I still have a vivid recollection of the phone call that impelled me on my lifelong love of the outdoors, backpacking and photography…
It was 1973, I was standing in the kitchen of our house at 108 Homestead Drive in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Just like I am sitting here now at my desk, typing, I can see the kitchen and dining room. And the TV room, where my family was last all together more than 35 years ago…We had moved to Doylestown 2 years earlier, from Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. It was a friend from Mountain Lakes, Chris Zellner, on the phone, all excited about his recent experiences of backpacking.
We had stayed loosely in touch after my family moved out of state, and spoke once in a while, but this time the conversation was different, HE sounded different. Chris had recently gotten home from a month-long Outward Bound expedition and he just kept gushing about how cool it was to be up on a ridge, deep in the mountains, watching a storm coming in, and how you had to be prepared and pay attention to things like weather and shelter. He went on about being up high on the side of a mountain and watching sunsets, being out there in the wild, truly on ones own and free. He went on and on, some of it making sense, some not. He explained the importance of carrying a light load, types of backpacks and sleeping bags (I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about) and told me of fanatics who would cut off the handle of their tooth brush to save a few grams of weight…
I had not heard from Chris for some time before his call. Even though I understood only a little, what communicated to me was the excitement, the challenge, the freedom of being in the wilderness. It just seemed so….cool!
Somehow, right then I knew my life had changed.
I spoke to my Mom and she seemed to think it sounded great. I almost got the idea she would like to go, too. My Mom had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She was progressing horribly, through the treatment of operations and soon she would be on chemo. Despite her agonizing hell she was positive and supportive. It sounds like an adventure, she said, sure, you should go.
I contacted OB for the brochure with the classes available and I don’t recall how in the end I decided on the Idaho program., but what I signed up for was the 28 day trip, 14 days in the Sawtooth Wilderness and 14 days river rafting on the Snake River…My folks paid the $300 for the tuition and I was ready to go…
If you’ve never ridden a bus across country you’ve really missed out…we sat in the back mostly, there was one seat with 3 places back there, and you were allowed to smoke (last three rows only) cigarettes on the bus back then…It was about a 3 day trip, stopping at every small town along the way getting off to stretch and get hamburgers in a café or coffee shop…chattering away, considering our new adventure that lay ahead, wondering if we would measure up, trying to sleep, roaming the rows and generally being annoying teenagers…After almost 3 days of just sitting on the bus, I was so desperate to lay down and stretch out that I actually figured out how to lay down on the floor, under the seats…old gum, spilled Coke and other unspeakable stuff be damned!
The arrival in Boise brought 44 young souls together. Along with 8 instructors we immediately boarded another bus and headed for the Sawtooth Wilderness. To that point in my life I had lived in or visited the Northeast US only, New York, New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania had been my home for 16 years.
The trip from Boise to the Grand Jean Camp Ground was gradually more exciting as the miles passed. Having never seen mountains (and planning to spend the next month in them) we were all agape at the windows as we drove through the Idaho foot hills. A mixture of wonder, excitement, bravado and nervousness surrounded us.
All of us had read the brochures; OB was not just a camping trip. We knew that we were to be challenged, to be tested. Rock climbing, survival training, backpacking and the “solo” lay ahead.
We had just been told when we arrived in Boise that there was a change in the plan: there would be no river rafting. Apparently there was a problem with insurance, (unsubstantiated rumors abounded about someone killed or hurt recently while OB rafting) and we were to spend our entire 28 days of OB here in the Sawtooths.
When we arrived at the camp ground (how the hell did that huge bus make it down that dirt road?) the 8 brave instructors unloaded us 44 teenage boys and we got started. The first thing we did was split into 4 groups. The instructors were careful to make sure that Tom and Eric and I were all separated. Part of the idea of OB was to learn how to get along with others and work together as a team. The thinking was that if we were in a group with one, or two of our friends that we would simply form our own group and not have the necessity to be part of the larger group. Apparently OB had some experience with individuals, groups and training!
Once the group was established, we were issued our equipment. No one was allowed to bring their own packs, or sleeping bags or other equipment, just clothes and boots.
