Postcard from a Pair of Snowshoes up in MaineBy Hank Cherry
August 29, 2011
Everything I expected not to happen was happening. I hadn’t altered previous bad behavior, in fact, I vehemently flouted rules, honor codes, basic human truths. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Once again, I found myself facing the repercussions of willful teenage rebellion. Once again, I found myself on the short end of a stick I’d whittled down to nothing. Snowshoeing through Maine in February with a group of other at risk kids also fanning their kaleidoscopic refusal to face responsibility. The first night a question was put to me, just like it was put to all the rest of the group. Had I accepted my role in the actions of my past? I didn’t want to answer the question because it sounded like any answer I made would make me sound stupid. What teenaged kid accepts anything, really? The world has yet to fully develop before your eyes. What you know is so far outweighed by what you don’t know, any thought of acceptance is lost in the white matter mountain ranges of our brains that scientists have yet to define. Sure, sure, I said, eager to move on. I am responsible for all the bullshit bad behavior I dished out over the years, next. Once again, I was telling anyone who would listen what they wanted to hear.
I was seventeen, hadn’t made any of the wise choices most of my close friends had. Instead, I found ways to get tossed out of one school twice, which led to me to the kids on the skids place up in Dublin, New Hampshire. On the night in question, all action remains a blur, a drunken ballet performed under the star bright night in the crisp freeze that so often comes after a northeast snow, outside the dormitory where I lived. Faces drift in and out of view, but never find focus. The alcohol- cooking wine and a case of beer- purloined from the kitchen, and once spent, discarded like a child’s candy wrapper on the ground, leaving a definite trail leading back to me. You must have wanted to get caught, people have told me over and over again through the years. While that might be so, I don’t speak to it. The real truth of the matter is that I wanted to get fucked up. And I did. And when you’re as fucked up as I was that night, you don’t think about covering your tracks, and if you do, you aren’t bothered, or worried about much of anything at all, let alone getting caught, and so you don’t do anything because, well, you’re too fucked up to care. At seventeen, my worldview was a little myopic. So, in the morning, when the powers that were recognized they had a problem on their hands, I recognized nothing out of the ordinary. Which is to say, I’d grown accustomed to my own drama. By evening the school administrators had set up a meeting with the rehab up the road, Beech Hill.
Instead of cycling through daylong clinical assessments by equally clinical counselors up the hill, they pushed an Outward Bound rehab program. I’d heard a little about Outward Bound. A few friends had taken the challenge a summer before, just for fun. They had sailed in two and three man sloops off the coast of Maryland, to islands that housed wild horses, and armies of gnats and black flies. Lived in tents. Ate toothpaste when they got hungry. Found themselves, and readied themselves to go to colleges like Amherst, and Sewanee, and Stanford. Panic severed any logic I might have had, connecting the experience of Outward Bound with an increase in academic prowess. What I already knew about Outward Bound unfurled into an absolutely blissful picture, an idyllic sailing trip where you ate weird stuff, and came back bronzed, smart, and charmingly sophisticated. I didn’t stir the rehab part of the trip into the mix, and why would I? This was fantasy I was creating, an acceptable image to get stoned on. Someone at school had mentioned an Outward Bound rehab program that operated out of the Florida keys, on sailboats. Now that information came rushing back at me, and I stupidly embraced it. I embraced it until I could embrace no more. Then some reality started to seep in. The trip I was going on would also be a drug rehabilitation, to be billed to health insurance. They were definitely going to have group therapy meetings. And what I knew of group was from 80’s movies, and maladjusted teens looking to vilify any and all process they came in contact with. God, I thought to myself, what kind of lies am I going to have to tell in group?
The thing is, they didn’t send me on that Florida Keys sailing trip. Instead, Beech Hill had cooked up their first winter snow shoeing adventure rehab in conjunction with Outward Bound. A paragon of winter mountain climbing was brought in, a black haired beardo named Rick, or Frank. And Rick or Frank would lead us through the mountains of Maine, in the deep of February, as snow piled three feet high and upwards. That’s what the craggy faced drug counselor Rudy told me when the school administrators brought me to the school owned lodge for our meet and greet.
When he asked me what drugs I’d done, an eagerness to please, to fit in, and took over. I listed every single drug I had ever conceptualized, all the things I’d heard about, all the things I’d wanted to take, and then, the few actual ones I had taken.
