When Cascade School called me before 7:00 a.m., I knew something was wrong. The counselor’s sympathetic but controlled voice began, “Your son ran away this morning. We’ll do everything we can to pick him up, but if he doesn’t want to stay here, we can’t keep him.”
My son had been away at school for ten weeks. He’d lived with me, lived with his father, he’d been seeing a psychiatrist for two years, but nothing seemed to get him on track. The psychiatrist talked about limits and responsibilities while my son talked about the Lakers.
My son had begun life fitfully and had always been a demanding child. Small and handsome, by the time he was five he was charming and mean. He made his older brother cry with taunts and his fun was turning the family upside down. The divorce, when he was eleven, was all my son needed to fail completely. He gave up schoolwork, reading, art, and drama. Only sports remained as a place to feel successful.
At fifteen, I feared his life in Los Angeles was growing dangerous, and that he was five minutes from bad trouble. I knew he’d experimented with marijuana and he was barely passing in school. Later, I found out how much more trouble he had actually been in. We chose Cascade because it provided a therapeutic curriculum as well as an academic one. The staff not only prepared their 100 boys and girls for college, it gave them a chance to live. Almost all middle class, many had already been arrested, had drug problems, and had abortions. For most of them, Cascade, near Lassen National Park, was the last stop before a lock-up school. Codes of dress and conduct were enforced all the time, some books and most rock music were unacceptable, and contact with the students’ old lives was carefully monitored. Parents came up to visit every two months for a day or two, and the first home visit occurred after a year away. The program lasted two years.
My son didn’t think he needed Cascade, but after an unauthorized party at my house in which things were broken and stolen, he admitted he had a problem. His father and I took him up in July. We wouldn’t see him again until Labor Day. I told myself he was in the right place and that I didn’t know what else to do. But missing him and feeling I’d failed at my job made the separation a searing pain. I’d see a boy whiz by on a skateboard and I’d burst into tears. If someone asked about him, I often couldn’t talk about what had happened.
Three times a week the students at Cascade, in their “peer groups,” met and talked about new and old problems. My son was good at advice but short on honesty. Most troubling was his cruelty to teachers and students. He didn’t struggle with homesickness, his letters were full of “I love you,” but the school was describing his progress. “He seems to be all right,” his counselor would say, but I could hear something was unclear, missing from the picture.
A few hours after the early morning call from the school, my son called. “I’d rather kill myself than go back,” he said. His voice was excited, tense. “It’s horrible, Mom, so fake. The kids are really bad and they’re dumb. I’ve learned my lesson. I have to really work hard and try. Please let me come home.” He was calling from the Redding bus station, fifty miles from school.
I pleaded with him to go back and told him he was making a mistake. He kept arguing. Then I got tough and told him I didn’t deal with terrorists. He’d scared me, his father, and the school. I didn’t want to hear from him until he was back at school. He hung up and I sobbed.
I called the school and told them where he was. They called him and asked him if wanted to be picked up. By now it was dark and strange; people were beginning to wander into the depot. He told the school to go to hell. He had a friend wiring him money and he was going back to Los Angeles. I felt I was in a state of siege, worrying about him, but at the same time wanting to kill him.
“He needs humbling and he needs reverence,” Michael, my son’s counselor, tells me after he had talked to him. “He cherishes nothing, least of all his relationship with others. He betrays trust with his dishonesty. A wilderness experience would do him a world of good.” He describes a six-week program called Pathfinders.
The first week consists of lentils, rice, and water. As the child meets the external–and internal–expectations of the exercise, he or she earns better food. By the sixth week, they are eating luxuriously, relatively speaking, with beef jerky, a candy bar, granola, fresh fruit and vegetables. There are no sleeping bags, only three blankets, and one of them must be made into a capote, or jacket. No hairbrush, toilet paper, toothpaste, or a change of clothes. They must first carry their things around their necks until they earn a pack.
As he speaks, I want to know less and less. But again, what choice is there? If my son comes home, he will have accomplished his greatest manipulation, a triumph he can’t afford. I don’t want to let him loose on the streets, either. And yet, this sounded brutal, almost cruel. Would he forgive me for sending him? Is this rough love or is it a punishment which will harden and embitter him?