We were issued our equipment: pack, sleeping pad and bag as well as group equipment: tarps, climbing hardware and ropes, cooking gear (an 18 inch cast iron skillet!), and fire fighting equipment (a full sized shovel and a pick!). We also were given food for the first two weeks of our trip…
Our packs had external frames and narrow non-padded hip belts…we were told to get together, divvy up the group equipment, pack up and hit the hay as we would all be going for a run in the morning!
My first night in the mountains was an emotional one! Excited about the adventure I was starting, exhilarated by the fresh air and very nervous about how in hell I was going to be able to carry that huge, heavy backpack!
After the packing was complete (who decided we needed a full sized shovel and pick????) (there MUST be more food for us, because this is NOT going to feed 11 people for 14 days!!!!!) (a cast iron frying pan!!!!!!!) I tried to pick up the pack to try it on and see what it felt like. I couldn’t pick it up. Sure, if I gave it a bear hug I could lift it maybe a foot off the ground, but I couldn’t pick it up to swing it up onto my shoulder. The nervousness and apprehension really kicked in. I asked two people to lift it for me so I could slide in…how was I ever going to able to carry the thing, I couldn’t even get in on…I privately shed a few tears and wondered what my brothers and sisters would say when I suddenly arrived back home…
My life was not going too well at the time. My mom had died in December, just before Christmas. She endured the hell of body part removal, Chemo therapy and rapid descent as we all hoped she would get better, then seeing that she wasn’t and slowly resigning ourselves that she would be gone. My family had disintegrated over the last 7 months and was now a rudderless mess, everyone trying to individually cope…with no one succeeding.
All of this added to the tears that first night…
The next morning the sun arose and at 5:30 am we started our group run. The air was cold and fresh and burned my lungs. My anxiety mounted as I experienced what it felt like to run at 5100 feet of elevation.
After a hasty breakfast we packed up, I enlisted two teammates to help me get the pack on. Have you ever seen an ant carrying a load much bigger than him? That’s about how I looked, except I wasn’t as strong as the ant, not yet anyway. I had no idea that first day how I would be able to cope and wished, not for the first or last time, that I had never come. We hit the trail, hiking along the South Fork of the Payette River and very thankfully soon stopped for some instruction at tying knots, creek crossing and reading maps. Then our two instructors decided it was time for us to be on our own and gave us a point on the map to head for, and told us to meet them there for lunch. We hiked mostly in silence for a while, each struggling with the heavy load, none of us very confident in what we were doing. After lunch we were shown a lake on the map and told that this was our destination for the night. The lake was cupped in a small cirque, and was not on any trail. We were supposed to bushwhack our way there. Our visible dismay was met with reassurances that we could make it, needed to work together and remember what they had just taught us. Off the instructors went.
Off trail hiking along a creek bed is no easy feat. I remember clambering over huge downed trees, getting scraped by brush and generally a lot of swearing and yelling…at one point while scrambling over a large dead tree I teetered and fell backwards off the log onto my back…the pack was so heavy it pulled me off the log and there I lay, like a cockroach on its back with my arms and legs flailing about…most of the other guys were well ahead, out of earshot but two of my friendly stragglers helped prop me back up and we continued our long, seemingly endless, march. I guess that part of growing up is when you stop acting like a victim and realize that you have to pull yourself out of the bad situations you get into. With no way out and no way back the only answer was to toughen up and just take the next step.
I still don’t recall how we made it to the lake, the map we had was not a topo map, it had some lines and squiggles to indicate a mountain. I didn’t pay all that much attention during the short talk on using the map, so I just sort of followed along. After the first day I had bruises the size of dessert plates on each hip from the pack. I had no idea how I would be able to make it even to the lake, much less through 26 more days…
Somehow we found our way (with lots of arguing) and made it up the last steep pitch to Blue Lake. Actually I was not arguing about where to go, I was sure I was going to die soon and didn’t care anymore which way we went…
Our instructors awaited us, smiling and asking what took us so long. We were all too tired to protest or conspire to kill them, and dumped our packs and marveled at our location. Blue Lake was nestled in a bowl surrounded by granite spires and steep cliffs. We were hot and tired and exhilarated with all that surrounded us. Someone mentioned swimming, which sure sounded like a wonderful idea to me, we shed our clothes and ran for the lake, diving off the rocks to the deepest water we could see…of course this is one of the “funny” aspects of taking someone new into the mountains, enticing them to swim in a real mountain lake for the first time.
