Fifteen kids, three instructors, countless miles of Appalachian Trail, hundreds of miles in a stinky van, and 182 miles of Georgia rivers.
Hopefully, this will be just one of several Stories from a Former Foster Kid that I’ll be sharing. This story, Part One of my experience of wilderness survival camp, takes place just after one group home, and just before my entry into foster care. This story was previously published in 2017.
Early Morning Arrival
My probation officer and her coworker picked me up from the girl’s home, where I had been residing for a few weeks, though it had seemed much longer. It was early morning, and we had a long way to drive to Boiling Springs, PA, where I would be joining 15 other teenagers on a thirty-day survival expedition. You may have seen these sorts of places in the news. A few years ago a young boy died in the desert on just such an “adventure” in the deserts of Arizona. The wilderness survival camp experience would occur during the second half of Januar through the first half of February, mostly along the Appalachian Trail.
I watched the sun come up over the ridges of rural Pennsylvania as we drove, for the most part, silent. We arrived at a campground with several wooden buildings, cabins, I suppose. We stopped, and the large black man opened my door for me and ushered me into a small unfurnished cabin. Milling about were mostly boys, a few case manager/probation officer types and the wilderness survival camp instructors. There was gear strewn about the room and all of the kids were instructed to line up.
Gear included a large backpack, sleeping bag, coat, heavy pants, boots, socks, a small tin plate/bowl, a metal spoon and fork that came on a sort of keychain, a water bottle, a compass, feminine products for the three girls, myself included.
Very quickly, we were instructed on how to pack our gear. At some point during the packing stage, Mark, one of our instructors, approached me and handed me a dollar bill. I looked at him inquisitively, to which he responded: “Just hang on to this for me and give it back at the end of the journey.” Seeing no reason to disagree, I pocketed the dollar.
Once everything was packed, we were ready to set off. The only problem was, not one of us could get our pack on unassisted; they were far too heavy, even for the strongest of the boys. Disinterested introductions were made amongst some of us as we were forced to help each other.
So High the Climb
With that, we began what would be the first steps of a seemingly endless hike of the Appalachian Trail. For the next two weeks or so, we would hike from sun up until sundown each day. Rain, sleet, sun, or snow. Through ice, mud, uphill, downhill, over rocks, and along the edges of jagged cliffs.
Not too far from our starting point, we encountered our first big steep hill. Three-quarters of the way up, I just couldn’t take it anymore. My lungs stung with the cold air and refused to let any more in. My lungs demanded room temperature air! I stopped, and slumped over, clutching some rocks in front of me. Tears streaking down my face, I cried out, “I can’t!! I can’t do this!!!”
I looked up to see the faces of 18 people staring down at me from above, some taunting, others smirking. Diana, our only female instructor yelled back “You have to! You’re just going to have to do it!” From Dave: “Come on, get up!!! It’s either this or six months in juvey, take your pick!”
“But I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” I whined. “We’ll wait then,” Diana said impatiently. “Everyone we need to wait for this one!” There was a lot of chatter among the other kids, 2 girls and 13 boys. All taunting, all uncaring, no understanding, no compassion. I put my face down the ground, gathering myself. When my eyes returned to the top of the hill, I saw Mark, the third, or first, instructor, depending on where you begin your count. He tilted his head toward the top of the hill as if he was inviting me to join them to play kickball at the nearest park. I knew then that I had at least one friend. Suddenly, it was easier to at least try.
Revenge is Best Served Cold, and By Nature
A couple of nights in, we were informed that the temperature that night would drop below freezing and we were instructed to sleep with our water bottles in our sleeping bags to prevent them from freezing. If our water bottle froze, we would not have any water until it thawed on its own. It seemed simple enough to me, so that night I put my water bottle at the foot of my sleeping bag and got some much-needed rest.
The next morning, it was my turn to have a great laugh at everyone else; I mean, everyone, who had failed to follow one simple instruction! I was the only one with water!! And I sure wasn’t sharing! The rest were forced to eat snow if they were thirsty. Not that snow is all that bad when it’s freshly fallen in the Appalachian Mountains!
On and on we hiked. About four days in, my feet had developed serious blisters from the ill-fitting boots. Of course, this is what I had left camp with and there was NO possibility of getting a different pair. At this time, rural PA itself was “lucky” to have a Wal-Mart, there certainly weren’t any in the Appalachian Mountains though I bet they have “super” one now. I began to count the blisters, and each day I had more. Thus began my sailor’s mouth! I would utter a curse word with each step for the remainder of my experience there.
