Thursday, December 10, 2009

What I learned in the mountains of Utah...

The other night Joey and I were having a discussion over dinner. I really cannot remember how the conversation started, typical of me. My mind wanders easily. Joey's basic premise was that no matter how difficult, embarrassing or frustrating a situation, we can always find a reason why an experience was good for us. The old cliche is that with a positive attitude, you can find good in everything and everyone. I can honestly admit that I have been known to focus on the negative. There are just situations (albeit usually insignificant ones) where frustration takes over and I become angry... usually it has something to do with injustice--not necessarily injustice to me; I am an equal opportunity advocate for the injusticed (yeah, I don't think that is a word either?) Joey got me thinking. There have been difficult situations in my life. There have been lots and lots of frustrating situations. Again, in the spirit of not sweating the small stuff many of these have been insignificant. But some have had an impact on my life. With each experience, I have learned something about myself.

As Joey and I were discussing some of the ways we all get caught up in the negative and how easy it really is to turn it around and make it a positive, an experience of my childhood popped into my head. I do remember it as one of those really tough situations. Some of the details are so faint now, but the impact of that point in time is with me forever.

I was in middle school. My Father and Step Mother lived in Vancouver, WA. They had good friends who had a daughter my age. When I visited their house every other weekend, it was good to have a friend my own age. We had fun. One summer my Dad had this great idea that me and my friend should go on a hiking trip in Utah. It was sponsored by BYU and the Church and he really pushed for us to go on this trip... he pushed hard. My Mom REALLY did not want me to go. You see, I had never been hiking before. I had never been away from home before. It was a 10 day, 100 mile hiking trip in the mountains outside Provo, Utah. Per the description in the summer outdoor program guide, it didn't sound all that bad--moderate pace, moderate incline. I mean the backpack was going to be heavy, but it would get lighter as we went through the food... we didn't even need hiking boots (per the instructions), just a really good pair of gym shoes would do. We were on the young end of the accepted age group, but that wasn't necessarily bad. So we decided to go. We spent a great deal of time (and money I'm guessing), getting together the gear and food. I remember making our own trail mix, that was fun. I remember our packs weren't supposed to weigh more than 50 pounds. Mine weighed 54. We eventually got it down to 48.

At this point in time my Dad was a traveling salesman. He basically drove for a living and he drove us to Utah for our big backpacking adventure. We arrived in time for the orientation the night before the trip. I took one step into the room and knew we were in trouble. First, we were at least 5 years younger than everyone else. Second, even inside this room at the University, you could tell just by what they were wearing that most of these people were experienced hikers and climbers. They were wearing their boots inside! It was kind of a casual meet and greet situation and in the front of the room there was a projector showing slides of previous trips. My eyes must have grown to the size of saucers when I saw those pictures. There was ICE and SNOW. People were climbing ICY MOUNTAINS. I looked at my Dad and he immediately found the trip leader and started asking questions... would there be ice and snow? Were our tennis shoes good enough? Were there any other children our age? Dad was quickly reassured that they weren't expecting significant ice or snow... that our shoes should be just fine and that there were indeed a couple of other kids our age, they just hadn't showed yet. Dad still looked concerned. At this point I was more than a little scared, but I didn't want to abandon the trip. I didn't want to be a quitter.

The next morning we set out on a bus destined for the mountains (don't ask me which mountains, sheesh, it was 30 some odd years ago). This would be our first hiking day. We would hike 10 miles, set up camp, etc... and then repeat that for the next 9 days. I wasn't all that thrilled with the other people on the trip. The leader was a nice athletic man in his 40's. There were a few people in their 20's. Then there were a whole bunch of kids from about 17-19 years old. One of those kids was the leader's obnoxious, overly testoteronated (yeah, I know, probably not a real word) son... and when I say obnoxious, I am being nice. He used course language and insisted on hiking way ahead of the rest of the group most of the time. The first three days of the trip were fun and uneventful although we had quite a few blisters to show for it. Although me and my friend were usually toward the back of the group, we were able to keep up just fine and then about half way through the 3rd day two horrible things happened. First, my friend... well, I'm not sure how to put this delicately so I will use a silly euphemism, she got a surprise visit from "Aunt Flo". This was bad in all sorts of ways. She wasn't feeling well and she wasn't prepared. We did the best we could and of course we kept it a secret from everyone else. Then, just as we got this dealt with and caught back up with the group, we started heading into a whole new type of terrain. There was snow and there was ice. We spent about two hours that afternoon traversing an icy cliff. The trail was very narrow and there were very few dry patches. On this I definitely brought up the rear. I am terribly afraid of heights and my tennis shoes kept slipping. I was scared and I was angry. By the time we finally got to camp I was exhausted.