What about drinking, how often do you drink?
I was a teenager, born of controlled situations, but still, a teenager. I knew the foul flavor of warm Gin taking straight. Rudy was waiting for a response.
Whenever I get the chance, I said, both bewildered and cocksure.
I sat there, repeating the line in my head. Rudy marked another box on his list. Then he was standing, offering me a hand. That was it.
You’re on the team, he said, breaking into a comforting grin that convinced me this excursion snowshoeing through Maine was exactly what I needed. His confidence took me with it. I was good enough, I thought, to make it into rehab before I turned eighteen. When the logic of that sentence hit me, I crumpled, and started for my dorm room.
Rudy stopped me. My bags had been packed. I was heading up the hill.
The Beech Hill counselors didn’t know what to do with me. They stuck me in a sterile hospital room, with an older fellow. He was out of it, semi-conscious, sweating, sick in mind and body. His nose exploded into a veiny approximations of blisters, almost like a piece of cauliflower. At night he heard voices and spoke back to them. In the morning, I told the nurse about it. She explained, rather coolly, the guy was experiencing the DT’s.
I don’t know what you mean.
She shook her head.
Delirium tremens, she said, tapping her clipboard, and walking away.
My own Nurse Ratchet. Beech Hill was like an infection you couldn’t cure. Everyone either over medicated, or in need of restraints. I showed up with three strikes against me- I lacked clarity, was a teenager, and would be leaving in a few days. Anyone who might have had some insight as to how to handle the place avoided me. It’s a selfish program, as they say.
At night, the man I shared my room with would moan, float over to the curtains, and return to his bed one hundred thousand times, until daylight finally arrived, and he could sleep, no longer tormented by darkness. I’d never conceptualized physical addiction before. I still wanted to get fucked up, but here I was trapped in a room with someone who needed to get fucked up to keep his mind from turning on him. A wintry month in Maine had nothing on this guy.
The morning we left, Rudy, and Rick or Frank, the two counselors loaded us onto the two white institutional Dodge vans and drove us well into Maine, to the Outward Bound staging offices. There, we suited up- boots, coats and backpacks. Some of us would carry more than the others. Being tallest I was designated to carry more. Cooking equipment, and food. They let us bring cartons of cigarettes, and lighters. They handed us monstrous white paratrooper jump boots for our feet. Lined with carpet. When you get cold feet, Rick or Frank told us, take off your boots, put them in your sleeping bags, and go to sleep. They’ll be nice and toasty in the morning. There were other tricks and instructions, but I didn’t pay attention, I was trying to figure out why there was only the one girl on the trip. There were two, Holly, a short pale wisp of a person, and this other girl, from Rhode Island, only she didn’t like white kids, and told each white kid on the trip that she didn’t like white kids. Right from the beginning we found ourselves couched in racial stereotypes- the black kids and the Latin kids had history smoking crack. In their opinion, us white kids were over privileged long hairs testing high times. Karim didn’t care much about our different skin tone, only that we had to carry more than the rest of the gang.
Ain’t fair, ain’t fair a t’all.
He told me his eyes were buggy because he’d smoked some crack in the bathroom about an hour ago.
Where’d you get it?
I had it crammed up my ass.
He started to show me.
I understand completely, I said, stopping him.
Then, we were on the side of a snow-covered road. Rudy outlined our next three hours, the last three hours of daylight, on a topographical map. Esmeralda, the girl who didn’t trust whitey, trumpeted her disapproval. Rudy stood up at that. Lit a cigarette. Blew out some smoke.
You can stay here, Esmeralda. But the rest of us are heading into the forest. And we’ve got the tents, the food, and the iodine drops to put into the water so you don’t get Giardia.
Esmeralda was a tough girl, I’ll giver her that.
Jardee-fucking-what, she asked with defiance, struggling not to lose face, but we all knew she was coming with us, and so did she. Rudy had been waiting for the moment, ready to pounce. And he stood there gloating. Rick or Frank readied the gear, prepping those of us who knew something about hiking and cold weather on how to take care of those of us who did not. His dog wagging his tail beside him.
The first afternoon of hiking was our first on snowshoes, and it was full of complaints and arguments. By dinner we’d only traveled 2/3rds of the distance the counselors wanted us to cover. Before anyone had a chance to relax, Rudy broke us up into groups. I landed with the long hair brothers from western Massachusetts and Holly. We were to gather up fire wood. The rest would set up tents, and start prepping the camp and dinner. Everyone was overwhelmed by irritation, fatigue and curiosity. The four of us grabbed enough sticks and logs to make fifteen fires, but we wanted to avoid doubling up on chores. Besides, it gave us all the chance to get to know each another.
