Dawn came too early for Chris. He rolled over in the tent and struggled to pull the sleeping bag over his eyes, hoping to delay the inevitable for a few more minutes. Morning meant everyone would be up, alert, and wanting to do something when all Chris wanted to do was go home.
It could be worse. At least it hadn’t started raining yet and Chris would be able to get up without getting soaked in the opening of the tent. In any case, he hoped he’d get out of the tent dry. It never failed, even dry mornings started off damp with the mixture of dew and condensation on the door of the tent. A wet start led to a cold morning and a frustrating day all around. It wasn’t anything Chris looked forward to.
“Time go get up,” came a commanding voice as Chris’s tent began to shake. A drop of condensation fell off the ceiling and hit Chris on the exposed portion of the top of his head.
“Seriously, Chris, are you awake?”
“Go away,” he grumbled.
“Breakfast in 15 minutes.” The man outside moved on to the next tent and began waking up the other youth. For a moment, Chris actually considered getting out of bed. He slapped the tiny voice quiet, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
Breakfast was cold cereal.
Or, it had been cold cereal if Chris had gotten out of his tent when he was asked. Instead, he got the last quarter of a raisin bagel, half a cup of orange juice, and 10 leftover Rice Krispies that were sitting on the counter. After the initial wakeup call, no one had bothered to check on Chris and he’d slept right through breakfast, morning flag, and most of clean up.
This made the morning an even better start for Chris.
To top it off, one of his boots had fallen outside the tent’s rainfly during the night. The cool morning dew had completely soaked the lining, and now his feet were cold.
So hungry, cold, and frustrated with a perceived lack of sleep, Chris wandered over to the group meeting and plopped down on a log.
“Today we’re going on a 2 mile hike. Just a short trip down the beach and out to the end of the cape. Even though it’s a short walk, make sure you have your 10 Essentials.”
Chris didn’t even want to join the Boy Scouts. But his dad demanded it. He’d much rather stay at home and play video games with his friends, but apparently that wasn’t a manly pursuit. It made him “soft” according to his dad, so instead of spending the weekend slaughtering trolls and casting spells, he was stuck in the woods at the beach with the Scouts. And now, he’d apparently spend most of the day hiking. Two miles was a long way to walk, and Chris was not looking forward to the hike.
Every time they tried to do something “outdoorsy” he’d end up tired, hurt, or just pain upset with the whole situation. He still couldn’t light a fire without lighter fluid and a Zippo. He had no idea where to find water if it didn’t come out of a drinking fountain or garden hose. The only thing he knew how to cook was grilled cheese – butter the bread, sandwich a slice of Velveeta, and throw it on the griddle until inky-black – but was still expected to pitch in and prepare meals.
Apparently today he’d also need to use a map and compass on the hike to satisfy some kind of rank advancement requirement. All he knew was that N on the compass was supposed to point the same direction as N on the map. Other than that, he had no idea what this “orienteering” thing was all about. It didn’t sound that hard when he read the description in the book, but when someone tried to “teach” it to the group it suddenly became a complicated operation conducted entirely in a foreign language.
Just another of the many things that, in Chris’ mind, made the Boy Scouts live up to its acronym: BS.
After the Scoutmaster finished explaining the hike and everyone’s responsibilities for the day – while he was learning orienteering, several people were supposed to identify native plants – everyone broke up to grab their supplies. Chris pulled out his daypack and started loading it with a few supplies. A bottle of water, his compass, a knife his mom had bought him when he joined Boy Scouts, a handful of granola bars, and his contraband iPod. His stomach growled, so he opened a granola bar and started eating it immediately.
No, he didn’t have all the 10 Essentials … but he did have a cell phone and figured, if it came down to it, he could just call his parents and ask to go home. He could invent some story or another and let his dad try to play the hero. They could always fight over how “a real man never calls quits” later.
Some of the other new Scouts had even larger bags. They took the whole camping thing way too seriously. One or two actually had everything on the list of 10 Essentials – extra clothing and all! The older Scouts seemed to take a different approach. It looked like they weren’t carrying anything extra at all, just a Camelbak for water and a compass hung around their neck. Chris was actually worried about how arrogant they were being in the face of a long trek. After all, he’d never hiked 2 miles before and wasn’t sure everyone would make it the whole way. He wasn’t taking the whole camping thing very seriously, but they were the experts – why weren’t they more prepared for the hike?
Chris shrugged, ignoring the massive discrepancy between the youngsters and the senior Scouts, and shouldered his daypack. If anything, he was acting more like an older scout with less gear and should, really, get more respect from his peers as a result. On the other hand, he just didn’t care enough about the program or the hike to prepare any further. Laziness was his forte.