Back east a lake swim in the summer was pure refreshment, wonderful warm water, heck, you could stay in for hours! At Blue Lake the air temp was 85 and the water temp 35! The shock my body felt was instantaneous…as soon as I hit the water all of my efforts were focused on how to get the hell out of the water!!
Fortunately for me this was to be our base camp for some days. The images from the next few days are sketchy: setting up our tarp shelter and sleeping those first nights in the mountains; our first evening rain storm (digging irrigation trenches in the middle of the night!), learning how to cook on a camp fire, and learning how to share…
As the days passed we also started to learn about each other. We shared our “life” stories, short as they were and generally began learning our first (of many!) lessons about how to get along with other people. Pete (from Ohio) was into sports and told his tales of bravado about football…I for one suspected that he was exaggerating more than a little…Another kid told of a recent parental divorce and he was happy to be away from it all. Alex, from somewhere in the northeast, had been more or less made to attend because he was in trouble all the time, his folks hoping that maybe Outward Bound would straighten him out. There was one kid who was just totally homesick and didn’t want to be there at all. Pretty much everyone was excited to be in the mountains, worried about the physical tests ahead and wondering how we would cope.
I guess that learning about how to get along, work in a team, and take care of each other was one of the goals of what we were there for. I doubt that I received good marks on this line. I began the process of learning to endure others while vowing to become self sufficient, an army of one as it were. I reasoned that the more I relied solely on myself the less I would be disappointed.
When your 16 and crave acceptance its not easy being self sufficient. Stress comes from having two opposing forces and here were two diametrically opposed intentions…not wanting to have to depend on anyone for anything on one hand, and on the other, the urge to fit in, to be accepted or at least get along with people…my life was hurdling along its precarious trajectory…a balance of these two forces.
Unquestionably OB changed the playing field for me: The more I pushed through obstacles (or was pushed through them!) the tougher I got. The changes were very small at first…you think you can’t survive something, and then miraculously you do! It’s like “Hey! I’m still alive!”; “I’m not dead yet!” …then it happens again and then you stop expecting that bad shit will happen, stop thinking that you’ll fail or wont make it, and instead you start expecting things to go right, you begin believing in your own power of survival….once this kicks in then you see that you can make it on your own, and (for me at least) the urge for acceptance from others slowly started to ebb, its hold on me diminishing…
We stayed at Blue Lake for several days…first we learned about ropes, knots, belaying and rappelling, practicing first on easy slopes and gradually getting tougher…we had a “snow school” where we were introduced to an ice axe, how to do a self-arrest, practicing on a hot sunny day on the snow, falling over backwards practicing stopping ourselves from sliding all the way down, laughing and having a great time. We learned how to hike on snow field and glaciers and then we summited our first peaks, rock climbing and belaying, rappelling down, feeling exhilarated, feeling BIG.
There was still some crying and missing home, but we were all gaining self confidence, feeling stronger.
Our group hiked to Stanley for re-supply. Two weeks in and we were staring to talk and act like we were seasoned wilderness veterans…the change was nothing sort of a miracle, from novices to experts, ready to take on Mt. Everest in two short weeks!
The upcoming “Solo” loomed in front of us. In OB a “Solo” is a 3 day individual experience that everyone would pass through. We were told that we would spend 3 days, completely alone, in the wilderness. None of knew what to think about it, we acted like the two young children, er, bears in the “Berenstain Bears Go to Camp” book, nervously anticipating their camp out on Skull Rock…Our instructors would make fleeting and vague comments about our upcoming “test” and bluntly deflect our persistent questions about the mystical Solo approaching… At night sometimes we would discuss the solo, some of us sounding worried, some sounding completely confident, all of us hoping that the discussions would allay our fears of how we would do.
