“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”
I am home for almost two whole weeks, so I thought that I would share this Big City Mountaineers adventure that I led with young men from the Matthews House in Fort Collins. The Matthews House is an organization that serves at-risk youth ages 16-21, who lack significant family support in their lives.
Many of the youth come from abusive homes and are trying to play a bad hand well, take control of their lives and shape positive futures for themselves. Some of the stories of the domestic abuse can absolutely rip your heart out. I was horrified to hear that some of the girls had been used as sex slaves. The movie “Precious” came to my mind, the story of a sixteen-year-old girl born into a life no one would want. Although brutal, the film is hopeful, portraying the human capacity to grow and overcome.
Prior to their arrival, I reviewed the data on the boys who would accompany me and felt a small amount of trepidation. This group appeared to be a bit “rougher” than the three previous groups that I had taken on expeditions out of Oakland, California.
Before departing, clear expectations and program outcomes were communicated to the boys. Smokes, electronic devices and other distractions were left behind. Gear was distributed. The structure was established to gain trust and we started the long drive from Denver to Horse Camp and the Oh-Be-Joyful Trailhead. Throughout the trip, the boys’ dialogue reminded me of the movie Stand By Me, where a quartet of boys, inseparable friends all, set out in search of a dead body that one of the boys overhears his brother talking about. The foursome consists of intellectual Gordie, born leader Chris, emotionally disturbed Teddy, and chubby hanger-on Vern. The boys’ adventures en route to the elusive body are colored by the personal pressures brought to bear on all of them by the adult world.
Parts of the movie paralleled our journey and reminded me that kids are kids no matter what problem they had or what trouble they had gotten into. Matt, a stellar volunteer, knew what seemed to be every line of the movie and quipped them often and kept the group loose. The boys knew the movie well and also quipped several funny lines.
Our group of boys consisted of amiable, fit Brandan, entertainer and hoops star TFrank, born leader Casey, serious Demetri of Russian descent, and pensive, resilient Tony.
“Oh s$%#, did anyone bring anything?”
“Well, this is great. What are we supposed to do? Eat our feet?”
“D’you mean, you didn’t bring anything either?”
“What’m I supposed to do? Think of everything? I brought the comb!”
-Stand By Me
We stopped in the mountain town of Georgetown for a picnic lunch. After much searching, and the lunch still not being found among the provisions, one of the boys casually mentioned that he thought that he had seen it in the alley and that it had not been put in the van. Not a good start, but I don’t sweat the small stuff. We stopped at a store and I picked up new sandwich makings.
After 6 hours of driving we arrived at Horse Camp, set up, made dinner and organized the backpacks. Several of the boys went fishing. The mosquitoes were bad but attitudes were good.
The next day, we loaded the packs and set out on the beautiful trail. The first few miles we hiked were through gorgeous groves of Quaking Aspens. Our first day’s destination was an unnamed lake sited on our map. We never found it. Instead of going 5 miles we ended up doing 10, two days of planned backpacking that ended up climbing 2500′ in one day.
This was not taken well by some of the boys. They did not buy into, “It’s the road, not the inn.” Pent up anger manifested itself into a scream: “This is ridiculous!”
“This is ridiculous” became the joking phrase they used whenever anything else became difficult. Lobo also thought that it was “ridiculous” that the lake with no name disappeared?
“Alright, alright, Mickey’s a mouse, Donald’s a duck, Pluto’s a dog. What’s Goofy?
“Goofy’s a dog. He’s definitely a dog. I knew the $64,000 question was fixed. There’s no way anybody could know that much about opera!”
“He can’t be a dog. He drives a car and wears a hat. ”
“Oh, God. That’s weird. What the hell is Goofy?”
“If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That’s easy-Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.”
“Wagon Train’s a really cool show, but did you notice they never get anywhere? They just keep wagon training.”
-Stand By Me
At night around the campfire, the group engaged in “philosophical reflections” of the day and thought provoking questions like, “If you knew there was going to be a nuclear war in a week, what would you do?” A beautiful sunset helped to put everything in better perspective and morale improved considerably.
On this day we loaded up and moved our camp a couple of miles to a location with a killer view that was closer to the route up Hancock Peak (our challenge). Brilliantly colored marmots with dark red bushy tails visited the camp to check us out. The boys hiked up to the snow and had a ball “surfing,” while I and Kyle, one of the volunteers, scouted out the route that we would take to safely summit 12,400′ Hancock. Kyle has served two tours of duty in the Middle East and is attending Colorado State in the fall.
He is inquisitive, thoughtful, and has a great sense of humor.
The thick wildflowers groves were magnificent, some of them taller than the two of us. It was a fun relaxing day for all. The kids were in high spirits but a couple of them harbored considerable apprehension about the next day’s challenge. The top of the mountain appeared daunting and played to their fears. The fears were expressed in the form of trash talk.
