Finding friendship in the woods of North Carolina
I stood at the water pump. Everyone else had their lunch in hand, sitting or squatting on old wooden logs. I looked down at my red plastic shoes labeled 37 and in a moment they were off and I was sprinting away as fast as my legs would take me. I ran across a rocky stream bed and out onto a dirt road. I saw a house, jumped a fence and sprinted to the door, knocking loudly and desperately. A middle-aged man with no shirt and a bulging tan potbelly opened the door, “I NEED TO USE YOUR PHONE,” I shouted at him. He let me in and his wife handed me the phone. I dialed my mom’s cell. No answer. I dialed my home phone. No answer. I dialed my mom’s cell. She picked up, “GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
After my dash for freedom I was escorted back to basecamp. Here I waited a day while my mom drove the seventeen hours to North Carolina to tell me in a shaking voice that she was not taking me home. I tried to convince her to take me by telling her we could eat ice cream together, a food I had not enjoyed for over a year. She told me if I wanted to get better I had to stay, and she wasn’t letting me come home.
My running away had consequences beyond crushing my hopes of escape. My feet were bruised and I was put on level 3 watch. At night I was rolled in a tarp and sandwiched in between two counselors. Every time I shifted in my sleeping bag the tarp crinkled noisily. My running away also prolonged my stay in the first stage of the School of Urban and Wilderness Skills’ (SUWS) four-stage program – Safety. In the Safety stage students had to take control of their safety and well-being. This meant eating enough, not running away, and no self harm. I had trouble with all three.
I came to SUWS for a variety of reasons. I was five-feet six-inches tall and eighty-five pounds. I was depressed, disconnected and suicidal. When my parents asked me to go to SUWS I agreed. I knew they wanted the best for me. They had been trying, really trying to help. Nothing seemed to work. I had suffered through five therapists, six antidepressants, and a two-week hospital stay. SUWS was my Hail Mary.
When I arrived I was stripped of all my possessions. I was given a bright orange hoodie, blue pants, and red numbered shoes to wear. The staff member who escorted me through this process held a brown clipboard and roughly checked off boxes as my things were taken away.
On the third day of my then hopeless stay at the SUWS base camp a young boy came back from the field with a broken leg.
“What’s going to happen to him?” a younger student asked.
“He’ll have to go back home,” a counselor responded, “he can’t hike on a broken leg.” Soon after that I ventured behind the bathroom tarp, found the biggest rock I could lift with one hand and dropped it on myself. The first time I missed my left hand, which I had laid on an adjacent rock. The second time the rock hit my hand and bounced – literally bounced – off it. Immediately, a large blackish bruise blossomed from the hit. I walked back to basecamp like a dog with its tail between its legs. I shielded my left hand behind my back and never spoke a word about it to anyone.
While I was at basecamp I met a variety of students. Most had been forcibly escorted from their homes in the middle of the night and were at SUWS for excessive drug and alcohol use. I was the odd man out. I silently judged others as I worked diligently on my various assignments, which I was certain would lead to my expeditious completion of the program. I hurriedly filled out my little green notebook, identifying tree and plant species, and filled my journal with meaningful entries, which I hoped showed rapid psychological improvement. I socialized with only a select few: a young girl, who I remember as being very dirty and extremely energetic and a young counselor who was still full of optimism and the desire to make a difference. She came up to me one day while I sat crying under a tree. “It comes in waves doesn’t it?” I nodded, and smiled at her. Her name was Wren and she was the kindest person I met at basecamp.
Finally, through a desire to get out as quickly as possible I started eating, slowly at first and then greedily, like a drowning man gasping for air. I stopped dropping rocks on myself and I didn’t run away again. I got my assignment for a field group – group C, Charlie: a group notorious for girl fights and lengthy program durations. I got out of Safety and headed for the mountains.
In the second stage – Individual, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. I entered into Group Charlie with three other students: Elena, Elizabeth and Maddie. We hiked silently during the day taking breaks often. At lunch we were assigned small plots of dirt facing away from one another. When I glanced over my shoulder I could see Elizabeth mock smoking with small wooden sticks. She said it helped.
Elena, Elizabeth, and Maddie had been at SUWS for a while when I arrived. They all did drugs, had sex, and were under the age of fourteen. We were allowed to speak to one another during brief windows, once in the morning and once at night. There wasn’t much to say. Mostly we just gossiped.
“What’d you do to get here?” Maddie asked on my first night.
“Is it true that you ran away?” Elizabeth chimed in.
