wild raspberries and black birch
He's 16. He's smart, he writes reasonably well, and he might see more living things - birds, spiders, raccoons at night, toads in tiny crevices, green-gold flies - than anyone I've ever met. When he's listening, he looks at you with a fixed intensity that humbles you: better have something worth saying to someone like that. He knows when he's being a fool, which is not true of most people his age. Maybe not of most people.
He's not going to graduate from high school. He's been on probation since he was 14, and he got kicked out of school. I don't know the details, but here's what I know: he deserves another chance. Watching him discover the river, the stars, climb a mountain for the first time and not even realize it, seeing him eat wild raspberries and be amazed at the taste of sassafrass, black birch, Indian cucumber, seeing everything I've never noticed about the woods where I spend half my year: the awe and wonder of it would be enough, even if he weren't one of the coolest students I've ever had. He's not patient, but he cares a lot about other people, and if you can talk to him when he's just starting to get frustrated he'll listen with that deep focus and then you can see it in the next conversation he has. When he cried at our graduation it made me tear up. I can think of nothing better than to have him as a student on his first canoeing and backpacking trip except maybe to have him as a student in his first field biology class.
He's a Native American kid from inner city Baltimore and he lives in a violent, aggressive culture. He got in trouble young, and now he can't go back to school. At least he's getting his GED. At least his family seems good. At least the piss tests keep him off drugs. But I worry about his safety and I worry about his future and I can't let it go, because I so desperately want to make something more available to him, and all I can think of to offer is a letter of recommendation and some ways to get in touch with me. Pitifully little.
Second day of a two-week trip, at breakfast. Kid puts his hand up like he's testifying and says, "I don't tell anyone this. Not even my best friends. But since we're going to be out here together for two weeks, y'all might as well know. I like James Taylor and Steely Dan."
disaster and premonitions
At our climbing site, a 17-year-old kid I don't know comes running up a trail screaming that he needs help. His friend just took a 40-foot fall off a cliff. The three staff members who aren't instructors are the first responders to that incident. They breathe for him and pack him into the helicopter cradle and get covered in blood and bile. He dies two days later at a hospital in Baltimore.
Earlier that day, one of our students said he felt death around him, that it felt like it did when his grandmother died. We thought he was just nervous about climbing, but he insisted it was something different. I have no idea what to make of it. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Me: "You know it's not just the AT, right? There are two other big trails: the Continental Divide Trail in the Rockies and the Pacific Crest Trail out west."
Student: "I'm going to hike them all. I want to stay out here forever."
I know it's a sign of good judgment to watch the sunset at one of the best views in the state instead of setting up camp during daylight, but it still makes me damn tired.
At least eight bald eagle sightings in two days. Sometimes two at once. A hunting osprey. Two red-tailed hawks circling twenty feet overhead near the top of a ridge for maybe fifteen minutes. Turkey vultures flying within ten feet of rappeling students.
I got off my second two-week backpacking/canoeing course in a row and didn't shower, eat, or finish my paperwork. Instead I got in a whitewater kayak for the first time and got my ass kicked. I flipped nine times, at a conservative estimate, mostly in this one wave I was trying to surf. I might have gotten it for about five seconds towards the end, and I mostly figured out how to stay upright.
I'm just a little worried about my future.
I have a great offer from the place where I'm working now, and another option that I'd pretty much decided to take. Should I stay or move on? How should I make this decision?
August 1, 2005
wild raspberries and black birch