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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1995 Issue #37 

A PARENT SPEAKS ON WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS
by: Bob Kirkpatrick
Spokane, Washington
October, 1995
509-747-3134

(This is the third in a series, written by a parent dealing with a run-away child. THE EMPTY PLACE was written in January, 1995 and appeared in the April, 1995 (#33) issue of Woodbury Reports. It describes what he, as a parent, was going through every time he saw the empty bed of his daughter who had run away. RUNNING INSIDE, written in the late summer of 1995 and printed October 1995 (#36), explains how the trauma of losing a child to the streets can cause some parents to give up and do their own running away, emotionally. The essay in this issue was written within a few days of his daughters return from a wilderness program, and his essay in the February issue will discuss the aftermath of taking her back home.) 

I sat in the chilled mountain air, clutching my knees to my chest and watching the man they called the firemeister with great interest. Just as my child had been doing for the previous 21 days, this gentleman was bent over a clutch of moss and twigs, striking his flint and trying to light a fire. He succeeded almost immediately. But that wasn't the interesting part. The good part was yet to come, and it was still a few minutes away -- just as the heat from the new fire. 

I was waiting to see my girl troop in with the other kids who'd endured what I'd sent my Megan to experience three weeks ago. The six hundred dollars in plane tickets in my pocket could have been easily given over as kindling while I sat there shivering. I couldn't help but think about what it was that my child had been feeling in the weeks before. What would she look like? Would she be the same sneering and angry girl I'd last seen in the custody of a transport officer? 

The answer came quickly. As a matter of fact, it came much more quickly than the heat from the fire. (The heat from the fire never did reach me, but I was warmed.) The answer was, NO. I felt warmth on my cheeks as my girl trooped in with the others. The warmth came from the tears I shed without thinking -- seeing her again. When she spotted me, she trotted over and gave me a hug that lasted too long, but not for me. 

In the next seven hours, I and the other parents learned of the trials and the risks that our children had taken. They started this trip because we sent them. They finished it because they had the fiber we all hoped they did. They finished it because they were proud of what they'd done, and exuded it without embarrassment. 

And well they should be proud. 

These children had just completed a regimen of activity few Marines could handle were they plucked from the street of their everyday lives and plopped onto a mountainside. They'd hiked over 100 miles with packs half their weight or more. And as they made their treks into the wasteland voids where even the most ardent survivalist would consider extreme punishment, they also ascended their beliefs, their hopes and their dreams. As they climbed the mountains, blazed trails, and learned to plan for the future and achieve their goals, they grew in ways that I would not have believed possible. 

Do wilderness programs work? Not for everyone, I'd guess. But I would hazard the words that they are a great beginning at the least for those kids who attend. Are these programs hazardous? No doubt. I learned that my girl had come profoundly close to falling off a cliff --and a very tall one. But a combination of her training and the watchful eyes of her program facilitators prevented injury. Do I think that the trip was a bad idea because my girl could have been injured or worse? Nope. Not now, not ever. Very few kids are hurt in these expeditions. If they were a real threat, they wouldn't exist. That's a very important thing to keep in mind. 

Am I a parent who figures that a few broken bones would be worth the changes that came over my daughter? If you think that, then you're in error. I took my child from the street to help her, and the last thing I would do is --well, anything that would Love Her To Death. What came from this expedition was my girl having a chance to confront all of the issues she felt were important. The issues which made her leave a loving home and live on the streets amidst drug use, exploiting associates, and hopelessness. Confront those issues she did. The program facilitators and guides were superior people. They endured the inconvenience of the trail (or lack of a trail) because they believe in children and the spirits which exist in them. They help these kids find that spirit and use it constructively to attain a new perspective, new goals, and solid and focused ways to achieve them. 

Was or is the program and end-all, be-all cure? No. Certainly not. But what these programs do is permit the kids to see themselves clearly, and force them to make valid evaluations of their perspectives and goals. Does it work? I hope to shout it does. It works in ways that no other program could ever hope to work, and with a permanence that no public program will ever achieve. 

It doesn't mean that kids who attend wilderness programs get cured. They don't. What they do get is the firm foundations upon which they can achieve again the childhood they abandoned, and a path by which they can reassemble their lives. Few graduates of these severe expeditions walk away never needing further assistance. Most graduates return willing to accept and even embrace structure, rules and limits. Some can return home, and others will need to continue with a transition home or a structured educational and therapeutic environment free of many temptations to relapse. 

I have a child again, where at one time --just a short time ago, I had a belligerent 14 year old premature adult without goals and willingness. For me, that is enough to justify the price tag, and to cause me to feel a new warmth that could never radiate from a campfire. 

(Bob Kirkpatrick lives in Spokane, Washington. The program his child attended was the Catherine Freer Wilderness Expedition based in Albany, Oregon. For more information on Catherine Freer, contact Dr. Rob Cooley or Paul Smith at (503) 926-7252). 

Copyright 1995, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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