This lovely girl named Tara, while in brief conversation via social media, requested that I tell my wilderness survival story in detail. My fiancé jokes that my WS stories are akin to “one time, in band camp…” And yes it’s true, what can I say? So this is for you Tara, and anyone else who hasn’t heard my band camp memories.
The Superstitions by S. Davenport 2014
I was 17, I was a troubled kid, on probation. I got in trouble again, and higher-ups were pressing my probation officer to put me in juvenile hall. I kept getting in trouble, and besides a few in-patient rehabs, I only ever got put on house arrest. My PO liked me, and believed in me, and felt that I didn’t belong in juvie. So he found a program in Arizona for troubled teens, but also non-troubled teens, who just wanted the experience called Anasazi Foundation. It’s a wilderness survival camp. He presented my case to said higher-ups requesting that they use me as a pilot study and send me to this camp. Thinking if it worked for me, maybe they can send other kids like me there. The presentation went well and they gave the go ahead.
56 days, December 1999 to January 2000.
Off to camp. They drove us for hours, late evening, into the Superstition Mountains, Arizona. They dropped us off deep in the desert at a camp site. There was a fire burning, army issued sleeping bags layed out, and about a dozen girls, two in their early 20′s (these were our trail guides, or as they called themselves trail walkers.) We were given a sleeping bag with a cover called a green burrito, a tin cup, a role of toilet paper, a food pack, a tarp, a canteen, an eye-dropper full of chlorine, rope, and this soap that was also shampoo and toothpaste. We had a change of clothes, hiking boots, and our bewildered selves… at least I was bewildered.
Next morning the trail walkers gave us tutorials on everything, about cooking, and a rundown of what was to come. Here it was: We got a food pack at the start of each week and another food pack in a different location. Our goal was to get through the entire week on what we had in our food pack and journey to the next food pack location before we ran out of food.
Rule one find water. If we hiked all day but didn’t find water we had to keep going no matter how tired, or achy, bruised, bloody we became, which sounds dramatic but let’s just say that almost every tree and bush in the desert is like a foliage of needles. I understood then why we weren’t allowed to bring cameras, if I could’ve shown my probation officer the cuts and bruises covering my bare arms and legs, he would’ve pulled me out. Photographs could’ve made it appear that something was seriously awry. Back to point, without water, we couldn’t cook, and we couldn’t drink. The chlorine eye-dropper was for our canteen, two drops and 20 minutes was supposed to kill anything harmful.
They gave us knives after a two week probation for safety purposes. We quickly learned that we could do anything if you had a knife and water. The other girls carved utensils, spoons to eat with, using the knives. But I just broke some sticks and smoothed them out and ate with chopsticks.
The first two weeks I was habitually out of breath and tired all over. I was physically there, but mentally still in denial, like I’d wake up tomorrow in my bed. The basic daily routine was this: Wake, use bathroom, (dig a hole) wash, drink, use tin cup to cook dried rice or beans, or make ash cakes. (Recipe for ash cakes: flour + water > into dough > buried between hot coals and ashes > blow ashes off before eating.) Then gather all of your things and make your backpack. (Recipe for backpack: lay out sleeping bag > line your belongings up inside the bag > fold, fold, fold, > roll up as tight as possible > take sleeping bag cover (green burrito) > roll up > use rope to tie the green burrito to the sleeping bag in such a way that the sleeping bag now becomes a backpack carrying all your belongings.)
Now we’re ready, carry water from water source and make sure the fire is out. And then hike. All day. When we found a place to camp we learned to make a bow with a semi bendable branch, and rope, and how to use two certain kinds of wood to saw the two pieces, drilling one into the other to make a coal. Then how to blow softly, that coal into a fire. Sometimes it took 5 minutes, other times it took 20-30 minutes and lots of different girls giving it a try before we could catch a coal. This was extremely bothersome after a seven to ten mile hike, doing up and overs (what we called climbing up and over mesas.) We needed that fire to eat, all of our food was dried, except for the one apple we got each week.