Mike Parr, Pathfinder’s leader, calls and explains how he’ll meet my son at the Redding airport. My son will have no idea, of course, that Parr is picking him up. He’ll go there thinking one of his parents will send him a plane ticket home. “I don’t like lying to your son, but I don’t want him taking off and hitchhiking on the Interstate,” he says. Parr sounds like the Marlboro man with a keen intelligence and sensitivity. How much would it cost? $12,000 plus his plane fare to my son. With doubt, hope, and desperation, his father and I agree.
After a few days, Mike calls to say when they arrived in Hell’s Canyon, Oregon, my son looked down into the canyon and said, “Boy, did I make a mistake!” But he was a good outdoorsmen and adjusting well.
Seven days later, I get another early morning call. I hear Mike’s deep voice, this time tense and without humor. “Your son has run away. We were moving the group down to Texas and he woke up at five and took off. I think he’s around here and we’re looking. We think he’ll call his father, because he’s the weak link. He believes his father will listen to him and take him home.” He’d been gone for two hours already. This time I am afraid for his life. When he’d left Cascade, he was with another boy. This time he’s alone and close to the Interstate.
As Mike observed after meeting my son, he isn’t a runaway–he’s a “runaround.” He calls his father around twelve, scared to death, but tells him Pathfinders is worse than death and he won’t go back to school. His father tells me he will pick him up and take him back to Cascade, but they tell him they will not take him back until he completes the course.
Once again Mike surprises my son and picks him up where he is waiting for his father. Parr depends upon the unexpected in dealing with these kids. It keeps him in command and it lessens their anxiety if they don’t know when or where things will happen. Soon they learn, “Don’t ask, don’t expect.”
Mike arranges for my son’s father to meet him in Barstow, California, the next day, where he, with Mike’s coaching tells my son to stick with it. My son gives up trying to negotiate and manipulate.
The group (three boys, two girls, and two counselors) moves to Big Bend National Park in West Texas near the Mexican border, where it is warmer than Oregon. Each week Mike calls and says things like, “Your son is doing fine, but he’s a little old man, he worries about everything.” “He’s a manipulator.” “He’s not talking.” They aren’t reaching my son, and although I’m disappointed, I’m not surprised. I crave good news but I never expect it, and I dread what decisions we might have after Big Bend. Parr says they keep a child out there longer if they need to, but it seems no lifetime will be long enough to change my son. With nature’s un-negotiable quality, Mike is able to strengthen my son on the outside, but my son’s heart remains hard and elusive.
Mike calls one day and says, “We separated your son from the group for a while. We said, ‘You don’t want to be honest and make it safe for people to be around you. Go sleep over there.’ It’s only about twenty feet away but two nights is the longest any kid can take it. And for the two days no one talked to him, either. After the second day we asked if he was ready to come back and was he ever!” I had to laugh. My son had always played hardball but he’d met his match–Mother Nature and Papa Parr.
Mike goes on, “Richard (my son’s counselor) kept pushing your son to talk and he got more and more angry. He finally had a great outburst, hitting trees, very physical. And he started talking about his father.” Then Mike describes my son’s home life. His mother was emotionally unavailable. He wasn’t close to his brother. Then his father, who could be close, would come home and have a couple of scotches. He’d want nothing to do with his son, who would be obnoxious, and his father would hurt him–twist his arm, push him down, rarely a direct slap.
“Is this true?” Mike asks. “Did his father hit home?” I confirm his picture. “Your son is a macho wimp, he’s a very masculine kid who’s had his maleness taken from him. He’s afraid, can’t find the part of him which will make him feel strong.” Mike pauses. “It’s the mother who gives her son his manhood. We’d like you to come down here for a few days, see what your son has accomplished and make your relationship better. Then you can take him back to Cascade.”
I do not want to do this trip. Physical hardship doesn’t bother me much, but my son bothers me plenty. He’s always been verbally abusive to me, then he tries to repair me. I don’t want this encounter, it feels like punishment for not giving my son what he needed earlier. I tell Mike how I feel and he assures me they expect the experience to be good for the both for us. I don’t believe him but I make my plane reservations to El Paso.
On Monday morning, I leave El Paso and drive for five hours through the desert on empty highways before I meet the Pathfinder landcruiser. I leave my rented car, money and credit cards by a trailer near nothing in the world–this is Pathfinders’ world headquarters, and ride in the landcruiser with Julie, a young woman accustomed to taking care of herself. I felt helpless and scared as I look around this vast, desolate land and see no escape. As we bump along the thirty mile dirt road into the park where we are to meet my son, Julie say, “You and your son will be camping away from the group. To give you time together. I’ll come in Wednesday morning and check on you.” Mike has told me to tell my son how manly, how mature he’s become. Talk of nothing else. Not me, not his father. Two days of “You’re doing great, son?”