I wondered how gossip circulated in a place like SUWS. Miles of wilderness separated different groups and yet it took mere days before every tiny bit of juicy gossip was known by the entire camp. Maybe the wind carried it to us, knowing we needed this small source of entertainment and humanity.
Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie didn’t like me. I was a goody-two-shoes, a teacher’s pet who worked hard to set up trap lines and start fires each night so I could get out as quickly as possible. I didn’t break the rules or talk back. I thought I wouldn’t have sex until marriage, I wouldn’t drink until I was 21, and I would never so much as associate with anyone who used drugs. I was judgmental and it showed. At first I didn’t care much. I had one goal and one goal only – get out. So I studiously whittled traps and struck fires from steal and stone. In a week I had caught up to Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie. But eventually my loneliness weighed on me. I went all day without speaking or being spoken to and at the nightly circle I was attacked or worse, ignored.
After two weeks of loneliness I could take it no longer. I dropped a rock on myself and tried to run off a ledge. A counselor restrained me until I was calm enough to be let go. I sat hunched over in the dirt, sobbing uncontrollably. Elizabeth approached me. “It’s much harder at first…” She said, “but it gets better, I promise.” She stood beside me until I stopped crying and then helped me to my feet. Elizabeth, I realized, was no different than me. We were just two kids who had gotten into some bad stuff.
After my breakdown I slowly became closer to the other girls in my group, and especially to Elizabeth. Nightly circles now contained occasional moments of laughter and always a mutual hatred for SUWS and our counselors. Even Elena, a former thirteen-year-old drug dealer with biceps the size of my head, warmed up to me. Instead of threatening me, we colluded to take down our counselors.
My birthday occurred during one of my final days in the Individual stage. It wasn’t anything special. I received a few brownies (which Elizabeth told me I didn’t have to share if I didn’t want to) and a card from my family, but other than that it was SUWS as usual. When we got to camp I spent the afternoon working on my traps. Towards dinnertime Elizabeth and Elena approached me, hiding something behind their backs.
“We know it sucks to be here for your birthday, so we made you something to help you forget,” Elizabeth said, holding a few pieces of torn paper in her hands.
“Close your eyes,” Elena instructed.
And then Elizabeth started reading,
“Snowy mountains covered in white,
On to the ski lift, hold on tight!
Stop by the lodge for something to eat,
Something chocolate and moist, some kind of treat!”
Elizabeth read on, describing each lovely escape in a wishful voice. She ended with,
“Blinking starts burning bright,
Welcome to the city of light!
Blue moon, bright in the sky,
Thank you for coming, goodnight and goodbye.”
I opened my eyes to Elizabeth and Elena’s grinning faces. They handed me the torn sheets of muddy paper. On each was a picture drawn by Elena, and on the back the corresponding poem written by Elizabeth. It is to this day, the best present I have ever received.
On one of the following days Elizabeth, Maddie, Elena and I were told to join hands. We were told that in the Individual stage we were black bears – solitary, independent creatures – but now we were to become wolves – pack animals. We were given a circle of rope and told to lean back. Together we kept one another standing.
The third stage – Community, could almost have been considered fun. Elizabeth, Elena, Maddie and I spent the afternoons sitting under the main tarp building our wood drills, which would later enable us to make fire from two pieces of wood.
We spent our layover days helping one another make fires and meeting with the therapist for Group Charlie. Our therapist’s name was Amber. She hiked out to our group once a week, and met with each of us for thirty minutes. I would talk about the week and she would assess my progress. In addition to all the hard skills I had to complete to get out, there were also mental skills that Amber had to check off in my little green notebook with her special red pen.
By the time I reached the Community stage two other girls had joined our group. They were nice but Elizabeth, Elena, Maddie and I didn’t talk to them much. They were still in the Individual stage. After one of Amber’s visits we circled up for a “truth circle”. Someone had broken the rules and if they admitted it in the truth circle they wouldn’t get in trouble. As it turned out the two new girls had taken Amber’s pen and checked all the boxes in their notebooks.
After this, truth circle became a regular occurrence. This was also the time when I let loose and rediscovered my love of breaking rules. I stopped filtering my water, poured soap into the rivers we passed, and swapped personal food items. It wasn’t that I wanted or needed to do these things, it was just my way of saying “FUCK YOU” to the SUWS program.
Near the end of my time in the Community phase, Elena was removed from Group Charlie. It was a sunny day and we were hiking up a steep wooded hill. We came to a cross trail and took a break. A counselor asked Elena to take a walk with her and bring her pack. Fifteen minutes later the counselor returned without Elena. She announced that Elena was being moved to another group. We had gotten too close and, as the councilors put it, “You do not come to SUWS to make friends.” Elena’s only goodbye was a hastily written note telling us how much she would miss us. We never got to say the same to her. A week later gossip circulated that Elena’s parents were pulling her from the program because she was making no progress. That’s the last I heard of Elena.