Week three was the worst. All I could think about was my boyfriend back home and all the year 2000, Y2K parties I was going to miss out on. I started plotting ways to break a bone, get to a hospital, and make a pleading call to my mother that I would never so much as step foot round trouble again. I heard stories about girls trying to get out of the program, and the only way was to get to the hospital. But even then, the escapee would end up coming back to camp once the hospital deemed them ready to be active again. I even heard a story about a girl who had her head gnawed on by a bear because she used her food pack as a pillow. She went to hospital, and STILL had to come back. Despite this, one morning I woke up early, hiked over to a rocky Mesa side, climbed the hill, tied my sweatpants around my face, and flung myself down the rocky, thorny hill. I got bruises and gashes, but no broken bones, I still had to hike that day.
The desperation to go home was intense. I couldn’t stop obsessing over everything I was missing, I thought I hated, and blamed my mom for my getting into this mess. But curiously my mind eventually broadened and started to accept the place I was in, and the things I was missing, from those Y2K parties to hot showers, coffee shop chess games and drugs, became unimportant.
I can pinpoint the exact moment things changed. I woke up early one morning. We were by a creek with big flat rocks, the water slowly pooling and swaying around them. I went to wash my face and could see my reflection in the water for the first time in a month. A spider must of been on my walking stick because he was now there with me on the rock surrounded by water. He was so sweet. He looked up at me and must have thought I was the devil himself because he tried to run as fast as he could across the water to get away from me. When he realized that wasn’t going to work he scampered back into the shadow of my walking stick. I don’t know. I had fun with him, it was really strange. I was getting all this joy and laughter, and imaginary dialogue with this little black spider.
They gave us new things sometimes, we were there over Christmas and when we arrived at our camping spot there were these insanely gorgeous vineyard twiggy hut-like structures made by campers before us. The trail walkers had planned this out. We spent Christmas in this little hobbit like village. Christmas morning we woke to surprise leather pouches full of senew, leather, leather sewing needles, beads, notebooks and pencils. I started sewing a hacky sack and filled it with rice. I made random bead necklaces, a pouch necklace, and this fringed apron like shirt, like I was some kind of amazon woman. (Remember Zena Warrior Princess? Of course you do.)
I remember this one time, we were on top of a Mesa but we had to set up camp. There were these cow tanks, big man made pools dug into the ground for the roaming herds of crazy scary long horned cattle… (ok, that was a stretch, I saw one crazy scary longhorn, and it was across a Mesa from me.) They were just cows. Anyway, the cow tanks were full of mud, and grass. We filled our canteens, did the chlorine, and used our bandanas to cover the mouth of the canteens in order to strain all the grit and grass out of the water as we drank it. We had to go in these cow tanks, and wade in, because they only got gradually deep and we couldn’t get anything but mud unless we really got in there. There were cows everywhere, yes regular cows, but also mean, unruly, not used to being around people cows.
That was when we saw it. A truck out in the middle of the desert. The girls and I started running, the trail walkers yelled for us to stop, but seeing that truck was like seeing the winning numbers on a lottery ticket, we couldn’t believe it was there. There were three old men out hunting on the Mesa. Their reaction to us was that of shock and awe. We looked like girl Mowglies, dirty, ragged, greasy. They thought something was afoot for certain when they saw us approaching, but we shouted our excitement to see people and got the chance to tell them what we were doing out there. They asked us what we were eating, and they gave us each a banana, feeling sorry for anyone living on rice and beans. I remember cradling that banana like a baby on my hike that day, maneuvering my way down the cliff side of a Mesa holding that banana up and away from the cacti and needle like bushes. That night the banana had turned black. The best banana I will ever eat in my life.
We were supposed to stay at least two miles from a road at any given time, but sometimes we got lost. And again, we saw a car and ran to it. This time it was a father with his two older boys. Again, with the shock and awe, and our shouting, we got there about five minutes before our trail walkers and one of the boys let me sneak some puffs of his cigarette. The best cigarette I’ll ever smoke in my life.
I ate some prickly pear cactus. Some girls ate grasshoppers, and some girls at one point got so hungry for meat that they trapped, killed, and ate rats.
