Some Life Lessons on a Mountain Trail
In a clearing beside an alpine lake tucked into the crests of the southern Sierra, a dozen angry teenagers sit in a circle, glowering under plastic ponchos dripping rainwater.
Lightning flares overhead and the damp air smells like body odor and bug repellent as Stephan and Jeanne Cajina, who are leading the teens on a punishing backpacking trek, vent their frustration over the youths’ increasingly combative attitudes.
“I feel this has turned into an us-versus-them kind of thing,” Jeanne says, “and that’s unacceptable.”
Chris Barona, a skinny 17-year-old wearing a Che Guevara-style military cap and aviator sunglasses so large they tilt on his nose, yells back at her: “It’s about you guys being on our asses, and us being pissed about it!”
Chris says he speaks on behalf of the youths -- nine young men and three young women -- from continuation high schools in the Pico-Union and Watts neighborhoods of Los Angeles. They had never been backpacking before, and now they are part of a program that introduces troubled city kids to the potentially therapeutic glories of nature.
But like the thunder and lightning overhead, ongoing tensions between the students and adults over control of the expedition threaten to erupt into a storm. The ill will has been building ever since the teens -- led by Chris -- formed what they called a “secret government” so they could share thoughts and concerns in private.
The program aims to foster leadership, but Chris and his followers are taking that lesson to extremes, challenging the adults with petty comments, surliness and, now, rebellion.
For the Cajinas, the mutiny couldn’t come at a worse time, two-thirds through a 10-day, 28-mile trek. With miles of trail still stretching ahead, injuries mounting among the youths and nasty weather looming, the Cajinas decide it’s time for a showdown.
So does Chris. “To hell with authority!” he shouts.
The adventure began on a summer morning at the Pasadena headquarters of Outward Bound Adventures, or OBA, a nonprofit organization that for 45 years has taken at-risk urban youths into the wilds.
The youths come from EcoAcademy High School and Youth Opportunities High School, charter campuses run by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.
They entered the schools as D and F students. The average age is 17. Two are African American, 10 Latino. At least six have abused drugs. A judge released one from house arrest so he could participate in the trek. Two carry scars from deliberately cutting themselves with knives and razors.
One, Jovan Lara, 17, has been beaten with a hammer and stabbed by gang members.
Jovan wants to become a nutrition counselor but has a recurring nightmare: “I keep thinking I’m going to be killed walking home with my high school diploma in 2007.”
He is not the only one who doesn’t expect to live much longer. Jonathan Gallardo -- 16 and fresh-faced -- has the menacing image of the Grim Reaper hulking over a tombstone tattooed on his back.
“I’m going to have my name tattooed on that tombstone when I turn 18,” he says with a proud smile.
Chris Barona’s father is serving time on a drug-dealing charge in a federal penitentiary. Less than a month ago, Chris helped carry the casket of a friend who was shot to death.
Chris and the others are greeted by trek leaders Jeanne, 31, an energetic science teacher at Los Angeles’ Lincoln High School, and her husband, Stephan, 34, a disciplined, process-oriented state water quality control engineer with a yen for backpacking. They will earn a small stipend for what is essentially volunteer work.
The students also meet counselors Andrew Newman and Emilio Casillas, both 22.
Within minutes, OBA leaders have these low achievers -- accustomed to ditching class and whiling away hours watching TV -- reading maps and folding tarps.
At noon, the students and adults pile into two vans and depart for Lone Pine, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, accompanied by a reporter and two photographers. As they head north, Denise Mejia, 17, grows apprehensive.
“I’m on this trip because one half of me wants to get away from L.A. and all its sirens and drug dealers and noise,” Denise says. “The other half doesn’t want to go at all. That half is scared to death.”
Denise’s father, a Salvadoran immigrant who works as a busboy in Dodger Stadium’s VIP lounges, agonized over whether to let her go. School officials insisted it would do her some good.
“But we all grew up in the city. We don’t know what to expect up there,” sighs Denise, whose fingers are stained bright pink from Hot Cheetos. “Man, I already miss my home.”
Emilio the counselor interrupts to dispense some well-meaning advice obscured in murky jargon.
“Have you ever heard of the power of predominant mental impression?” he asks. “That’s when you make a particular thought your reality. Instead of dwelling on your worst fears, dwell on the positive and make that your predominant mental impression. Get it?”