That night two counselors awaked me in the middle of the night. They took me down to the river and launched into a long speech about my progress. At the end of this ceremony they handed me some beads and told me I had made it to the last stage in the program. I was the first one in Group Charlie to do so.
In the last stage of SUWS four-stage program I was finally allowed to know the time and use the map and compass. These privileges, which had seemed paramount throughout my time at SUWS, soon seemed unimportant and I rarely exercised them. Responder wasn’t much different than Community. It just meant I was one step closer to getting out.
One afternoon while Maddie, Elizabeth, and I sat sewing leather medicine bags, our conversation stumbled upon the topic of getting out. Elizabeth and Maddie were indifferent about their situations. SUWS was bad but what was beyond SUWS wasn’t much better. I, on the other hand, exclaimed joyously “I think I’ll be going home soon!”
“Doubt it,” Maddie said, “You’ll go to a boarding school just like this, like the one I came from.”
“My parents would never do that to me,” I said confidently. “They can’t wait for me to come back home.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Maddie replied. “Everyone here says that.”
I nodded nervously. Trying to hold to my convictions. I couldn’t imagine my parents sending me away. Then again, a few weeks ago I couldn’t have imagined my mom telling me I had to stay here either.
My conversation with Maddie made me so nervous that I ate all my lunch food, an amount of food that had been intended to last for a weeks worth of lunches. Horrified I ran behind the bathroom tarp and tried to make myself throw up. After many attempts (which produced only uncomfortable gagging) I stopped and walked hurriedly back to camp. I immediately sought out Elizabeth to tell her what I had done. Awhile later a counselor pulled me aside, “Elizabeth told me what happened.” I was startled. I had never thought Elizabeth would care enough to tell on me. When I returned Elizabeth caught me by the arm and asked if I was okay. “I want you to get better,” she told me.
Soon after my food frenzy I was told I would be going on a solo. I would spend a whole day and one night alone (though close enough to remain under the stifling surveillance of SUWS counselors). I was told this would be an opportunity to reflect on my progress and become more independent. Nature and solitude would work in tandem to fix me.
In the morning black charcoal was rubbed on my cheeks and I was given a bag of rice and a metal bucket to cook with. When I got to my solo plot of land I set up my tarp, built a fire pit and started a fire. Having the whole day ahead of me I found I had nothing to do. I tried to fill the seemingly endless hours by washing my clothes and drying them by the fire. Then I cooked my rice, well before a reasonable lunch hour. Finally I resorted to writing.
I wrote about the trees overhead and the people I had met. I wrote about food – wanting food, not wanting food, and not being able to stop. I wrote about my parents and how they had forced me to stay here. I wrote about Elizabeth, Elena, and Maddie. I wrote about how terrible SUWS was and how I longed to get out. I fell asleep curled around my notebook.
The next morning I took my place next to Elizabeth in our breakfast circle, relieved to once again be in the company of others. We filled our cups with lukewarm oatmeal and a spoonful of powdered milk.
“I have some special news,” a counselor said. She paused and continued, “Helen will be released next week.”
Warm sweet relief filled my entire body. Elizabeth threw her arm around my shoulder, squeezing me into an excited half hug.
After seven weeks at SUWS I was finally, finally getting out.
I had the morning to gather my things and say my goodbyes. Elizabeth and I wrote our contact information on small pieces of paper, and tried to sneak them to one another throughout the morning. But the crumpled piece of paper I had stuffed hurriedly into my pocket was discovered and taken by the counselors. “You do not come to SUWS to make friends.”
Before I came to SUWS life was meaningless. I would wake up wishing I had never been born. I would get through the day dully mimicking activities that had once brought me joy. I would fall asleep without hopes of a better tomorrow. Before SUWS I had nothing to live for. SUWS gave me a purpose – get out – and for that I am eternally grateful.
I cannot tell you that leaving Group Charlie was sad. In fact I hardly remember it. I am certain that I hugged Elizabeth and Maddie goodbye. I am sure I was sad to leave them, with no hopes of ever finding them again. But I was getting out and at the time that was all that mattered.
My name is Bryan Guzman. I’m a first year student at CCSF majoring in Studio Arts. My heavy admiration for photography and film has completely grown throughout the years. I enjoy shooting people in any way, shape, or form, capturing their many emotions and giving myself and an audience the ability to feel lots of things.