Mr. Freeman, the Scoutmaster, was standing over near the campfire ring with his own backpack. He didn’t actually need that much gear for such a short hike – 2 hours would have them back in camp in under an hour, even with the new Scouts tagging along. But he wanted to have enough equipment for everyone should anything go wrong. He had some snack food for the Scouts who’d forgotten their own. A few bottles of water should anyone get dehydrated. A first aid kit. Multiple copies of the camp’s map, a few spare compasses, and a local flora guidebook for plant identification.
He looked with envy at the older Scouts with little to no gear packed up. He’d joined the Scouts to help lead boys and teach them to be men. If he could, he’d go out on a strenuous 20-mile hike with the older Scouts, but the program required him to provide activities for the youngsters, too, so he planned the shorter hikes to appeal to them as well. Car camping and hour-long day hikes followed by burnt grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch was not what he had in mind when he signed up.
Rock climbing, whitewater rafting, spelunking. That was what he wanted to be doing. Not babysitting a bunch of pre-teens who’d never spent the night away from home. Still, the program wouldn’t let him focus only on the older Scouts, so he’d have to work with what he was given. Start with an easy 2-mile hike. Then take them out for a 5-miler. Then a 10-miler. By the time they were 13 or 14, he’d finally have a group of people he could take out to do the more adventurous outdoors activities.
At least he got to be outside once a month. It beat wasting the days away in the office staring at a tiny electronic screen. Out here, he had no digital ties to others and could spend the day doing things that mattered. Digging ditches, building structures, clearing trails. He could get his hands dirty and be appreciated for knowing odd things like how to build a fire without matches, how to seat a 4×4 without a concrete base, and how to properly dig an outhouse. The kinds of things he felt every outdoorsman should know, but that no one ever actually knew.
Leading Scouts was supposed to help him find a group of kindred spirits. Unfortunately, the other adult leaders would only sit around and talk – whine – about their jobs while they forced the Scouts to do the real work. The younger Scouts were too green to appreciate the skills they were learning and the atmosphere they were in. The older Scouts were too lazy to actually put the skills to use and spent more time finding ways out of work than finding ways to actually improve their work.
It left a narrow gap of youth that he could connect with – those that were old enough to grasp more complicated skills and ideas but young enough to not be jaded with the program or seduced by the allure of shiny cars, flashy electronics, and high school football. He could work with those Scouts for a short time before he lost them to the more “exciting” realms of popular teenage society. Every now and then he could get one to stick around for a bit longer, camping throughout high school and even volunteering for a year or two after graduation. Usually, though, the Scouts’ activity would wane as they worked their way to a diploma before they faded away entirely after half-heartedly earning their Eagle badges.
Freeman’s luck was in the periodic ups and downs of membership in the Scouts. There were distinct generational groups in the Scouts. One group would join en masse, then there’d be a slow couple of years – maybe one or two new Scouts. Then another group would join followed by another lapse. It lead to age-based cliques in the group. Bad for the Scouts as a whole (age-based groups tend to be somewhat exclusive and destructive to overall organizational harmony), but good for Freeman. The faster he got the younger group trained and active, the longer he’d have to really camp with the Scouts before another young group joined and destroyed the adventure program.
So today was a short hike. He’d push them despite the short distance and try to weed out the weaker amongst the group. He’d never admit that he was driving Scouts from the program, but the sooner he could get rid of the lazier Scouts, the better. Particularly the new kid, Chris. Chris had joined by himself, not as a part of a group like the others. He didn’t seem to fit in with the other kids, and he cared even less about the program than most new Scouts did.
The advantage of short hikes on the coast was that it would be impossible to really lose a Scout. So Freeman set up the laziest or most annoying kids with orienteering tasks. Then he’d have them sit down at an intersection to orient their maps while he’d promise to meet them at the trailhead. Nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t know what they were doing and would get lost. An extra hour running around confused in the woods would keep them from wanting to go camping again – still, Freeman would be safe in the subsequent how-did-you-lose-my-son meeting because of the near-city locale, the omnipresence of maps, and the multitude of senior Scouts available with real orienteering experience.
In the end, he could blame nearly everything on either the older Scouts’ apathy towards the youngsters or the new kids’ inability to follow directions, pay attention, or ask for help when needed. He’d chalk it up publically as a failed learning opportunity and shift responsibility to parents who’d failed to adequately prepare their kids for a weekend in the outdoors. It was a sinister plan, but Freeman had proven its effectiveness over the past 6 years, and it would work to cull out Chris and others like him quickly.
“Hurry up guys, we leave in 5 minutes,” he shouted with a smile. Yes, this would be fun.