Denise gives him a quizzical look.
Emilio, a politically charged man who describes himself as a Chicano activist, is a rookie at OBA. He is stocky, with a shaved head and a bright new tattoo on his left calf: an ornate Aztec symbol of, as he put it, “the god of life swallowing the god of death -- the cycle of life.”
Emilio’s brother is serving 14 years in prison on a manslaughter charge, and his sister is living somewhere on the streets of Los Angeles. “One of my dreams,” he says, “is to run a nonprofit health services organization in my community.”
A few hours later, the vans stop in Mojave for lunch. Leslie Vega steps away from the group, lies down on the grass and sleeps.
Leslie, 16 and withdrawn, wears black gothic garb and a plastic white crucifix around her neck. Her arms are covered with the scars of self-inflicted cuts and burns. She has been a drug user and is two years behind in school.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be in my room,” Leslie says. “Just lying in bed, listening to Spanish-language rock on the radio, thinking about my family -- their problems and mine -- and staring into pitch blackness.”
When the group finally arrives at a trail head near Lone Pine, the students get their first glimpse of the intimidating wilderness that will soon be their home. “It looks like the forest where Snow White was born,” one mutters in awe.
They struggle into their backpacks and Jeanne leads them up the trail. “Forget about deodorant -- bugs stick to it and make things worse,” she joshes over her shoulder. “In a few days we’ll all be covered with a fine layer of funky grime, which is the part I love about these trips.”
The youths just groan.
Jeanne sets a brutal pace, at least for city kids lugging 50-pound packs. It takes 2 1/2 hours to travel three miles, and the youths lumber into base camp -- a few rustic buildings run by a private school -- sore, tired and hungry. At 10,360 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by meadows, pine forests and lofty crags.
But the youths are too bothered by altitude sickness -- dizziness, headaches and nausea -- to enjoy the scenery.
“I can’t believe I have nine more days of this,” Denise grumbles to Leslie. “I want to go home. I feel frustrated. When I feel frustrated, I get annoyed. In fact, I’m so annoyed right now that if I see a big old bear, I’ll tell him, ‘Fool! Get out of my face.’ ”
The students, some of whom hardly slept at all, emerge from their tent-cabins into temperatures a few degrees above freezing.
They have two days to acclimate to the altitude and learn backcountry skills: how to cook, filter stream water, treat blisters and -- in a session punctuated by uncomfortable titters -- relieve themselves in the woods without polluting nearby streams and lakes. Used toilet paper, they are sternly reminded, gets packed out.
Leslie has a particular concern: “I’m scared of heights.”
Emilio the counselor keeps up a rapid-fire stream of jokes and street slang -- “Stay on the trail, homey"-- but the words don’t seem to connect. The students quickly note that, despite a ban on foul language, Emilio spikes his commands with curse words: Help clean up over here, damn it ... Whose dishes are these? ... I told you to stop cussing, man ... Keep that up and watch what happens.
Soon the students go out of their way to avoid eye contact with him. When he barks commands, they pretend not to hear.
For Denise, base camp is a barely tolerable succession of day hikes, campfires and bad jokes about the outhouses. Yet she obsesses over her daily journal, filling its pages with poems, one of which she agrees to read aloud after dinner.
Some hikers have tears in their eyes when she expresses the awe she felt entering the mountains.
I don’t need no camera or videotape to remind me of the beauty of this place; those are things I could erase. But the wonderful things my eyes see right now, no one can take away.
Today the group will depart base camp, and the youths gather in a meadow to share a private prayer -- and to plot against Emilio.
“Let’s make his life miserable!” one says.
“Let’s get him fired,” says another.
“Just ignore him,” Chris advises. “That’s the plan.”
With Jeanne leading and Stephan at the rear, the group sets out into the vast John Muir Wilderness. Emilio hikes in the middle, still trying to dispense street wisdom.
Flailing at stinging insects, the sweaty youths move sluggishly with drooping heads. Chris decides to cheer everyone up with a booming rendition of the rhythm and blues classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Then, for the sheer wild hell of it, the youths form a conga line and rumba along the trail singing “La Bamba.”
The counselors beam over the youths’ giddy display of companionship and leadership, which is what this expedition is all about.