“Wait, there’s a misunderstanding,” I say, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Mike assured me there would be a counselor nearby.” “You sound apprehensive. I don’t think you want to do this,” Julie says, like my fourth grade teacher telling me she didn’t think I wanted to try hard to be good. I feel reproached and pissed. After two weeks of trying to hold together about this adventure, I lose it.
“Apprehensive!” I shriek. “My kid has used me as a punching bag, you’re dumping me in the wilderness and keeping everything that makes me powerful and free. I’d be psychotic if I felt otherwise!” I fold my arms across my chest, feeling momentarily masterful in my words. Julie nods calmly and I hate her.
After an hour of driving, we begin to slow down, and I notice it’s growing cool and the sun is low. We stop and I see two figures, one tall and the other smaller, walking towards us, but I cannot see their faces. I jump out of the car and between daylight and dark, I find my son.
He walks over to me slowly, as though tired, wearing a large hooded wool coat. This is his handmade capote, one of the symbols of his journey. We hug and I feel his thinness, his hardness. This is a new body. Then I hear the voice, deeper, lower, sweeter. “It’s been so hard, Mom.” His eyes are full. “But it’s the best present you and Dad could have given me.” His eyes, deep blue and always stunning, now arrest me. Mike says he looks for “the sparkle” to know if a child is ready to graduate. I see it. It replaces wariness, cunning, and the flash of cruelty. I say to Julie, “See you Wednesday.”
We walk to our base camp 100 yards away. Julie and Dave, my son’s counselor, stay there a while, and I wonder how I’ll feel when they leave. My son carries my bag, full of meager comforts–changes of underwear, another pair of jeans, sweats for sleeping, soap, toilet paper. When I saw only cactus as we drove, I asked Julie, “What replaces toilet paper out here?” “Stones,” she replied.
My son is solicitous of my age, my back, and says, “It’s a good thing you didn’t have to carry a pack. It weighs about 35-40 pounds.” My son is maybe 5′ 2″.
He begins to unpack the food they’ve given us. His hands are rough, brown, twice the size of mine. “Look at all these raisins! Sausage! I’m beginning to really like Julie. Reese’s Pieces! No, I love Julie. I think I’ll marry her.” While he exults I shiver, get into my sweats and try to make a bed out of a tarp and three blankets.
It’s dark already and he’s glad they’ve given me a flashlight because he will have to make dinner in the dark. I don’t know what we’ll eat but I’m not worried about it. Like my son, I am beginning to take things as they come. And I also enjoy the twist. My son had complained about every meal I made. Six times in his life I saw him satisfied by food, and now he is cooking for me.
“I love to cook, Mom,” he tells me as he expertly starts a fire using only a metal match. He pours water into a pot that will also serve as our dinnerware. When it starts to boil, he adds powdered milk, mashed potato flakes, a bouillon cube, and cheddar cheese. He stirs it with his spoon, a deer bone he found and shaped, using rocks as his tools. He takes the pot off the fire and we huddle by the pot. He starts eating voraciously and I take a cautious taste. It’s delicious and I tell him. “That’s good to hear,” he says. “Eat. I’ll finish it before you get enough.” He eats at least four cups of mashed potatoes. He cuts an apple in half with his hard-earned buck knife and we settle back contentedly.
O.K. I’m sitting on the ground, I’m cold. I’m still afraid of how the trip will go, but I feel I’m in the presence of God’s grace, a miracle. My son is taking care of me, as men take care of their families. We are encircled by the Chisos (Ghost) Mountains and the mountains of Mexico, Sierra del Carmen. The half moon rises and the stars entertain us.
He points out constellations and says, “That’s my constellation, the Great Square.” My son is in the world, he has a sense of himself. I look up, find him in the sky and feel proud. It’s only 7:30 but it’s dark and cold. No campfires allowed in the park. There is nothing to do but get into the bedroll and go to sleep. My son cleans the pot with a little water, a stone, and some sand. Then he readies himself for bed. He hasn’t taken off his clothes–pants, t-shirt, flannel shirt–for six weeks, but he takes off his boots, puts on socks he’s made out of blanket scraps and and leather moccasins he’s also sewn.