But before we “solo-ed” we had a final expedition to complete. The plan was for us to map out a 4 day trip and then complete it all by ourselves. We came up with a route that traversed several high passes, roughly 60 miles in four days. I don’t remember how much my pack weighed…(back when I started it seemed that it weighed more than I did!) In reality I would guess it weighed 40 to 50 lbs (I probably weighed about 120 at the time). But by then I had started to get in shape and was beginning (just beginning!) to find out what I could do. As a group we were more or less on the same page. We bickered somewhat, but looking back I would say we did pretty damned good…there were 11 sixteen year-olds more or less alone in the wilderness, taking care of ourselves…it was pretty cool…
Each day one of our instructors would check in on us to make sure the no one had died and that we hadn’t gotten ourselves lost…In the matter of a mere two weeks we were confident to be completely on our own, so much that we started bantering with the instructors, telling them that we didn’t need their help, or them checking in on us like we were a bunch of helpless children! I guess transformations needn’t take very long.
By this point on the trip all of our conversations ended up being about food. What we liked, what we missed and most importantly what we would eat when we got back to civilization. We talked about food so much that after a while when one of us even mentioned food the rest of us would all yell at him to shut up…
We completed the expedition successfully and met up with the instructors. They had decided where to take us for the solo and we headed out. Our location was a sheltered creek bed high up near a pass. There was no trail there, we just sort of wandered up the narrow valley and as we went one of us was deposited or stationed there along the creek. The instructors made sure that we were far enough away from each other that we could not hear or see anyone else.
As for the plan, well, we were allowed to bring with us only limited supplies: any and all clothes we had, a pen and paper and three matches.
That was it.
No food, no sleeping bag, no tent or tarp. Just clothes and matches.
The general idea was that the solo was to be a character building exercise. The idea was not to gather food or hunt, we had plenty of water and having no food for three days was certainly not going to hurt us. The idea was not to explore or hike. The idea was to sit and be.
I started my 3 days of solitude by taking care of what simple necessities I could. I rigged up my poncho as a sort of tarp and built a fire ring. I collected fire wood had a drink of water.
I assayed my life up to that point, reviewing my relationships with the people in it. I considered my on and off relationship with my girl friend, Debbie. I could see that I had often been more or less a lout and vowed to do better. I thought over my other relationships with friends and thought about how cool they would think this all was.
But mostly I thought about my Mom. When we first found out that she had cancer and that they were going to try surgery to remove it I knew things were bad. None of it seemed real, and I went forward in a sort of disconnected haze. I did NOT want this to happen, it couldn’t happen, it shouldn’t happen. But it was happening.
What can you do to change what is? I tried ignoring it, suppressing it, fighting it. I got stoned a lot, not as an answer to her illness, I was smoking pot before we discovered she was sick, but now to numb and forget.
My Mom was in her early 40’s when this started. She died about a year after she was first diagnosed with cancer. I remember we all went to see her doctor who talked to us kids and explained that our Mom had cancer, but they didn’t think it was genetic and that we needn’t worry about our own health. I was ready to strangle the doctor right then, I didn’t give a fuck about myself, I just wanted my Mom to be okay…
I would have given my life for my Mom, done anything to help. But that’s the part that is just so fucked. You Can’t Do a God-Damned Thing.
I have never learned what to say in such a situation. Anything I could think of to say just seemed so stupid and cheap. I am sorry that you’re sick and going to die. I am sorry that your mother or father or husband or wife died…when someone said these things to me I usually just wanted to whack them, their sympathy simply rubbing dirt in the wound.
What I did respond to best was a simple look of sorrow, a sign that they understood and then an “Okay, what are we going to do now?” A “Let’s get busy, let’s get out and DO something.”
While I sat there along that creek in the August of 1974 I thought about my own short comings. Responsibilities sloughed off. Lies that I had told. Selfish things I had done. And as was often pointed out to me, opportunities missed.
But soon the necessities of my location drew me away from all of these happy thoughts and back to the present. I needed to start a fire and plan for the night. As night came I put on all my clothes and sat as near to the fire as I could, waking up often to add logs and put out any smoldering spots on my clothes. The first night was not so cold, but as I tried to sleep I had to turn over often, the side towards the fire was warm, the other side freezing.
