It was morning, and I hated everyone.
“Listen up, girls! We are heading to Mount Finch and will be hauling our packs to the top. Everyone should get a chance to hike Finch while here.” The wilderness instructor, not more than 25 years old, called over our heads excitedly.
I was anything but excited and let my grumbles blend into the groans echoing through the camp of twelve filthy, battered teen girls.
I’d been in the wilderness program for roughly a month, and while it was safer than any of the many places I’d been sent, it was far from suitable. Our clothes were crusted in dirt and sweat stains from living in the Idaho desert without the chance for clean clothes (including underwear) or showers. The aroma surrounding me felt like enough to wilt any blossom within ten feet of me, but the worst part was the inedible food and the packs we rolled from thin tarps and cord, then lugged for hours in formation across the desert every day.
The hikes themselves weren’t very hard, but other girls’ packs would come unrolled mid-hike, someone would collapse in real or pretend distress multiple times each day, and the sun was merciless on our teenage backs. As I pulled my shoulder straps on and another girl helped me stand from the immense weight, I reminded myself what had gotten me here.
Things at home were far from good, but it was hard to get anyone to listen. I’d been brought here by my father, who promptly left me with an elderly couple in the airport. A couple weeks into my time at the wilderness camp, I received what was called an ‘impact letter’ from my father. Though I’d watched several of my camp-mates receive the letter and new understanding register in their eyes, mine had not been written for my benefit.
As I’d stared at the paper, words met my eyes and memories of my parents using those words while inflicting various types of abuse floated from my memory. The therapists screened letters here, and it was a clear message that I no longer provided my family with the performance or benefit they expected. I remember little of the exact contents of the letter before sadly tossing it in the pitiful campfire. What I do remember of the letter was that my father had said the sweetness in my eyes had been replaced with cruelty and hatred, and that I was no longer his little girl.
‘Good.’ I thought to myself as we got into formation for the hike. I never wanted to be his little girl; I hadn’t been allowed to be Skye; I was required to be property in order to be his little girl, and my father wasn’t worth giving up everything to please. All I had to do was get through today’s hike, I reminded myself.
The hike began. My camp-mates were unusually positive and motivated as we hiked, and I’d awoken that morning in an especially dark mood. I didn’t know where I was going once I completed the wilderness program, though most of the other kids knew where they were heading. I was whipping toward the unknown yet again, and I knew how bad it could get despite only being 16. I resented the other girls for having parents that loved them. I resented mine for regarding me as a failed property investment. I resented the staff simply for being a part of a long line of captors. On this day in particular, I passed time on the trail by imagining one of them getting bitten by a rattlesnake.
Within two hours, we stood, streaked in dirt and sweat, at the bottom of Mount Finch. The program had a reputation for gravely over-loading student pack weight, and as I stared up the mountain, I felt my waning strength leave my back and legs. I didn’t want to climb Finch. I wanted to camp at the base, by myself, and be left alone by the world.
“Ok guys, we’re going to do something new. We will eat lunch at the top of Finch and then head down to our site for the night. I want you to each pick a rock to bring up the mountain with you. I’m not talking about a pebble either; grab something that will make your hike a little harder.” The instructor seemed excited, and to my surprise, it infected several of the girls around me.
Everyone spent a few minutes choosing a rock to carry up the mountain. I didn’t feel like carrying a whole rock, but I also didn’t want the negative attention that would come from choosing a stone that took little effort. Finally, my eye caught a rock nestled at the very base of the mountain.
I went over to the rock and picked it up. It had stood out to me with its dark red tint and speckles of quartz that caused it to glint slightly in the sun. As I lifted it, I groaned. This would be a difficult rock to carry, but it was as uniquely out of place as I felt. I was committed.
As we groaned up the mountain, the girls began to whine and snap at one another. The additional weight of the rock was difficult, but the hardest part was not having my hands free to ease the slicing of my seatbelt shoulder straps that I used as pack straps as they cut deeply into my thin frame. The pain mounted more and more; an hour went by, then another. We had ceased hiking in formation; we stumbled forward and were simply putting our feet in front of us to stop from collapsing forward onto our grimy faces.
“Places like this should be illegal!” A girl cried out behind me, and I silently agreed with her.
Little did we know that in a few days, a kid would die and, in a few years, the camp would be a shut down, abandoned ghost town.
Finally, we summited the peak of Mt Finch.
I set my pack down carefully; I used to drop it hard on the ground behind me but had learned the hard way many times that the enormous weight would strike me behind the knees, forcing me to the ground. I hid a spiteful smile as I watched a few new girls make the newcomer mistake and fall to the ground. It was time for lunch, I realized with dread.
I hadn’t finished the required canteens of water before lunch, so I sipped quickly, pouring out what I could discreetly. A gallon and a half of water was an incredible amount to drink for my 90-lb body, and I knew if I finished the required canteens, I wouldn’t be able to finish lunch without throwing up. If I hid my food or threw up from eating too much, I’d be required to dig it from the dirt and eat it till it stayed down.
My name was called and I went to a couple of the girls who sat, slathering several inches of peanut better onto a single white pita. Topping it with seven dried apricots, one of the girls beamed at me as she held my portion up. I took it, grimacing. Eating nearly an entire jar of peanut by myself every single day was nauseating. Over 15 years later, I still abhor the taste and smell of peanut butter.
As I choked down the ‘meal’, I stared thoughtfully at my red rock and chewed. I thought it was stupid that I’d have to bear even more weight up the mountain, but then again, climbing the mountain was also pointless. The program was better than being locked in an empty room alone for months, but it sure sucked, I thought.