“Do you think Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman?”
-Stand By Me
We were up early. I wanted to get us on top of the peak and down before afternoon thunderstorms rolled in and chased us off the mountain. We were united in our goal to summit the peak and had visualized what it would feel like to be successful and to celebrate. We talked about supporting each other and “walking like a man.” Some demonstrated confidence, others fear. When we reached the Oh-Be-Joyful Pass, everyone agreed that the climb had been easier than they thought. The steep part was next and we had to figure out the best route through the snow and rocks. Lobo spaced out the group and talked about yelling “Rock” if someone dislodged one of those babies. Josh, a quiet volunteer took the lead. Josh is with Americorps, in great shape and proved to be a valuable team member.
Everyone worked tirelessly to reach the peak, but one was missing. TFrank was still on the saddle with Steve, the youth leader. TFrank was sorting through some anger issues and Steve was working with him.
Everyone was feeling good but empty because TFrank was not there. After a time, someone yelled “He’s coming!” and sure enough TFrank could be seen climbing. Fifty yards away he emerged with a big smile and tears streaming down his face. The group gave him a thunderous cheer and he was at the TOP. He received high 5s and hugs all around.
“I never thought that I could ever do anything like this!”
The image of TFrank smiling and climbing up the mountain will be etched into my memory for eternity.
The boys had so much energy that we decided to break camp and pack to the lake with no name. This would get most of the up hill out of the way and everyone wanted to find the lake. We hiked for 5 miles and did not find the lake. We set up camp close to a pristine creek that we thought had to flow into the lost lake. Josh and Kyle went scouting for the lake, to no avail. A couple of the boys went down stream without permission looking for the lake and we had a little “pow wow” when they returned. Brandon, during reflections, expressed that he did not like being talked to like a child when he returned from the creek. He has been talked down to all of his life. We had a great discussion, and he understood the bad position that he put the group in, requiring a search effort and the dangers of getting lost and disoriented. He acknowledged that my direct communication was really talking to him like a man and ended up OK with it all. We also had a good group discussion on living in the “NOW,” and not allowing limited perceptions to define us.
“Teddy Duchamp was the craziest guy we hung around with. He didn’t have much of a chance in life. His dad was given fits of a rage. One time he held Teddy’s ear to a stove and almost burned it off. “
-Stand By Me
This ended up being the low point of the trip. The night before did not go well. One of the boys had nightmares accompanied by blood curdling screams that woke everyone. Another reported friction and a confrontation in the tent. Steve, the youth leader, took charge. Steve is great with the kids and a real professional.
He cares deeply and made my job so much easier.
We then had a meeting and the boys handled it with maturity. We expressed our serious disappointment and nothing more needed to be said. Apologies were made and the slate wiped clean.
We then packed up hoping to find the lake but ended up hiking to the Horse Camp lake-less and did a nice day hike there and the boys did a little fishing in the creek.
That afternoon, a storm rolled in and we quickly set up our tents.
“We talked into the night. The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls.”
-Stand By Me
Thunder, lightning and heavy rain did not allow for much sleep that night.
Matt, one of the volunteers, for some reason decided to sleep outside a tent in some thick flora and had an interesting evening.
Crazzeeeeeeeeee! Matt is an “industrial strength” type of guy and carried a heavy load in so many ways throughout the trip.
We broke camp and headed for Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, where we would be guests. CRMS sits on an awesome environment nestled at the junction of two rivers and in the shadow of a 13er. The school has a great curriculum that includes college – prep, outdoor experiences, arts and community service. The boys fell in love with it. We were given a first-class tour that included a glass blowing demonstration. After cleaning gear, everyone went to the gym that included a rock climbing wall. The afternoon was spent playing hoops and we had a spirited session of adults vs. kids of dodgeball. Lobo was thrilled to receive compliments of “you’ve got game” from several of the boys, but got whipped badly at one-on-one by TFrank.
That evening we held our awards banquet at the funky White House Pizza Parlor. The team had really come together and stood tall. The boys relished their designated awards and put a lot of thought into the certificates and presentations to the adults. Casey gave Lobo a “cowboy boot’ keychain award. Casey had been as solid as a rock throughout the trip and really loves the wilderness. These boys have little money and I really appreciated his thoughtfulness. I firmly believe that his worst days are behind him.
It was a long drive back to Denver, but all were happy campers. I allowed them to play rap on the radio for 4 hours. The “music” gave me a headache but after closely listening to the “lyrics” a light bulb went on in my head. Just like me relating to the Beach Boys (the car, the girlfriend, the beach), life in the hood has been their reality.
In Denver, much joy was expressed regarding the trip and emotional goodbyes. Somehow I have to believe that “the kids are going to be alright.”
In the end they all stood by each other, the volunteers and me.
“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me”