I decided to handle this the next night by making two fires and sleeping in the middle. This actually worked out quite well. I was very lucky to have brought 4 or more layers of clothing so that when the hot cinders flew out of the fire they would not be able to burn through more than 1 or two layers before I tossed and smothered them…
I never did come to any great revelation about life or death. After the three days of introspection what I decided was that life is what it is and you are who you are. I could never indulge in shame, blame or regret for very long…So, now, what’s next? What are you going to DO, now?
What was next for me was a little iffy. When I left for Idaho (it seemed like ages ago) the plan was that when I finished Outward Bound I would take a bus to Texas. My dad was devastated from my Moms death and more than anything he wanted to get the hell out of Doylestown, get away from the house and start fresh. Just before I left he got engaged to an old childhood sweetheart and I was to come join him along with my older sister and 8 year old brother down near Houston. The plan was for me to complete my senior year of high school…and then what?
This plan didn’t excite me, and I did not look forward to leaving my friends and familiar haunts in Bucks County. I had been resisting the idea of living in Texas, but on the Solo I decided that I would go to Texas and try to be of help to my dad and the family…
With the solo completed we assembled for the last hike back to Grand Jean. It seemed to me that all of my new friends were none the worse for their solo experience. They all certainly looked different from when we set out 4 weeks before. We were suntanned, and weathered, dirty and happy, slimmer and stronger…some of us were happy to go back home and take up life again with our new powers, some (like me) were interested in heading back to civilization just long enough to indulge the food craving and then head right back to the mountains…we didn’t want the adventure to end. All spoke about coming back to the Sawtooths, our next backpacking adventures were mapped out and addresses swapped…It was the first time since we arrived that I had seen my two friends, Eric and Tom…they had survived the ordeal, both looking like they were ready to take on the world…
We all boarded the bus for Boise eager for one thing… to eat!
When we arrived some of us had parents waiting and were swept off, others had transport arranged and soon there were about 6 of us left, and we all headed into town to find a restaurant. We would up at a Sambo’s Restaurant. Our spirits were through the roof, and our appetites beyond any form of communication.
We started with pancakes and waffles, bacon, sausage and ham. Then onto eggs and hash browns, we sat and shared and had the meal of our lives…we sat for an hour after our breakfast and then started on lunch! We had hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes, cokes and talked more. Then it was on to steak, spaghetti and salads. With out a doubt we were on top of the world and after 3 hours there we grudgingly left and headed out. Several of us had to leave, to meet someone, catch a flight or otherwise get headed home. Eric had tickets for the bus and left for the station.
I had been handed a telegram from my Dad when I arrived back to Boise. The plan had changed. He had fallen in love with a florist from Augusta, Georgia and I was to take the Greyhound there for the wedding…I was told to go to Western Union to get money…I was to arrive asap…I made a hasty phone call and confirmed, yes, the plan was for me now to travel to Augusta, to be there for the wedding in a few weeks and get ready for my senior year of high school…well, it was all the same to me, I had never met the gal in Texas and I didn’t imagine there was much different between Augusta and Georgia…I was happy for my Dad finding happiness so fast (he sounded excited on the phone) and he told me to get down there quick.
From my side I was in no hurry to do any of this, I was on my own and didn’t want the adventure to end just yet! Freedom tasted good. As it turned out, Tom, my friend from Doylestown was in agreement. He changed his bus ticket and after our breakfast we headed out (still stuffed from our breakfast/lunch/dinner mega-meal!) to find a hotel. We checked in and…headed straight to the nearest grocery store! We loaded up with: cookies, crackers, chips, nuts, sausage, candy, soda and beer. Not sure how we scored the beer…and headed back to the hotel where we promptly ordered pizza…we took luxuriously warm long showers, ate and ate and watched TV, laying there moaning about how full we were, how we ate too much and wouldn’t eat ever again, snoozing and then getting up and eating more, until we were stuffed and in pain again, vowing not to do it again, until we had more room for more.
We kept this up for the day and in the evening we ventured forth from our room to explore the environs of Boise. We had a great night of fun and freedom.
In the morning Tom and I made it back to the Grey Hound station and parted ways, our fellowship of Outward Bound at its final end…as I boarded the bus I realized that I was not anxious or worried about the future, I was no longer depressed, but instead confident and excited to see what would come next…with a smile on my face.