In the dark, my son tells me of his Vision Quest. “When I was ready, Dave explained that the Indians did vision quests as part of their rites of passage. I though of your book, Mom.” The first acknowledgement, ever, of the dozen books I’ve written for children. “He told me some symbolic things to do and I went off by myself for three days. I had very little food and the first day I ate almost nothing. I thought about every relationship I had. I was eating prunes and I threw away one pit for each relationship. When I ran out of pits I used stones. I was ending my old life.
“On the third day I woke up early, took off my clothes, and became my new self. I saw a rainbow over the desert, a rare thing, and I named myself Desert Rainbow.”
I don’t sleep more than a few hours but at eight, when we both feel warm enough to crawl out of bed and begin the day, my son whips up a pot of oatmeal with prunes and raisins that restores me. The landscape is exquisite–fierce beautiful cactuses, mountains around it, the land where the sky is not cloudy all day. I’ve found where Pecos Bill lives. As I sew one of my blankets into a sleeping bag as per his instructions, he plans our hike for the day. Then he cleans up the camp. He’s become a worker: he sees what’s needed and he does it.
Despite all the good signs, I am still anxious, waiting for me to say the wrong thing, for him to test limits. Halfway on our hike, he asks if he can see a movie in San Francisco. Cascade has rules that don’t allow this and I remind him of this. His face closes and he walks ahead. Great. It’s Tuesday morning and we’re back where he left off. “We’ll discuss it with Mike on Wednesday,” I say, trying to repair the moment. Nothing from him. I’ve been telling him I see him as a grown child now, but do I really believe it?
He stays ahead of me and I let it be, which is new. I’m trying to be quieter with him, giving him the lead. And I realize I’ve always worried about what he’ll do, been uneasy around him. I let go of hovering over him, keeping him from being bad, and I feel a burden lifted. I’m still tense but I don’t feel I have to fix things.
When we reach the lunch spot, an oasis of live oak trees in an arroyo, my son says, “This is Dodson spring,” and he begins to take out our lunch. He has let go of the anger and has regained his balance. This is more amazing to me than anything else he has accomplished. I tell him this and he says, “I’ve learned to find the path and how to get back on it when I slip off.”
He eats an enormous amount again, making up for the weeks of having to carefully limit his rations to make them last. He talks of McDonald’s, steaks, chocolate cake. He’s also farting constantly, which he says is because of the high bean diet he’s been eating.
On the way back he tells me about the drinking and drugs he did before he went off to school. He’s in front of me and I think we’re both happy not to be face to face. It’s about five times more than I knew, and bad surprises make me feel helpless. By the time we reach base camp at four I’m sick to my stomach with a headache. I feel vulnerable; I don’t like being sick out here. Nature is non-negotiable.
As my son begins to prepare couscous, I walk around trying to feel better. I vomit. This is too much. Rocks for toilet paper, a headache, a stomach ache, and now vomit all over me. But I wash up with water and the blessed soap I brought, and I feel a little better. I come back, see him stirring the pot and burst into tears. “You’ve grown up so fast. I’m so glad, but I feel left behind. I don’t know who I am to you anymore.” He nods, understanding and a little sad. Maybe he also feels some loss. The day has been good but I feel turned upside down with all the changes in him. He’s older certainly, but also younger, more alive to wonder. The cynicism is gone and he worries less.
He adds carrot, garlic, and cheese to the couscous and we are both delighted. The garlic and carrots were my idea. Then we come up with a recipe for cocoa: two Reese’s Pieces melted in powdered milk and water. It’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten. The seven mile hike helps me to sleep and I look forward to seeing Julie and Mike Parr in the morning.
I see the sun rise at seven, bright and beautiful, but it’s still cold. I wake up again at 8 and feel great, clearheaded and ready for the day’s hike. But first we must wait for Mike. He comes a half hour late and only I am impatient. My son has become very calm. Mike is huge, a little overweight, with blond greying hair. He’s 43 and looks like a Marine and an overgrown child. “What do you think?” he asks me. I blink back tears and say, “I like what I see.”
“Yeah, he’s ready. He’s worked hard. Why don’t you take off with him and spend the day and night in Study Butte? You’ve both accomplished what you needed here. And your son knows what to do and that he can do it.” We talk a little while and Mike tells me I’m the first mom to have done this alone. I feel very proud of myself and get a glimmer of what my son must feel of his accomplishment.
