A Damn Good Start

It was just about 30 years ago on one of my many temporary escapes from the madness that is human society that I encountered a young man who’d just made his own escape from a “youth camp” in the San Gabriel Mountains. I’d known about that camp for years and had even considered when I was about that young man’s age that I might soon enough end up in residence there. It was where the state sent young males it wasn’t quite ready to give up on yet. That it was in the forest didn’t make it any less a prison — the views from Alcatraz are quite nice, too.

I knew as soon as I saw the kid where he’d started his morning. There was just nothing else that might send a young man in street clothes that far into those mountains at that time of year carrying only a few filched snacks in his pocket and an empty plastic drink bottle in his hand. I was more surprised to see him than he was to see me — I was there because it was a place where only a few cross-country skiers go in winter, it was rare to see even them, and they didn’t hang around long because the days are short and the trailhead far away. When I saw him I chose to forget that I knew he could only be some variety of fugitive from the system. As far as I’m concerned, all such fugitives from that particular system are by definition good people who deserve a fair break they’re unlikely ever to get.

I’d just finished washing my breakfast dishes and was enjoying a cup of coffee when the young man came into the camp looking like he wasn’t sure whether relief or fear was the appropriate response. He hesitantly asked if there was somewhere about where he could fill his bottle with water, so I fed him breakfast and coffee before answering. A kid who didn’t know where to find water surely didn’t know where he was going to find his next hot meal, so it was important to me to make sure that he got one. He wanted to tell me his story, but I convinced him to save it. I didn’t need to know that I was contributing breakfast and information to the delinquency of a fugitive minor, and neither did anyone else he might encounter who might help him along his way. After he finished his breakfast and a last cup of coffee, I hurried him on his way by walking him over to the spring where he filled his bottle, and then to the gap in the summit ridge to show him the way down the mountain. I told him to stay in the footprints I’d made on the way up the day before because either side of my trail was where disaster was waiting — most of that route was a series of avalanches just waiting to happen and being cautious increased your chances of survival but didn’t in any way guarantee that you’d be alive when you reached the base of the slope. Then I warned him that he should not stick out his thumb on the side of any road in that mountain range, gave him a box of waterproof matches and told him that if he got into trouble on the way down he should hole up near the trail and stay warm until I made my way down the mountain the next day. His eyes got wide like he’d not considered that he might enter treacherous country on his quest.

The next day I found that he’d made it out safely, at least as far as the campground beyond the trailhead where our paths diverged. His tracks turned toward the road where mine continued to where my car was parked, and having no answers I didn’t want any questions so I neither followed his tracks nor asked any question of those who may have seen him pass. The only way to find a reason to believe someone had helped the kid in some way was to climb that mountain behind me, and any who’d done so from the other side (as the young man had) were still up there so I wanted to be gone before they radioed down to get someone to record license plate numbers in the area.

I hope he made it, and has been living life since on his own terms. I’m pretty certain that he didn’t even know that he was leaving much of his childhood on that mountain until long after the fact, but that’s what he was doing. He left it in those tracks that later washed down the mountain with the snow, and I can think of no better place for it. It took genuine courage for that kid to start out that morning, and he got down off of the mountain alone. It would be a tragedy for someone to have taken that away from him, be it “for his own good” or just to keep the system funded by proving that it remained capable of ruining lives.

That kid would be right around 45 years old now, I suppose. I’m really very curious to know his version of it — it’s a helluva story even if it ended in heartbreak. The most likely outcome is that he blundered back into the world he’d known before the system got its claws into him, the system found him there, and then locked him in a different cage with no forest around it. My hope, though, is that he made it and was able to make good use of the things he learned about himself on that day on that snowy mountain. A single experience like that one doesn’t make a man of you, but it’s a damn good start.




4 thoughts on “A Damn Good Start

  1. solberg73

    Just wow, brother! 60 over 9. Your unique gifts are two: such a wealth of carefully observed experiences (jealous I be) plus the hard-won skill of recounting them in such a poignant manner. Sorry for the delayed come-back; it took a day or so of reflection to ID the components which make this such a stand-out post. I also reflected on the memory-usage required for what you’ve done, you know, in Info-theory terms. just the visuals, at the pixel-depth of human eyes, smells, the acute comparisons of feelings with the existing data-base of such: tera-bytes for a puny rough approx. (And all that stored in ‘meat-space;. It’ll be worse than a ‘crying-shame’ if we blow it, like in the Planet of the Apes flick where they find the Statue of Liberty. Hope the dude found his way to freedom, such as it is/ JS

    1. happierheathen Post author

      Thanks for the very much appreciated flowers, my friend.

      Re the end of the human race: It would be a stone drag for us to find the wrong way to end our run, but the world’s a-changin’ and it’s starting to look like we’re ready to plot a more sound course. Hopefully it’s not too late, or too little.

  2. solberg73

    Hmm.. optimism? Since Iowa, huh?
    Seriously, this is a drop-everything and read post if I ever saw one. Where are the 1000 likes, the DX pile-up such a rare prefix warrants. I thought of re-firing-up here on this band, but calling CQ to dead silence is kinda a downer. Maybe a post for the utterly prudish in Uttar Pradesh will fill the log-book. IDK.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      My optimism began months ago… Could be you were out on a smoke break and missed it. I believe I blogged about it even before Bernie joined the race. Long story short, I studied the shit out of the last abrupt social change of this sort, though in the opposite direction, so I knew this one was coming from about as far back as that one. More recently I was concerned that it might not arrive until it was too late to save our asses, but then the signs I’d been watching for started appearing and when they became undeniably true indicators I got all kinds of happy. Provisionally, because we’re nowhere near the happy ending and there may be trials and tribulation to come before we get there. But I’m not out of weed so I’m grinning for this part of the trip.

      It’s not ordinarily so quiet here in the virtual 11-meter band, but it is impressive to get a QRP four-hopper! Must be some good sea ice this year, huh?


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