The group camps at Long Lake, a crystalline, icy blue bowl boiling with hungry golden trout. Captivated by granite walls covered with lichen, one youth says, “Que bonito. But why are the rocks yellow?”
“Because somebody tagged ‘em, man,” answers someone in the back.
The sun dips behind rocky chutes. The inky sky is shot with stars.
As the adults huddle to take stock of the day, Chris furtively prods the youths to gather 100 yards away on the lake’s sandy shore.
Then, as if leading castaways fighting for their lives on some TV show -- he will later admit he thought of “Survivor” -- Chris makes a decision:
“We’re forming a secret government. It’s for our own protection. It will have a chain of command. I’m its jefe de los jefes, chief of chiefs. Our first business is to discuss the problems of the day, and motivations for tomorrow.”
The teens pour out their gripes. German Laguna’s back hurts. Marvin Hernandez fights painful blisters. Leslie mostly listens as others vent. Chris says Emilio is a bully and gives him an offensive nickname. All agree to use it, behind Emilio’s back.
A distant voice grabs their attention. “Is everything OK over there?” Stephan wants to know.
The group plods up the peach-colored rocks of New Army Pass, the most difficult part of the trip, and most everyone is fighting altitude sickness.
One youth has lost all feeling in his right arm. Another has a swollen knee. Two hobble along with infected ingrown toenails.
Monica Powell stops about every 50 yards, out of breath and trembling.
Chris demands that Jeanne and Stephan slow down. “Monica really needs a rest!” he says.
Jeanne, trained in first aid, inspects Monica’s pupils, lips and face for signs of dehydration and shock. After the exhausted 17-year-old rests and sips some water, Jeanne says, “You’ll be all right, Monica,” and helps her up.
A few minutes later, Monica collapses again but recovers and struggles forward. “I can make it,” she insists, buoyed by shouts of encouragement from the others: Orale, Monica! Monica, get up! Drink lots of water!
Anxiety shifts to elation when Monica and the rest clamber over the pass’ 12,300-foot summit."If I can make it over this pass, homies,” Denise says, “I can do anything.”
Their immediate destination, Soldier Lake, lies a few miles ahead. Eduardo Salinas, 17, translates that distance into more familiar terms: “We’re at Vermont Avenue on our way to Pico Boulevard.”
At the lake, Stephan announces they will leave established trails and instead work their way through the wilderness. “You guys ready to leave civilization behind?” he asks.
Sure, they nod wearily. In fact, their nerves are unraveling. No surprise there. OBA leaders expect one or two untested city kids to throw down their packs and cuss out their leaders, or worse. Two years ago, a youth from one gang chased another gang member with a burning log.
Yet there is a nagging sense among the adults that the frustrations brewing on this trip run deeper than usual.
The youths continue to shun Emilio, but now they whisper cruel remarks loudly enough for him to hear. When he speaks, some deliberately turn away, or sass back, or laugh.
Then without warning, Leslie and Denise explode in anger at each other over a perceived slight, each letting loose a torrent of expletives.
Chris steps up to intervene. Emilio tells him to back off, but Chris stands his ground. “I’m just trying to take care of my crew!” he shouts.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” Emilio says. “This is your last warning.”
With some effort, peace is restored and the group hits the trail. On a steep slope, Leslie struggles to control her fear of heights but hangs tough, staring at the ground, placing one boot in front of the other.
At sundown, the youths mill about with gloomy expressions, all but ignoring Stephan’s commands to erect tents and break out the cooking utensils. Jeanne cheerily announces a “special event,” not aware the students had hoped to convene their secret government.
In a simple ceremony to celebrate climbing New Army Pass, Stephan hands out Snickers bars and Jeanne drapes chains with pewter medallions around each student’s neck. The engraved message: Create Peace.
“Congratulations,” she says to Monica with a warm hug, “for exceptional performance.”
Under knitted brows, one young man wonders aloud: “What does the word ‘exceptional’ mean?”
Emilio plays back in his mind the run-ins he’s had with Chris and his lieutenants.
No doubt about it, Emilio figures, the formation of the secret government -- a first on an OBA outing -- is allowing resentments and misunderstandings to ferment. It also has turned Chris into something of a despot.
But Emilio also resolves to be more patient, to be a better role model. “If you don’t learn something about yourself in the wilderness,” he likes to say, “something is very wrong.”
That afternoon, the students hold another meeting about Emilio.