The brothers were pot smokers, drinkers, acid takers. Holly, too. They were incredulous when I mentioned harder drugs- cocaine, and heroin. I backtracked, seeking approval once again.
Yeah, I know, it sounds like another planet, I told them.
Mostly, I like the way a few beers makes me feel.
The red headed brother, the older one nodded.
But it never ends there does it, he said. All of us turned to him like he’d said our first names, like he’d captured everything we were feeling in one small sentence. I liked him immediately.
I’ve done this before, he told us.
I was sober for almost a year.
Holly and I sucked in the cool air. A fucking year?
He nodded. Somehow, a car and a girl got in the way of it, and so here he was back in rehab, little brother in tow.
Holly told us her story while she dragged the top part of a fallen birch tree behind her, a cigarette hanging precariously from the tip her bottom lip, like they did in Audie Murphy movies. Holly had the same sprouting hair as the Hollywood soldiers, too. But her skin was marvelously white and her brown eyes sparkled with a haunting femininity. There was no mistaking her for a boy.
Her story gave top billing to a trifecta of troubling players- Opium, the Grateful Dead, and an abusive father. She didn’t mention what kind of abuse or how bad, which I knew was code for the worst kind.
My tent mate was Karim. When we rolled out our sleeping bags, after jamming our boots into them, we pretended to sleep until finally, we did. The next day I awoke to the smell of coffee eggs, and the bitter cold. Karim tore out of his bag, dressed in only his white paratrooper boots and long johns and ran off into the bush to urinate. Be careful of bears, one of us yelled after him, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t worried about bears.
The next week followed the same routine, day in day out. Breakfast, cigarettes, break down camp. Then the counselors marched us through miles of backwoods snow drifted Maine, forcing us through an inclining valley between mountain ranges to our left and right. Noon, we broke for the same lunch- frozen cheese, frozen salami, and frozen white bread. Rudy got one half hour for group, where he pressed us until we were agitated enough to hike the next mountain.
Rick or Frank explained early in the trip why he thought we fit the Outward Bound program perfectly. He had a term for us- at riskers.
Here’s an example, he said, after lunch one day, the rest of us laying on top of our packs and staring at the newly appeared sun.
One of you is getting water, and you don’t have iodine. The other one doesn’t care, and you both drink it. That’s at risk behavior. Or you’re unwilling to properly warm your feet on your tent-mate’s belly when they start to freeze, because it isn’t cool. Each case has serious repercussions. And each case is avoidable if you work as a team, instead of like the at riskers you’ve become. Suddenly, the rebellion each of us had launched our risky behavior upon didn’t seem so appealing. We were desperate to be a part of something each of us could trust.
That trust came about slowly, individually, in slight shifts of consciousness that eked out of us, incrementally, while Rudy pounded his concept of logic into our skulls, while Rick or Frank seduced us with the power of our own bodies. We climbed a mountain a day for a week and a half. We made our own fires. We cooked our own food. We could survive in snowstorms, and operate snowshoes through dense forests. We had done it all together. Esmeralda no longer called out the distinction between our racial divide. For the first time, expectation lost out to acceptance.
But something happened after the second week. We got cocky. One of the other kids, his name is lost to me over two decades later, knew which clouds meant snow, and which ones meant nothing, which ones delivered freezing rain, and which ones evaporated into billowy photographic epiphanies. He pointed to the group of them gathered over the next range, blowing slowly our way.
I got up and went over to the counselors.
There’s no way I’m hiking up that mountain.
That so, Rudy said, not expecting much more out of me. I guess you’ll have to hike back to base camp then.
I stood up, and lit a cigarette. Blew the smoke onto him, same as he had done to Esmerelda days before.
I know what those clouds mean. They mean snow. I don’t want to hike into any God damned snowstorm. We should camp here.
My face flushed, but Holly was behind me, and Karim, and the rest of them. I was at the head of a mutiny.
Rick or Frank ignored the situation, busying himself around our impromptu camp. Leave nothing but your bootprints, he said.
Are you done, Rudy asked.
He unfolded a map.
You know how to read a map? He stabbed the map with his finger.
