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August 2000

Wilderness Of Hope

Five troubled teens and three well-meaning volunteers head into the Colorado mountains, hoping the wilds will help heal the youngsters. But in the end, it's hard to tell whose lives were forever shaped by the experience, the youths or the adults.

Next stop, a remote condo where we’d spend the night and do a final gear shakedown, distribute food, and sort through 12-ounce bottles of hair gel and extra pairs of underwear. It was during the van ride and the sorting and fitting that the personalities slowly emerged. They chattered constantly and brooded morosely. Some aspired to be singers or lawyers, or simply to get out of the group home. They told stories and wrote poems about pregnant friends and abandoning fathers. They wove colorful, complex bracelets with embroidery thread. Their laughter was easy and infectious, then would turn suddenly loud and mocking. They hated listening to others bicker, but then couldn’t keep from joining in. They were volatile, quick to accuse, and anxious to avoid blame. Their faces were capable of showing so many emotions, any one apt to emerge with no warning. They were teenage girls with ominous histories lurking below glib exteriors.

The first day on the trail passed without incident. If you’d hiked past our group, you’d probably have thought it was just your average gaggle of young women camping out in the mountains.

But during our second day on the trail, I started looking for and clinging to any small sign of progress. The hike up to our second campsite had been long and hard, marked by whining, yelling, cursing, and sit-down strikes by the girls who were the least fit. The adults and other girls cajoled, exhorted, teased, and bullied the slackers until finally they heaved up and, with much expletive-laden muttering, continued a slow trudge up the mountain. To be fair, it was a haul even for an experienced backpacker like me, and some of the girls did rise to the occasion. Roberta, despite her fear of heights and a nagging cold, forged on, determined not to be left behind. Up front, diminutive Karen, dwarfed by her pack but uncomplaining, struck up an endless chorus of, “The Ants Go Marching One By One.”

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