I was asked to do a lot of pointless things for points to be made to me, I realized, but they weren’t lessons I valued. How could I do things like not run away, do a year of school in a couple months, manage extreme isolation and abuse and still be happy? No one had noticed I was gone except the ones who had disposed of me. I knew they didn’t want me back, and though it broke my heart to think about, I realized I didn’t want them back either.
“Everyone get up and bring your rock with you to the center over here!” The instructor was so excited that the quaking in his voice was audible.
I sighed, shoved the remainder of my peanut butter into a small hole I’d slowly scraped with my boot while eating what I could. I kicked a layer of dirt over the mess, stepped on it and piled more dirt on top. I was good at hiding the unpalatable food. Picking up the rock with both hands, I walked to the center with the rest of the girls, appreciating the ease with which I could walk without the pack.
“Since you arrived at camp, each of you has been carrying a burden that has prevented you from being your best person. For some of you, it’s addiction. Others might have depression, heartbreak or trauma. I want you to look at your rocks and decide what you’ve been carrying the most of.” The other girls looked down thoughtfully at their rocks and I followed their example.
The quartz in my red rock glinted at me and reminded me of the insane glint in my father’s eye as he inflicted numerous punishments while smiling, telling me he was forced to hurt me because of my behavior. The red in the rock glowed around the edges in my vision as the rage woke up and began to intoxicate me.
Rage, I realized. I was carrying rage. Not that it mattered, I reminded myself, since I had decided the exercise was pointless.
“Has everyone named their rock? Good. Now I want you all to spread out around the mountaintop. Stand as close to the edge as you SAFELY can. No daredeviling!”
I stalked over to the edge of a small cliff and looked down. Below me, I could see the trail we had stumbled along to reach the summit. Heights turned my vision into a sucking vortex, so I stayed several feet from the edge and waited for more instructions for the pointless exercise.
“I’m going to tell you girls something I don’t know you’ve heard before. Whatever that rock in your arms is called, it’s been called YOU. You’ve carried this burden and struggled with it in your life over and over, but it’s not a part of you. It’s not you. This rock represents everything that has caused you to trip and stumble in becoming the person you want and deserve to be, and it’s time to THROW IT OUT. On the count of 5, I want you to throw your rock as hard as you can. Throw that burden out of your life for good!”
‘Wait a minute,’ I thought angrily.
I carried this stupid rock all the way up the mountain, making an already nearly impossible task all the more painful just to THROW IT OFF? That sounded like a pattern I’d been stuck in with trying to please my parents and be good enough, then continually falling short. Why on EARTH did this douchebag make me do it again? I leveled all my hate at the young man in the center of the mountaintop and contemplated throwing him off the side instead.
The other girls were enthused and loudly counted down with the instructor. At the count of 5, rocks could be seen hurtling from the top of Mount Finch in every direction except one: mine.
My arms were exhausted and screamed to go strangle the instructor. When we counted to 5, I lightly chucked the red rock off the cliff without effort, not bothering to see where it landed. Several girls broke down in tears of relief as I stalked back to my pack and silently waited for everyone to be done with the emotion. I wanted to get off the damn mountain, get to camp and go to sleep. There was never enough sleep in this place.
After much longer than I’d have liked of the girls sharing their new insight, we finally began the hike down. Once we got down the path we came from, we would resume along the trail until we got to our site, and that was all I cared about. I fell into the middle of the line as we hiked along. Some of the girls danced as they hiked, enjoying the downward slope and their newfound sense of lightness. I was too angry to speak and snapped at the girls when they addressed me.
“Ok Skye, what the heck is your problem? You’ve been mean and grumpy since last night. You’re the funniest and happiest usually. I don’t like this side of you. Is the honeymoon phase of the program over?” The girl in front of me turned her head slightly to talk to me as we bumped along.
“She got her impact letter from her dad last night. She read it to some of us. He was a real prick and she burned the letter.” The girl behind me piped up, and I contemplated tripping her.
“Skye! You did NOT burn your letter, did you? You needed that to write a response! It couldn’t have been THAT bad.” The instructor in front had been listening and called out to me.
Before I could respond, the girl in front of me piped up again.
“No, it really was that bad. But she was laughing when she read it. It was so crazy we made jokes about it.”
The combination of my sorrow being aired around the group, the heat and fatigue, my resentment for the instructor and my overall anger finally burst out of me.
“At least the only thing I’ve ever done wrong to get here is run away to PROTECT myself! I’ve never done drugs, drank, slept around, nothing like all of you. This was the stupidest exercise I’ve ever done. How does throwing a stupid ro-“
My diatribe was cut short as my foot caught on something and I tipped forward, unable to put my hands out to stop my face from connecting with the ground. The weight of the pack crashed down atop me, then rolled off the side. The group stopped and watched as it rolled off the ledge we hiked along, taking me with it.
I rolled and tumbled down the mountainside for about twenty feet before managing to rip my shoulders from the pack that dragged me ever closer to a drop-off. Just short of the steep ledge, I broke loose and watched my pack fall forty feet, where it came to rest on the lower trail. Screams echoed down to me from the group, and I stumbled to my feet, waving to signal I was bleeding and bruised, but ok.
Though the girls and instructors had completely forgotten our conversation leading up to the moment I tripped and fell, I had not. My rage, actually, had swelled. Slowly, I climbed without my pack up to the group. We would eventually reach the point my pack had fallen to.
“Skye, what happened? You tripped? That was dangerous. You were so angry. What on earth did you trip on?”
As I finished climbing back onto the trail with the rest of my group, I glanced back over the trail to see what had caused me to stumble. As I did so, a sense of irony and exasperation settled over me when I saw what had caused my fall. Looking back at the instructors, I shrugged and got back in line.
As we resumed our march, I glanced back one last time at the object that had tripped me.
My rage rock glinted back.