I could tell you all the other little stories about my time in the desert, how I got so hungry I broke open my hacky sack and ate the rice inside. The time I wept while I dragged myself step by step to the next camp sight because my whole body was cramped from the hike we had that day. When there was snow and we couldn’t start a fire because everything was wet, so we went on without anything to sustain us. The time I lost it trying to climb this impossible hill and started swinging my walking stick like a baseball bat at any cactus in my vicinity.
Maybe I did just tell those stories, I snuck it in, I’m like that sometimes. But what I really want to tell you is about the sky, the waterfalls, the hot springs. Looking down at my arms and realizing I hadn’t had a scratch in weeks because somehow along the way I learned to maneuver this wild rocky, thorny desert intuitively. Going from rocky desert into these lush jungle like terrains bush-wacking through thick green bamboo, and the Mesa that was so full of these magical iridescent, purple and white sparkling geodes that my pants fell down trying to climb to the top from all the rocks I had stowed in my pockets. Running, no, skipping over dried rocky river beds with everything you own on your back to a soundless innate rhythm. I want to tell you about the noiseless quiet, the whispering breeze, the stars. Standing on the tallest Mesa and gazing across miles and miles of nothing, and nowhere, and yet everything and everywhere. And the broken tree I discovered one morning full of honey combs, and how the bees swarmed me as my friend tried to wiggle a comb out of the hive and I only got stung once, because a bee got caught in my pant leg. I had bees crawling on my face, neck, hands, as we (the bees and I) ate from the same food, covered in honey. And I didn’t get stung, and I wasn’t afraid.
How it felt to have only what you need to live and nothing else and be the happiest I’d ever been.
The more time I spent out there, the more time they’d let us spend a few days just camping here and there. I got ideas, I wanted to carve a chess set out if soap stone, but I settled for an upright chopstick holder. I wrote poetry, off by myself on a hill or by the water. I painted the girls and my face with wet fire ashes. I invented new ways to eat oatmeal and Baco Bits. I remember one night sleeping on rocky ground. I wedged my body between the rocks and felt more comfortable then I’d ever felt in any bed.
The Last three days were what it was all in preparation for. We were to climb the hardest Mesa, and each find separate camps a mile away from one another and then camp alone. There were three of us left, the other girls had done their time and were now at home.
The first night, of the last three days, I couldn’t start my fire and tracked down one of the other girls who helped me carry a burning coal to my campsite. Then we tracked down the third girl and unbeknownst to our trail walkers we hiked way up into the mountains and found this abandoned building, still with a place to tie your horse up at the door. Then we went back to our own camps.
On the last day my mom was coming out to spend the last night with me. I tried to decorate for my mom’s arrival like it was the hobbit village. The girls and I met up the morning of, and I painted our faces with fire ash like we were superheroes. I cooked my mom the finest meal, brown sugar carrots, fluffy ash cakes for dipping in lentils, and powdered cheese, wet dog… Oh, did I not mention wet dog? (Recipe for wet dog: tang > powdered milk > just the *right* amount of water > mix into frosting consistency > eat until your stomach hurts.) I gave her a necklace pouch with a geode inside.
That night it didn’t just rain, it poured like someone was dumping a never ending bucket of water on us. I had made a tarp tent, but it collapsed in the rain and we slept fitfully on the muddy ground with a tarp laying on top of us.
And then I got to hear the words I’d been longing to hear my whole life, but never thought I would. It was my mother, sorrowfully begging me to forgive her for making me go through all of this.
That’s what I thought I wanted. For her to be sorry. Like a lot of mother daughter relationships we had some seriously unhealthy dynamics. But that night all I wanted her to know was that I was sorry. For everything.
The next day I ran with my mom and I’s pack up the hill to the van that would take us home, and then back down to meet and walk with her. I had pizza in the hotel room that night, it was glorious. I took the longest bath known to mankind, and slept on the floor because the bed was too soft. I remember not being able to sleep because I could hear the buzzing of a fluorescent light somewhere, and the sound of traffic through the window.
It’s a shame how fast you forget how to smile at a spider.
It didn’t take long for me to get back into trouble when I got home. This isn’t a fairy tale. This isn’t the success story it was supposed to be. But in any case, no matter what ever happens, trouble or no, I’ll always have the Superstitions.