In all actuality, it was a beautiful day for a hike of any length. The sun was out. The early morning clouds had burnt off quickly once the sun came out, leaving but a few wispy remnants in the sky to add contrast to the gorgeous blue canvas stretched out above. It was warm enough outside to walk without a jacket, and the tall trees blocked out just enough sun that you could stroll aimlessly through the woods without worrying about sunblock or a hat.
The Scouts set off through the camp, leaving just a handful of leaders behind to tend the smoldering fire and keep the birds and rodents out of the coolers. Everyone else was a mishmash of backpacks, waist packs, cargo pants, and messenger bags. Every one of the Scouts had some kind of equipment in their hands, bags, or pockets. From the outside looking in, it was a ragtag group of wanderers.
Some had fancy, expensive hiking boots. Others were wearing running shoes. One Scout was wearing the kind of plastic sandal you buy at K-mart and claim is a legitimate shoe. Had it not been for the uniforms, no one would have guessed this was a Boy Scout group run by a wannabe adventurer. It looked more like a group of rejects from an after school detention program.
Still, most of the Scouts enjoyed the hikes. It got them outside. They could geek out identifying rare plants, finding mushrooms, picking berries, and hunting for squirrels and other wildlife. The kinds of things the Discovery Channel talked about, they could actually do during a weekend trip with the Scouts. A quick hike was just the price they had to pay to get away from the flood of media information and electronic noise that permeated their daily lives at home.
From the radio on the nightstand to the morning news to the iPod during his walk to school to the computer lessons in class to the evening XBox sessions and Facebook chats, Chris had some kind of technology in every aspect of his daily life. It was ridiculous, really. He was literally plugged in from the time he got up to the time he feel asleep while reading the new Kindle he got last Christmas.
Well, at least the bathroom was still unplugged. Just a magazine sitting on an end table to accompany the longer stays in that room. Naturally, though, it was also the place in his world where he spent the least amount of time possible.
Chris went through so much of his life completely connected to the world online and his friends around him, that he didn’t even realize what he was missing. He’d miss a friend struggling with a bag because he was too involved in a week-old podcast on his iPod. He’d skip out on playing basketball with his brother so they could watch multimillionaires play on TV instead. The only person who encouraged him to disconnect and experience real life was his father.
But angrily unplugging the TV and ordering him outside was not a particularly effective encouragement method.
Chris was lagging towards the back of the group today. He didn’t know the first thing about orienteering, and was hoping to mooch of someone else’s expertise before he was tested by Mr. Freeman. Watch someone else orient the map and set the compass, then just repeat back whatever it was they had said. He’d aped out Scouting requirements in the past, this one shouldn’t be any harder the last two or three.
He quietly pulled an earbud out of his pocket and turned on his hidden iPod. There wasn’t anything else going on, and he had a few new songs to listen to. Besides, the rest of the group was stretched out far enough ahead and engrossed in their own conversations. Chris didn’t really fit in to any of the other groups he was with, and their discussions about camping, hiking, cooking, and other things he failed to care about were even less interesting than the plants on the side of the trail.
A plant’s just a plant. Chris didn’t care if it had three leaves or four. If it had a flower or a berry. A plant was just green stuff on the side of the trail and naming the plant was just another requirement he knew he’d fail if and when he was put to the test.
They hiked for about 10 minutes before the Scouts came to the first junction in the trail. Mr. Freeman divided everyone into two groups – the first group was supposed to go left, the second group right. It would split everyone into smaller groups and force those who didn’t know their orienteering skills to either shore up their weaknesses quickly or depend on the more experienced hikers in the group.
Chris worked his way into the group on the right – the group with more older scouts and the group that Mr. Freeman was leading. It would be easier to parrot back what the experienced Scouts said than it would be to try to fix any missteps of the other inexperienced Scouts. Knowing that Mr. Freeman was nearby would also guarantee that Chris got the requirement checked off today and wouldn’t have to repeat the requirement later. He’d had to do that once before. He’d gotten up early (actually, he just couldn’t sleep) and made breakfast for his patrol. Fried sausage and eggs. Everyone had loved the meal and he was sure he’d get his cooking requirement checked off. But when Mr. Freeman came by, he claimed, “if I didn’t see it, you didn’t do it. Try again at lunch.”
Chris tried to quit after that, but his dad refused. So he shut down and refused to take the initiative on anything else. It was actually the first time he’d actually wanted to do something in the Scouting program, and Mr. Freeman had thrown it back in his face. He hated that man.
A few minutes later, the group stopped for a quick water break. They weren’t at a junction in the trail, but Mr. Freeman asked a Scout to orient his map anyway to locate where they were on the trail. Chris rolled his eyes at the thought. He could still hear the ocean, and he knew they weren’t that far from the main road. In fact, they’d only been hiking for 15 minutes or so, if you shouted, the adults back at camp might even hear you.