Nearing the end of the first week of wilderness survival camp, we were to split into groups of two and camp in duos for the next two days. Since there were three girls, we were a trio. The camp instructors walked each duo to a secluded spot. The instructors themselves would camp together at a nearby, but undisclosed location. Diana walked us girls to our spot, gave us final instructions, and quickly left. Since we only had small tarps for shelter, there really wasn’t much to set up. We gathered some wood and, using one of my allotted three matches for the day, I lit our fire.
I’m Just a Girl, the Only Girl.
Just then one of the other girls, Tara, noticed the fire from a nearby duo. “Hey, let’s go over there and see those boys!” she said, her eyes taking on a glassy, mesmerized look. There was no hesitation whatsoever from our other campmate, Lindsey. I watched both of them as they looked longingly at the boys’ camp, trying to understand why they would want to go over there. Finally, they turned to me, expectantly.
For the life of me, I tried to WANT to go over to the boys’ camp with them, but I just…didn’t. For one, I didn’t even know which boys they were, so how could I possibly want to go over there? Furthermore, one of our instructions had been not to contact the other camps, and I reminded my campmates of this. “Okay, you can keep lookout.” Lindsey said, before turning on her heel and following Tara to the boys’ camp, whichever boys they were.
Left to my own devices, I entertained myself with a pile of ants, wrote in my journal, and made myself a nice dinner of “Slice ‘o Cheese Melted around a Carrot” before I laid down and fell asleep, shortly after dark. The next day, the two girls were airlifted by helicopter out of the Appalachian Mountains, a returned to their respective hometowns where, instead of completing the wilderness survival camp, they would serve out whatever sentences their crimes had incurred.
At the beginning of the next week, we were informed that a group leader would be assigned each day for the remainder of the expedition. Each of us would have at least one opportunity to lead the group, meaning that one day I would have the map and compass, and I would be in charge for the day. Until that day, we all had to struggle with everyone else’s leadership. One particular day, Steve was the lead. He was the best looking of the bunch, but dumb as rocks; I should have seen what was coming.
At Steve’s lead, we skidded on our butts down an 85-degree slope, maybe a football field’s length in distance, where we encountered a beautiful river with large boulders stretching across. Each boulder had large Swiss cheese holes and we peered through them to see the river rushing beneath. For the first time since we packed our gear, we were enjoying ourselves and begged the instructors to let us camp there that evening, but our request was denied.
As we checked the map to complete the day’s journey, we slowly and with great horror came to realize that we had gone the wrong way. Yeah, it HAD seemed wrong that we were sliding down a cliff to get to the spot we were in…but…well, we had done it anyway, gone the wrong way, and now the only way out was to climb back up the way we had come down. A slippery, muddy mess. All of George Carlin’s dirty words – straight outta my mouth!
Here we were with 50 pounds of gear on our backs. This was some heavy shit when you factor in the hill (mountain!) we were about to climb. I knew when I started, that there was no way I could finish! But there was no choice here. I would either do it, or face six months in some FACILITY. “Fuck that!” I thought, “I’ll take camping and hiking with a bunch of criminal teenage dudes over a fucking girl’s home any day!”
I had a made my way halfway up the muddy slippery wall, when I was still far enough behind all the guys to feel embarrassed, yet again. It was cold; my frozen hands clutched all the sturdy vines the earth would offer. She certainly offered little else to cling to. My breath caught in my chest; icy, wicked, stifling. As tears finally began to stream, Mark came alongside me, “Striife and Chaos!!!” Striiife and Chaos!!” he sang, sending his voice booming through the forest. For reasons I’ll never know, I began to sing with him, choking tears back and loudly yelling/singing in between sobs, until we reached the summit, where I wiped the mud and tears from my face and was finally able to smile an unspoken thank you. The lord had sent me an angel.
You know that thing in the movie “Cliffhanger”, where the rope is stretched over a deep chasm between two cliffs and they go across it with only a small clip holding them? We had to do that. I felt worse for the smaller size boy among us than I did for myself as I watched the other boys swing that rope wildly while he shimmied his lean frame across. They did not give him a break at all, and the instructors stood by letting it happen as though it were some kind of social experiment. I could only imagine what those boys had planned for me when it was my turn.
I guess they had gotten their rocks off because they let me pass, and were even silent as I did so. At the mid-point, halfway across the chasm, we were instructed to let go and trust that tiny clip, the only thing keeping us from plummeting to our deaths. Back then I didn’t worry too much about death or trust for that matter. I’m not sure if I would pass this test today.