A little-known story about me: When I was 17, to ensure the possibility of graduating from high school, I had to do something to make up my citizenship grade (because, you know...sluffing three out of four school terms has consequences). There were choices to make, but I don't remember what my non-chosen options were. And I rarely think about the choice I did make, even though it impacted me in ways that still resonate in my life today.
I chose to go on a ten-day survival adventure in Escalante canyon.
When I think about it now I almost have to laugh, as it feels sort of like a movie cliche to me, the possibility that they could send my gothy little soul out into Nature and have me come home as a changed person, finally good, finally wanting to wear some color other than black. Finally no one's problem, my malaise worn away by hiking.
It didn't really happen. I went out in shorts and a t-shirt, my dad's sweaty trucker hat because my mom made me take it and my favorite black leather, mid-calf lace-up boots with spikes and silver toes. I came home with fresh blisters and a sunburned forehead (because I didn't wear the hat) and I still loved my boots. I made up my citizenship grade but I don't think I was noticeably different. (At least not at first. And not on the outside except for that sunburn.)
The wilderness didn't save me or redeem me or make me normal. There would be another year of my bad behavior before things changed.
I think it must've made my parents despair that nothing ever really would make me normal.
But that experience in the Escalante did change me. It created an awareness in me of how, when you push yourself to your physical limits in the wilderness, you find a new part of yourself. I'd been a gymnast for more than a decade, so I understood pushing to the end of physical limits. I understood continuing on despite blisters. But I'd done that all in a chalky gym. Those days in the desert of Utah taught me that in nature I could gain a clearer understanding; I could see things in new light. Or even that there was a different light to see with. It took me years to put that knowledge to use—more than a decade, in fact—but when I felt it again I recognized it immediately. It's why I run and why I hike, and those two things have changed me. Have saved my life, many times over.
So when one of my librarian friends told me she hated Wendelin Van Draanen's new YA novel, Wild Bird, because of how it depicted wilderness survival camps as a way to help troubled teens, I was intrigued. Especially as it is set in the Utah desert. I read it quickly, in only a couple of days, and now I am continuing to think about it. As my experiences with desert survival are different than my librarian friend's, I had a different response:
I actually really enjoyed it. (Even though the ending felt a little bit too pat and the author did something that makes me nuts: using the word "nauseous" instead of "nauseated.")
The novel's protagonist is Wren, who is failing her freshman year of high school and causing all sorts of trouble. The wilderness survival camp her parents send her to is different than what I went to. For one, she didn't get a choice; one of the camp's employees simply comes to her house in the middle of the night, tells her to get dressed, and takes her to the airport. And Wren's experience was eight weeks long, not one like mine. There are psychologists and biology teachers and Native American storytellers, solitary Quests and lessons on interpreting scat, none of which I had. Her experience is immersive and, ultimately, transformative.
I enjoyed watching Wren transform and the way her story was told, memories of her usual life—where she drinks alcohol and smokes pot and flunks her classes and shoplifts—brought on by experiences in the desert. Back home, she steals money from her parents, fights with her sister, wrecks havoc. As well as running "errands" for her boyfriend, who sells heroin. In the desert, she has to put up a tent and figure out how to find water and learn the process of making a fire.
When she arrives in the desert, she's angry that she has to be there at all, and starts out completely not participating in anything. But as the days go by and she gets to the end of the supplies she started out with, she has to start learning how to survive in the wild, and then how to work with the other girls in the camp. Slowly she starts to change, to find remorse for her actions, to learn how to name her own needs and control her own emotions.
While I did enjoy the reading experience of Wild Bird, it also left me troubled. Because my library friend sort of is right: It makes a great (albeit novel-length) marketing pamphlet for the magical healing powers of survival adventure camps. I do think they might be able to help some troubled kids, but not all of them, and I do think the potential for creating more harm (a group of girls away from their parents in the desert could spell, for example, trouble for any unscrupulous male councilor) is great.
On the other hand, I do think they have the potential to be helpful. I just don't think it happens in the way it's portrayed in the novel.
What I pondered most seriously, as I read the book, was my friend's question: What kind of parents would allow their (already-troubled) child to basically be kidnapped and then forced to live in a tent for months on end? I've been thinking a lot, anyway, about what makes a good parent (especially a good parent to teenagers) and about the mistakes I made and what I might've done well. (I almost really wanted to read more about Wren's parents' experiences and how it felt to deal with their daughter's problems in such a way). I think it boils down to two types of parents: lazy ones who don't want to deal with their kids' problems or desperate ones who no longer know how to deal with their kids' problems.
The latter, obviously, is who I have compassion for. None of my kids have gone off the rails in the way that Wren does (or that I did), but we have had our own struggles. Parenting teenagers is hard. Even when you have the best of intentions, you cannot be the perfect parent. You make mistakes. You don't always have answers. What do you do, when you've tried therapy and talking and changing schools and consequences and everything else, but your kid still keeps involving herself in dangerous behaviors?
I think that desperate parents might send their kids to such a place because they are out of ideas. Because they feel like the risk of continuing the dangerous behaviors is greater than whatever might happen in the wilderness.
I'm not sure that this is a book that everyone will love. It spoke to me and to my experiences, but I am not exactly sure if teenagers would enjoy it. Would a "troubled teen" read this and be changed, or is it only the actual (not literary) desert that could accomplish such a thing? Would a "normal" teen read it and think...what? Man those wacked out chicks are exhausting? Or could any teen read it just for the story? I'm not sure.
But I am glad I read it, as it gave me a sort of grace. I still carry a lot of guilt for my adolescent shenanigans, for what I put my parents and my sisters through. A book like this one reminds me that I wasn't really a bad person but a person in a bad place. More than anything, though, I'm glad I read it because it brought back such vivid memories of those days in the Utah desert, when I discovered truths about friendship, when I learned how to make pancakes on a fire-warmed stone, when I spent a night sleeping in solitude under the stars. The place and time when my love for hiking and running and being outside began.