Finding his way

I’m a good five minutes behind the rest of my group. I’m standing in the middle of a trail in the Chiricahua mountains and I’m frustrated. I shouldn’t have to be waiting. I should be leading the group, not back here babysitting. What I see and hear coming up the trail hits me in the chest, shatters my frustration, and leaves me with more hope than I had felt in weeks.

Mark was 12 years old. He was the youngest kid that we had in camp and Mark was soft. He was sent to this camp as a scare tactic. He just kept getting in trouble back in Tucson and his caseworker thought that a few months in a camp with kids that came from a different background might scare him back in line. I don’t know if it ended up doing that, but I do know that this kid had no business on my hike.

The Chiricahua Mountains are rugged with winding trails, beautiful look-outs, and nothing for miles. When you put a kid from the streets in a pair of hiking boots, put a backpack on his back, and send him into the forest for a training hike, you never know exactly what you are going to get. Most of the kids have never walked on dirt for more than a few steps or been in a place where they can’t see through the trees. Most of them are afraid of the sounds of nature at night. They are as strong and stubborn as hell but don’t want to walk for more than a mile at a time, and that’s pushing it. But when it came to it, they were capable. They could do it, they just needed some encouragement, cajoling, or threats.

Mark was different. There was a distinct possibility that he was not able to do it. He wasn’t strong. He wasn’t mean. He was only stubborn in the way that a young child is stubborn. He was more likely to collapse crying when pushed than he was to fight back. The staff had taken him under their wing as a whole. He wasn’t a bad kid and some thought that it was unsafe to have him in the same camp as 16, 17, and 18-year-old gang members from all over the country. But on a hike where everyone has part of the camp gear in their backpack, there are not a lot of choices. You keep walking or you give up your camp gear and get left behind.

I hadn’t taken Mark’s camp gear but I had left him behind. He hadn’t been able to keep up and as things got harder, he got more upset. I had to stop the group twice to keep him with us and I had to keep things slow to try to keep him moving. There are very few things city kids like about a hike in the woods. One thing they hate is having to stop or slow down for someone else. Any one of them might hold up or go slow but if they have to go slow for someone else, it’s a problem. So I let them go on and I stayed back with Mark.

Eaten by wolves

At one point he sat down on the trail and told me to just leave him. To let him get “eaten by the wolves”. There were no wolves. But it was going to get dark and I had to do something to keep him moving. So I looked at him, squatted down level with him, and told him that I was going to go and catch up with the rest of the group. I told him that if he just kept following the trail that he’d get to the camp in about 30 minutes. I also reminded him that he had the cooking pot in his pack and that I wasn’t going to take it. He was going to have to bring it to camp with him. That’d we’d just have to wait for him to show up to start cooking. I then stood up and walked up the trail, leaving him to put two and two together.

Because I wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t try to go back down the trail toward the vans or do something equally stupid, I didn’t leave him completely alone. I hiked up the trail for about 5 minutes, stepped to the side of the trail, and waited. I didn’t wait more than another five or ten minutes before I heard shuffling on the trail. Dusk was just starting to settle in when I saw Mark. His hands were set in fists around the straps of his backpack. His head was down and his pace was steady. He didn’t see me and it wasn’t until he was about ten yards away that I heard him talking. With every step he was saying a word to help keep his pace. “Mark. Shipley. Can. Do. This. Mark. Shipley. Can. Do. This. Mark. Shipley. Can. Do. This….”

Mark. Shipley. Can. Do. This…

It had been a hard few weeks for me. I had moved positions in the camp and was now a wilderness instructor. It was exactly what I had wanted since I got to the camp. Leading kids on hikes, mountain bike rides, and rock climbing vacillated between amazingly fulfilling and incredibly frustrating. The challenge was both mental and physical. Keeping kids safe, pushing them to participate, and trying to get them to learn something about the world and themselves was just as hard as it sounds.

What I did with Mark was a risk. A risk that might have blown up spectacularly. I’d like to say that I gave it full consideration when I did it. That I thought it through and calculated the risk of having Mark keep the cooking pot in his pack when I left him. But I didn’t. I did it almost out of spite. I knew that if he kept people from eating that things could get bad for him with the other kids. I was frustrated and out of my depth. As it turned out Mark saved me as well as himself when he found what he needed to dig deep and start walking with purpose.

I stayed hidden and let him pass me. I was so proud of him and I wanted to let him succeed on his own. He needed to walk into that camp and show that he could do it without my help. He needed that success. I walked behind him just out of sight and stayed quiet. As the shadows started getting longer I could just barely hear him repeating his mantra as he moved up the trail. He got to the camp just as the rest of the kids were putting their tarps up (they weren’t moving all that fast either). I heard some of the kids say hey to him and as I walked into the camp I saw a few of them patting him on the back and telling him that they didn’t think he would make it.

I don’t know where Mark is now. I don’t know if he was able to turn that success into success anywhere else in his life. But I do know that for that one evening he was equal with all the older, harder kids. That he had done the exact thing they had done when they thought that he couldn’t do it. And I know that watching him do it was one of the most powerful things I saw that year.

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