Although my friend was not feeling well, we got up the next morning determined to leave our frustrations behind us. We hiked for a couple hours on a relatively easy trail and then it happened. The straw that broke the camel's back. Another snowy/icy mountain. At this point I got the impression that the Leader's son had taken over navigating this trip and he was taking us on the most treacherous of courses. While everyone was preparing themselves for the climb, I marched up to the Leader and said I had had enough. I discreetly explained to him what was going on with my friend. I explained to him my deep fear of heights and his lack of being honest with my Father. That our tennis shoes were not, in fact, proper equipment for this hike and that I would go no farther. I feared that he would be angry. But he was not. If anything, he appeared to be... defeated? He sat down and said that now that we were on this course, there really was no other way around the mountain other than going back the way we came and that did not seem feasible for the whole group as most were excited to proceed. He understood if we could not make it further and he would have someone guide us back to the ranger station near where we had started on the first day and they would get us transportation back to Provo. I suggested he make this offer to anyone else feeling uncomfortable with the current state of the hike. He kind of shrugged and then he did make the announcement to the entire group. Much to his surprise, three other hikers jumped at the chance to abandon the trip. He was shocked, but I wasn't. Even though lots of people were having a grand time, the truth remained that some of us were definitely misinformed. His son scoffed at what he clearly thought were the "losers". He made rude comments and generally got a laugh at our expense. Now, here is where things went really really wrong.

The person chosen by the Leader to guide us back to the ranger station was... yep, you got it. His son! Man was he mad. There was a whole lot of yelling and cursing going on (maybe I forgot to mention earlier that although this trip was sponsored by BYU, it was not being run by an LDS group, nope, these were non-Mormons for sure). Finally, the son gave up and just started hiking back. We hurriedly grabbed our packs and followed, all five of us. Ironically the other three were all boys. We hiked for a couple hours then set up camp. The son proceeded to ignore me and my friend so we just pitched our tent and played cards. We could hear him making fun of us from the tent he shared with the other boys that were close to our age. At this point, we didn't care. The next morning we got up and hiked for about an hour. At that point he stopped and just stared at us. He then told us to hike about another mile in that direction and we would hit the highway, go south another quarter mile or so and we would reach the ranger station. At that point, he left us. None us of were older than 14... and he just left us there in the woods. Nice. So we did as we were told and we did pretty quickly and pretty easily find the highway. Which to all of our surprise was filled with trucks and cars and motorcycles and people. We were really confused. We made our way down to the ranger station and found out that a boy was lost on the mountain and what we were seeing was a huge search party that had been called in. Everyone within so many miles was there searching for the five year old boy that had wandered away from his family's campsite the night before. We were politely told by the ranger station staff that there would be no rides available off the mountain until the boy had been found. Understandably so.

It seemed at that point that we were in the way at the ranger station so we headed up the road to an area that looked to be the command center for the search party. Miraculously some time shortly after we left the ranger station, the boy was found and was now safe with his family. We kept heading up the road hoping that we could then easily find a ride back on our own as so many people were heading back into town and the ranger station seemed terribly understaffed under the circumstances. At that point two men approached a semi truck haphazardly parked along the highway. They looked at us and asked if we needed help finding our family. We briefly explained our situation and they kindly offered to drive us to BYU. At that point we were so exhausted we jumped at the chance to get back to civilization. It took a while to get off the mountain as there was a mass exodus of every type of vehicle imaginable, but other than that the drive back to Provo was uneventful. And so the story goes, we headed to the dorms. Our home away from home until my Dad could circle back and pick us up. There were no such things as cell phones so I'm sure the Mom's had a fun time getting a hold of my Dad, but we only had to stay by ourselves for about a day and a half and we had a blast on our own. We dropped my friend off the next day at a relative's house and then I got to spend the rest of the trip hanging out with my Dad while he made his sales calls. I loved that.

So, in the end, I learned that even as a 13 year old girl, I could stand up for myself. I learned that fear can drive you to make sensible decisions and that sometimes adults make mistakes. I have tried to pass on these lessons to my own kids, but frankly, some things we just have to learn on our own.

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