Chris quickly put his iPod away so that Mr. Freeman wouldn’t see and confiscate the banned device. Then he inched up behind the Scout who was narrating how he’d oriented the map and fixed their position. Maybe they were farther down the trail than he’d though … the experienced scout – one of the oldest in the troop – claimed they were on a section of trail incredibly far away from the camp. But they were still on the trail, and from the looks of things, it was a loop. Eventually they’d meet up with and pass the group who’d gone left at the last junction. No, they couldn’t get lost.
Chris pulled a bottle of water from his bag and took a long drink. The cool water felt good, but reminded him of a frustrating fact: he had to go to the bathroom. They were in the woods, and if he were with his dad he’d be able to just relieve himself on the side of the trail. Last time he’d tried that, though, Mr. Freeman had assigned him to kitchen duty as punishment. He said something about respecting a trail used by others, but Chris didn’t really care. All he’d learned was that you had to ask permission first, then walk far enough off the trail so that no one could ever step in it by mistake.
“Mr. Freeman? I need to pee.”
Mr. Freeman rolled his eyes, “OK, Chris, you know the drill. Off the trail, make sure we can’t see you.”
Chris tossed the bottle back in his pack and took a bee-line out into the woods. He walked about 20 feet and stopped behind a tree. Just as he began to unzip his fly, he heard one of the younger Scouts complain that he was too close.
“Chris,” Mr. Freeman began, “you know better. Keep going until we can’t see you.”
Chris groaned. Now he really had to go. He jogged out from behind the tree and started down a shallow slope. Once he was far enough over the slight hill as to be invisible to the other Scouts, he stopped and took care of business.
Once he was finished, Chris turned back towards the trail and was surprised by a patch of wild strawberries. He might not care much about the other plants in the woods, but he loved strawberries. He picked one and tossed it immediately in his mouth. It was delicious! Somehow, the tiny wild berry still had all the flavor of the larger ones at the supermarket. It was ultra-concentrated and tasted better than anything you could buy in the store.
Chris immediately started scouring the berry patch for others, finding one or two, then spying another patch farther down the hill. The other Scouts could take as long of a break as they wanted, he’d found wild-growing candy and wasn’t about to give it up.
Having wasted enough time with his “find us on the trail” exercise, Mr. Freeman picked up his pack. It was time to keep going. He told the older Scout in the group that they were behind schedule and it was time to start moving.
The older Scout immediately took charge, wanting to impress his Scoutmaster. He packed up the map and ordered the rest of the Scouts to get ready to hike.
“But what about Chris?”
“He’s got his 10 Essentials, right?”
“Well, yeah … but … “
“But nothing. He’s got a map. He’s got a compass. He’s got to use them eventually. Besides, this forest it too small to get lost in, he’ll catch up once he’s done. How long does it take to pee anyway.”
Freeman smiled. Chris was just far enough over the hill that he might have trouble finding his way back to the trail. A few minutes of panic and he’d be more than ready to quit. The last holdout of the disinterested youngsters – once Chris quit, Freeman could start building his dream cohort and really camping.
The Scouts got their gear together and started down the trail. The turned a corner and started their descent into a steep gully leading back to the other trail and eventually the beach. Chris might be able to catch up before they hit a junction, but chances were good he’d wander around lost for a time before trying to track his way back to camp. The ridicule from losing himself on a side trip to the bathroom would be unbearable and he’d be begging to go home before dinner. It was perfect.
Chris found 6 more berries before he realized he was lost. He’d gone far enough down the hill that he couldn’t remember where he’d started. He looked back at the berry patches he’d been following and couldn’t remember which direction the first had been in. He was turned around, in a strange forest, and had no one nearby to tell him which way to go.
He shouted, “Marco!” Hopefully someone would respond with the expected “Polo” and give him a direction. In the distance, a bird chirped.
Chris ran up the slope, hoping that “up” here would lead him somewhere near were he had started “down.” He got to a flat spot and looked around. He couldn’t see the trail. He couldn’t see any of the Scouts. He couldn’t even see where he’d used the bathroom.
“Guys! Where’d you go?” He screamed feebly. The only retort was a gentle breeze.
Chris ripped open his pack and pulled out his map and compass. The other Scout had aligned the N on the map with the N on the compass. Check. Then he’d estimated how far they’d gone on the trail based on their speed and drew a point on the map. Check. Maybe there really was something to this orienteering thing.
Wait. Something was wrong. Chris knew they were near the ocean, even though he couldn’t hear the waves anymore as he was too deep in the woods. But there was no ocean on his map. He looked at the text over the center of the forest area and recognized them with dread.
This wasn’t a map for the coast range. It was a map for the wilderness area he’d hiked with his dad earlier that summer.
Chris was lost.
He slumped back against a tree and stared up at the branches overhead. What now?