My son is thrilled to go but also reluctant. He’s told me Big Bend was the only safe place he’s ever been. He claimed his manhood, his strength here. We pack up and even I feel loss. How it must be for my son. We leave with Mike and Julie. I meet the rest of the group and I see my son’s compassion for those who cannot yet leave. Several have been there eight or nine weeks, and proud as he is, my son is not being competitive, which is another amazing change.
When we get back to world headquarters, we drink a root beer and my son goes off to ride Julie’s little boy’s big wheel. Immediately he goes head over heels and I’m still so anxious I imagine the glass shattering in his face. No, he’s all right and gets up laughing. “Now I know how Dad felt when he tried to ride my skateboard. I’m too big.”
It’s time to go and my son holds on. I look at him after a while and he says, “O.K.” Mike tells him it will be hard back at Cascade. They will be expecting a charming weak schemer back, not a peaceful warrior. But my son is up to it.
“There will be days you’ll want to walk down the road. Have them. Don’t deny the feeling or it will explode. But you’ll stick it out because they have what you want. A good education…” My son nods. He knows he wants to make money and be successful and realizes a good education is the path. “And it’s safe.” This means safe from dangerous things like drugs and emotionally safe with people who will listen to him.
We walk outside and my son says to Mike, “Give me a hug.” Mike hugs him but doesn’t engulf him. My son is ready. We get to the motel and wash clothes and I begin my capote. We eat dinner at Kiva’s, a down-home steak house Mike has suggested, and my son digs into the steak he’s been dreaming of. He eats most of my beef and chicken, but I’m plenty full.
The next morning I’m a wreck. Mike has told me my son will be anxious about getting back to school, so I should keep him on the move. I don’t know how to do this, but we go to Lajitas for breakfast and then to Terlingua. I sense his impatience because he’s angling for a movie. Mike has said he thinks it’s fine, his rules are not Cascade’s, and those rules don’t start until my son walks in the door. But I worry we’ll get to El Paso early, something Mike warned against, and not find a movie.
As it turns out, everyone gives us the wrong information about the time change between Big Bend and El Paso and we get there three and half hours before the plane. There is no movie so I take him to a shopping mall, which makes me crazy and I fear it will erase all the good the program has done.
I buy him a pair of sneakers and there is tension between us. He senses my mistrust. On the way to the airport, he tells me I’m not nice to salespeople. It feels like he’s going after me. This is my fear. He’s carrying my duffel bag and I’m carrying his few things. He complains about my bag and I say, “You’re picking on me.”
He explodes, “This is what you’re paying for, my honest response. Do you want praise, a cookie every time? I tell you three times something is good, but you don’t hear it. I made the choice to have you out of my life, but then I thought that I wanted to try to improve our relationship. That’s why I asked you to come here. For me. I needed to fix this relationship to become strong. And I am. But you can’t take it.”
This is it. All I feared before I came. We’ll leave each other bruised and glad to get away. “Lookit, Mom, your therapist knows some things, but I can help you, too, because we’re alike. I know your insecurities.” A miracle. I heard him. He was right. I was a wimp, too, not usually mean, but certainly manipulative, and emotionally evasive.
I’d told him a hundred times over three days how mature he’d become, how strong he was, how handsome. And he complained it was only words. Suddenly I understood I still didn’t believe it possible; I thought he needed his mother to pump him up. Now that the trip is nearly over, I begin to get it.
“This has been a good visit,” I say. He replies, “A very good visit.”
We get on the plane and the battle is over. We don’t need words. The fight, with its terrible honesty, is our closest moment. From then on we begin the work of separation. But in the morning I awaken early and watch him sleep. I see him as a newborn and I want to cherish, care for him as I never felt–I weep for his suffering and what we both lost.
Up until now, every time divorce has come up, I’ve said something like, “The kids are better off for it–they were having problems before the divorce. What kind of model were we in our anger and unhappiness?” Maybe. All I know for sure is the pain and confusion the breakup caused the children. If I could have done things better, I would have. For the first time, I allow myself to feel the grief from having hurt my children.
I take my son back to Cascade the next morning where he is greeted by other young men hugging him slowly and tight. They look in one another’s eyes, eyes saying what words can’t. I feel him leave me, again. I ache, I rejoice.
I drive away, think of something to tell my son and remember I can’t talk to him for at least two weeks. Something dies inside. I concentrate on the road, and as I reach the airport, I hear my low, loud wails fill the car. I want him, miss him, know he must stay there.
Odysseus, I’m listening.