. Everybody was looking to him, including Al. Troy was a heavy, and everybody knew it. We were all wondering when he’d take Al on, but he was holding back.
When Heather saw that Troy wasn’t going to respond, she said in that voice like an abused violin string, “You say we get to make the decisions, but really we’re just puppets, and you’re manipulating us. I don’t like your rules, Al. I can’t accept that you get to make them all up. Who gave you that right?”
That’s telling him, I thought. That’s exactly how I feel. This guy reminds me of my dad.
“Right on, sister!” thundered Pug, who was only half listening, his attention focused as usual on his biceps. Despite the cold, he was wearing a T-shirt cut off at the shoulders, and was admiring the firelight’s reflection on his muscles. Without thinking about it, he proceeded to punch Troy playfully in the arm. Maybe it was Pug’s way of showing gratitude to his buddy for bestowing his nickname, the Big Fella.
“Why don’t you blow your whistle, Heather?” suggested Adam with his wide ironic grin. “Blow your whistle, loud and clear.”
When you blew your whistle it meant you wanted out, it meant you were going home. I’d been wondering all week when somebody was going to do it. I’d sure thought about it, about getting out of this place. But I figured out why I hadn’t done it: Aside from not wanting to be first, I would have had to face what I’d be going back to. Was there “home” back there for any of us?
I could only answer for myself. As for the others, their lives were mysteries. We were as far apart as galaxies in the night sky. Star and I shared a cabin back at base camp, yet I had little sense of what kept her going. She seemed so frail, I’d have guessed she’d be the first to blow her whistle. If the last week had been torture for me, what must it have been for her?
Some stayed up into the night, talking by the firelight—Heather, Rita, Adam, and Pug—and the rest of us either listened without comment or tuned out. Star was in a trancelike state, and I was far away in my mind, reliving an awful day less than two weeks past that was a wound I was sure would never stop bleeding. I was back in my bedroom upstairs in my house, the same bedroom that was mine even before my mother died back when I was five, and there was only an hour to go before Dad said we had to leave for the airport. I was looking at all my kid stuff, clutching my timeworn teddy that I’d named Pistachio for no particular reason when I was little. I was trying to lose myself in the old photographs on the walls. Only one photo of my mom, lots of me, but mostly pictures of me and my dad together, at Disneyland with Goofy, on horseback in the mountains, at the beach, all over.
I stood by my bed, holding on for dear life to the brass rails and looking out the dormer onto the street. I thought of how many times I’d planned to escape by way of the window out onto the limbs of the elm tree, but instead slipped out the kitchen door because it was so much easier and because Dad wasn’t catching on anyway. Now, within an hour, I’d be leaving my home forever, and Dad would pack everything up in boxes, including all my things in this room, and he would move on with his life to the canyon home he’d designed with his girlfriend, and this life I’d known would all be swept away.
As for me, he was sending me away. No matter how much he denied it, that’s what he was doing, and I threw it back in his face a hundred times. He just wanted to believe the therapist, who told him this was what I needed—to discover myself, learn my limits, all that psych talk. It just made him feel better about getting rid of me. More time for him and Madeline.
“It’s only nine weeks, Jessie,” he said. “And it’s not like you don’t love the mountains. You like hiking, remember?”
“Hiking?” I could hardly believe he was still trying to sell me this propaganda. “This is a program for juvenile delinquents, Dad. It’s not summer camp.”
“There’ll be different kinds of kids there, Jessie. This program is one of the best in the country. Your school counselor, your therapist, we all think it’ll help you find yourself, rediscover the wonderful girl you used to be, help you grow up. I know growing up is hard, I remember. . . .”
“This is all Madeline’s idea, isn’t it, Dad? Admit it. You know she’s friends with my counselor at the high school.”
We’d had this argument so many times before, I knew which lines came next.
“That’s not true. Madeline cares about you too. We’re worried about your safety, Jessie; we don’t want you to get hurt, or to hurt someone else.”
You’d think no one had ever rolled a car before. It was an accident, one that could have happened to anyone. And not just to a kid, either. The police had blown it all out of proportion. We weren’t drunk. And we were way out in the country, where there shouldn’t have been any other cars.
“You’re worried about what people will think of you at the university because your daughter is hanging around with ‘bad company.’ That’s it and you know it. The big professor. Just because my friends look different—you think they’re not good enough for me.”
“Jessie, there’s a lot you don’t know about those guys. I see them on campus, and I know more about them than you do. They’re too old for you, honey—you’re just a sophomore in high school.”
“I was a sophomore in high school—I told you I’m not going back. I hate that place.”
“Jessie, what can I do? You tell me. You don’t come home, you’ve been in two car accidents, and you’re not even old enough to have your driver’s license yet. The school calls constantly, you aren’t in classes. And this is just the first month of school—last year you did so well. I don’t understand, Jessie, and you’re scaring me. I’m afraid of what you’ll do next.”
In a perverse way, I liked that part, about how I was scaring him. I knew I was, and it went straight to my head to know what I could do to him. The bitter things I’d said over the past months were nothing compared to what I said in our last week. When I heard myself saying, “I hate you,” I swallowed hard, but I never took it back. I wanted him to suffer, and I knew him well enough to know that’s exactly what he was doing.
Then the time arrived. I heard my dad call from downstairs, “It’s time to go, Jessie,” and then I burst into tears, desperate to hold on to everything I was losing. I would never stand in this room again, never sleep in this bed again, never look out these windows again. I had a picture of my dad and me in my hands; I threw it down onto the hardwood floor and the glass broke with a finality that frightened me and seemed to push me over the edge. Every one of those pictures of the two of us, I threw them down onto the floor, and every time it made things worse. I was breaking my own heart over and over again.
Suitcases in hand, I walked down the stairs into the house that was holding its breath. My eyes were all cried out. My cat was at the bottom of the stairs at the front door, eyes darting from me to the door and back, frightened and wanting out. Dad was sitting there on the couch, his heart all broken, and I said into the silence as coldly as I could, “Let’s go.”
The awful silence captured every moment as the familiar streets and neighborhoods disappeared behind us. For my part, I was fighting in the most hurtful way I could think of, by feeding the silence and making it grow and grow. I knew how badly my dad was hurting. There was nothing he could say. He needed to hear a word of understanding, a word of forgiveness from me, but there was no way I was going to provide it.
As we got out of the car at the airport parking lot, my dad tried again. “Al—the guy that runs the program—believes that our culture lacks a ritual by which young people can decisively achieve adulthood, and that’s why a lot of us never seem to grow up. It makes a lot of—”
“Save it for your graduate students,” I said.
Inside we were striding briskly down the concourse. I looked straight ahead, down into that black tunnel that was my future. Again we couldn’t speak, until we reached the door that opened out onto the runway where the little “flying culvert” was waiting, when my dad hugged me and cried, and said, “Jessie, I love you.” I forced myself to look at him, and said, “Yeah, well, give my regards to Madeline,” and I broke away from his grasp and walked out to the commuter plane without looking back.