That’s where the vans are parked. That’s the other side of the mountain. Which one is less of a hike?
We don’t want to hike to either place, Holly answered.
Esmeralda unbuttoned her coat.
Yeah, we don’t wanna hike anymore today.
We ain’t going nowhere, Karim said.
Rudy folded up the map.
Two ways you can go, he said, holding up two fingers. Two
The van, which if you choose it means you’re off the trip, you’ll have to explain why to your parents. Or over that mountain.
He pulled me aside.
They listen to you. You fix this, or you’re gone.
That’s all he said. He read me. He knew from group I feared my old man’s temper. He had me where he wanted me.
I gave an impassioned speech. I waved both hands toward the mountains, willing all of us over them, if not by words, by sheer force of suggestion. One by one, they came around. Everyone that is, but Karim, Esmerelda, and the kid who noticed the storm clouds in the first place.
Rudy looked at me like I was a piece of shit stuck to his shoe.
What about them, he said, pointing at the last of the mutineers.
I should march you off to the van with them.
I didn’t say anything. The vein in his neck was pumping. I could read a face, too. Rudy was so pissed he started for me anyway, when Frank or Rick appeared out of nowhere.
Here’s the keys, he said, placing them in Rudy’s palm.
We’ll meet you at the spot. Tomorrow night.
Tomorrow night, Rudy grunted.
He wanted to scrape my smug face on the icy frost heaved road. I know that because he told me so, right before he hiked Karim, and Esmeralda and what’s his name off into the forest.
Had we not argued over clouds, we would have made it over the mountain free of snow.
Instead, we made the summit in time to meet the storm. The ripping winds and snow drove us into submission. Rick or Frank stopped us, and had us find places to tie down our tent so they wouldn’t fly off the side of the mountain. Since Rudy had to take a large tent with his crew, two of our kids would have to sleep under a tarp, and Rick or Frank would sleep outside, just a sleeping bag for him and his dog. We drew straws. I got a long one. No tarp for me.
In the morning, we skipped breakfast, quickly packed up our tents, and smoked cigarettes as we jammed down the mountain. Everyone hated me. If only I hadn’t opened up my mouth, each glance my way seemed to say.
After that, the trip disintegrated. I didn’t want to share my feelings in group. At night I sat next to Holly, our hands slipping into each other’s pockets.
Worst of all, I stopped listening to Rick or Frank, stopped paying attention to Rudy. When I went to drink from a stream during a break, I tuned out the iodine warning that trailed after me, slurping greedily straight from the stream.
The next day was dedicated to ice climbing. I spent all of it shitting in the woods, unable to squirt the last of the giardiasis out of me.
By the last week, I let my shirt tail hang out of my wool pants, stopped carrying food for the others, continuing to hike hard only to keep the elements at bay.
Then, with a van ride to Outward Bound offices to give back the gear, and one more to Beech Hill, it was over. We had hiked what felt like a hundred mountains, a thousand miles, discussed innumerable topics, battled all facets of our addictions. Holly and I literally hugged goodbye while our parents pulled us off each other.
I’d led a mutiny in the middle of Maine, reassessed, and coerced my allies in rebellion to rethink our adolescent logic.
There were other things that happened on the trip. We saw spectacular views of valleys and mountains we had to memorize if we wanted to see them again. We took van rides over beat up frost heaved Maine roads, which then broke into ridiculously foulmouthed sing alongs. We stopped at the L.L. Bean outlet and when everyone in the store marveled at the hardcore winter hikers before them, we played it cool and said nothing. Like the rest of the group, I did a solo, twenty-four hours by myself in the woods, alone with a tent, a watch, a bag of nuts and raisins, some matches and a pack of cigarettes. An hour before the counselors came, three birds landed on me, as the cold took into my body. It was as spiritual a moment as I’d had up to that point. But it featured none of the lessons the mutiny offered.
In the end, each of us fell from the hold of sobriety like over ripe maggots from a carcass bone. I lasted longest, going three years and change. But even for me, the concept of having a legal drink a few days after my twenty-first birthday proved too much a lure.
When I ended up back in rehab nine years later, whining to myself about all that wasted time, two things came back to me, the guy with the delirium tremens, and that month in the woods of Maine. Like some rediscovered postcard reminding me that I’d had a real chance at scouring myself of the demons before I’d graduated from high school, and I’d let it go.