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.