“If he doesn’t respect us, we don’t have to respect him,” a pacing Chris says angrily. “Simple as that.”
Another teen blasts the leaders for “ear hustling on our private space,” meaning the adults have been trying to eavesdrop.
“Let’s revolt!” Marvin yells.
“Fool!” Denise says. “We’d lose out here. We’d get lost.”
The meeting concludes with a malicious rallying cry against Emilio: “One. Two. Three. Screw Big Dog!”
Stormy weather and another injury: German sprains his ankle crossing a muddy meadow. While bandaging his foot, Jeanne overhears Chris: “Look, Emilio’s coming. We should all turn around.”
Fed up, Stephan and Jeanne order everyone to gather in a circle. “I and the staff have some concerns about communication and something that feels like disrespect,” Jeanne says. “Specifically, things being said about Emilio.”
Stephan adds: “Some of you have said that talking to Emilio is like talking to the enemy. What’s up with that?”
“So what?” Chris says. “We’re strong and getting stronger.”
The youths begin to air grievances that to an outsider might seem minor, even silly. But in this little community, cut off from civilization, emotions are running high.
“I don’t appreciate that tone of voice you’re using,” Emilio tells Chris.
“And we don’t like the tone you use with us!” Chris shouts back. Light rain is falling and worse weather builds overhead as Chris declares, “To hell with authority!”
Shaking her head, Jeanne wonders aloud, “How did we get to this point?
“I don’t need to communicate with you all,” Chris continues, trying to end the meeting on his terms, hurling profanities in all directions.
For a moment, it seems anything could happen. Will someone throw a punch? Will Stephan and Jeanne order everyone to pack up and prepare to head home? No one seems to know what to do.
Leslie suddenly startles everyone by breaking rank -- and her usual silence.
Looking straight at Chris, she says the adult leaders are good people who have earned her trust. “It all comes down to this,” she adds. “We are one group, and we have to make it work.”
As if on cue, the threatening weather gives way to fluffy clouds and warm sun. Apologies and pledges to work together quickly follow.
But not from Chris. He stomps away to immerse himself in a tattered paperback copy of “Frankenstein.”
These trips are designed to foster personal growth, and that night, as the students once more huddle in the dark, Chris shares a hard lesson in leadership.
“Homies, I screwed up and I apologize,” he says. “I thought everyone was thinking like me. Apparently not.”
Nodding toward the trail that will take them home, he adds, “I’m not giving up on you, or this trip. We don’t need any more drama. We’ve got to make it out of here unidos, together.”
Later that night, Chris goes up to Emilio -- man to man -- and apologizes.
The teens trudge six tortuous miles to Chicken Spring Lake, and Stephan predicts they will be awed by its beauty. They arrive with flushed faces and wobbly legs, not the least impressed by the stark mountains rising above the lake’s gleaming surface.
“Seen one alpine lake, seen them all,” someone grumbles.
The group’s last night together in the mountains is celebrated around a roaring fire back near Lone Pine, where vans will meet them the next day to take them back to their troubled lives in L.A.
In the months to come, OBA staff will try to track the students, monitoring their progress and inviting them on more treks. If experience is a guide, it will take many such trips to transform these youths into responsible students and friends of nature. Some will certainly get in trouble, with the law or at school.
Tonight Jeanne presides over another ceremony, handing out small awards to each youth. Denise is the best talker. Javon the most cooperative. Monica the most outstanding camper. Emilio and Chris, along with everyone else, watch in respectful silence.
One person, Jeanne says, stands out.
“The award for most improved and best attitude goes to Leslie,” she says. “I saw so much change in you, and so much strength, and so much intelligence, and such leadership, and such grace and sensitivity, and I thank you for making my 10-day adventure that much more meaningful.”
Leslie -- the girl who cut and burned herself in order to feel something in her life -- hangs on every word, trying not to cry. Her award: a tiny flashlight.
“I’ve never been the kind who gets recognized,” she says. “And I’ve never heard things like that from anyone.
“I’ll never forget the people who tried so hard to make me happy. And when I’m back in my room at home, I won’t be staring at pitch blackness any more, because I’ll have beautiful places to remember and put a smile on my face.”
Later, Leslie once more sits off by herself, clutching a glistening chip of quartz. It’s a keepsake she picked up on the trail many miles ago.