Walking into base Friday morning, I was confused where I’d be spending this short half-shift. One board had me listed with the same group as last time, another board had me back with Matt and the recovering addicts, and yet another board had me with an entirely new group of teens altogether.
Turns out I’d be spending my five days with a couple of those groups. I’d start with the same group from last shift, but within the same afternoon half the kids from that group would be branching off into a new group, and I’d be joining this new group for the rest of my shift.
“Tom!” the kids shouted upon my return. “You have a beard now!”
“Did I not have a beard before?” I ask with a laugh. “I can’t keep track of my own face anymore.”
I tell them about my off shift, how my sister got married in the same city where Brady, the bisexual teen, lives. “That’s only ten minutes from my house,” he tells me. “I’m glad I got to see you again before our group split.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.” I give Brady and all the other familiar kids a hug before leaving them. My new group will consist of mostly new kids who have entered the program since I last stepped foot in these woods.
It’s a clean sweep as this old group of ten becomes two new ones of five, and the new group walks away from everything they once knew.
There’s a somber feeling around Kyle as he leads this ragtag bunch of newbies. Kyle’s the veteran of the new group, but that’s not saying much: he’s been here hardly a month. Just hours ago he could hide amid a gigantic group, the leaders with 2+ months of experience in the woods.
Now, Kyle stands above other four other guys who have only been here a week or several days. The spotlight is on him.
“I’d like to check in,” Kyle says, and the group gathers round. “I’m feeling sad. I feel this way when we break off from our old group, and I think of all those guys as my friends for the last month. My hope inside my control is that I can lead this new group well. And my hope outside my control –” He pauses. “– is that I can see my friends again someday.”
~ ~ ~
Nobody in this new group has ever made fire: a clear sign of their youth and wilderness inexperience. Within the first 24 hours, however, a newbie named Aaron bowdrills his first ember. The group rallies behind him, and within the next couple days every other group member has created his own fire.
“You just made fire with sticks!” one of my fellow staff affirms with each ember.
I wish I could recapture the resulting smiles on those kids’ faces.
Yeah, they’re stuck in the woods for the next couple months, and the next couple months will just so happen to be the coldest couple months in the Blue Ridge.
But they just made fire with sticks. And for right now, that triumph is enough.
~ ~ ~
We go on some grueling hikes the next couple days. We climb Georgia’s second highest peak, the same peak I hiked my very first shift back in July. It’s eerie climbing the peak’s fire tower and looking out over three states, the winter mountain view now contrasted with the summer.
Indeed, that night the temperature drops into the teens, and my 20-degree sleeping bag leaves me in the fetal position rubbing my legs and toes every five minutes to keep from turning to stone. I sleep maybe twenty minutes that night.
It’s scary. I hadn’t expected it to get that cold that fast. Do I have enough warmth to survive the next couple days?
And yet as cold and scared and defeated I get, I keep thinking about those kids. The kids who will have to deal with these temperatures for months with no break. They’ll miss Thanksgiving this week, they’ll miss Christmas next month, and they’ll be huddled around campfires instead of fireplaces back home.
~ ~ ~
It’s my final morning of this short shift, and Kyle won’t get out of his shelter. I do the 7:30 wake-up call amid the brisk 28-degree morning and make several rounds to his tarp, shouting for him to get up and get moving and that the sunlight is his friend.
But nothing will get Kyle moving. He cinches his sleeping bag tighter around his face and buries himself deeper.
“Just let him stay in there,” my fellow staff advises. “He’ll come out when he’s ready, and he’ll miss the hot cocoa we’re making the group as a consequence.”
An entire hour goes by before Kyle finally emerges from his shelter. He checks in with the group.
“I’m feeling depressed,” he starts. “I feel this way when we have our therapist visit today, and I might find out when I’m leaving. I stay inside my sleeping bag because when I’m in there, nothing can get me. Not the cold, not reality.”
The group nods, and I can’t help marveling in the same metaphor I’ve lived time and time again.
To close the door.
To lock it.
To crash on your bed and pull the blanket over you.
To lie there, conscious or unconscious, not wanting to move, not wanting to see the light of day for the night that seems so thick and eternal around you.
~ ~ ~
Later that day, Kyle finds out from his therapist that he won’t be going home anytime soon. He still has much work to do in the woods.
And just like that, it’s time for me to leave the mountains. To get a hot shower. To drink a hot coffee. To flee this cold and replace it with as many hot’s as I can.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I wish all the kids with goodbye hugs.
I wish it with all my heart.