The shortest job I ever held lasted only two weeks. I took the job because the ad in the paper claimed that it was an all-outdoor hands-on position working with troubled youth in the wilderness. It appeared to be a job that I could not pass up. The only trouble was that I was to be working a set shift, which was no less than 7 days in length, after which I would have a week vacation.
Thanks to the advent of the Internet, applying to this job was simple. I just filled out a couple of pages of online forms and waited, not really expecting much because due to the advent of the Internet, much of what we submit gets transmitted using the latest cutting edge technology only to be lost when the recipient prints out the information and then loses the pages somewhere in their unorganized cubicle.
A few days later a large envelope arrived in my mailbox. It was marked urgent on the front and on the backside it had a hand-scribbled return address to some place in Colorado I’d never heard of. Curious, I opened the envelope to see what was inside. Although I had applied to a job in New York, the place that took my application was located in Colorado. It seemed like an unusual arrangement to have the hiring people located somewhere halfway across the country from the actual job site.
Instead of an interview, I was given what is called an on-site skills evaluation. In common terms, it means that you are to be watched closely while you are working and during a specific period of time, your skills are monitored and you are paid according to what they think you are worth. They also have the right to terminate your position at any time during this period. To be perfectly honest, I think the idea is inferior to a traditional interview because you are not told specifically up front about pay, benefits, etc., but I digress.
My first day on the job, I was directed to a big red cabin out in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Adirondack Mountains just off a main highway. There I met Dave who was to be my immediate supervisor and the person whom I had to report to every morning at 8:00 AM. Dave was a tall slender man who owned two identical sweaters; one blue, the other gray, and he always wore one of them. He drove a tiny gray car and was popular with the ladies. No life to speak of, he immersed himself in work and worked long hours, many of the overtime paid off-the-books. He explained how the company was run and gave me a brief tour.
The cabin was home to several people, each with their own separate rooms, with the exception of one or two staff members who worked opposite day/night shifts and occupied the same room. Dave showed me around, taking special care to note the main meeting room and kitchen, but also the bunk room and office. He told me that I could spend the night here as it was a staff bunkhouse and I could make use of any room I wished, provided it was unoccupied. He did warn me that the basement was off limits.
“Why is the basement off limits?” I asked, without a reply. A blank and uncomfortable stare came over him, and I politely nodded my head.
“Front door stays open,” he said as he headed out the front door and down the rickety old steps.
I laid out my bed for the night, which consisted only of a sleeping bag I recently purchased as I waited for other “new-hires” to arrive.
Later on in the afternoon, all of the staff gathered for a meeting in the living room. It was a small group of folks in my age group, many of which resembled homeless people with really expensive camping gear. We discussed all of the camper cases all afternoon and then called it a night.
Sadly, I was left in the cabin all alone. There was nothing but the cold wind outside and a pesky tree branch scratching on the window to keep me company. I went to sleep because there was literally nothing better to do.
I awoke early in the morning after thinking all night about why I shouldn’t go into the basement. The curiosity was killing me; I just had to know why it was off limits. Was there something down there? Something I shouldn’t see? Something… Scary?
Five minutes later I’m slowly opening the door to the basement. Despite my efforts, it made a long eerie creaking sound as the old rusted hinges were once again sent into motion. With the door opened, I peered down the steps into the basement, the steps covered in a layer of dust, which must have taken years to accumulate.
I crept down the stairs and into the basement, and in the process, getting a bunch of old dried-up dusty spider webs in my face. If my theory had proved correct, nobody had been down here in decades.
I walked right into what appeared to be a warp in time and right into another door. This one, with a hand-written sign which read, “When the light is on, do not enter.”
Some wise-ass scribbled, “don’t knock either”.
This door had to be opened! I had to know what was going on in this room in the basement. I opened this door without any hesitation because I figured if I got caught, I might as well make it worth it. Inside the room were cardboard boxes filled with old 45 records, 8-track cassette tapes, a mixing board with huge knobs, an old piano with a couple of the keys dropped, and a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. I could not believe my eyes, but I had walked right into an old home recording studio!
Sadly, I heard a door open upstairs and someone walking around. I got the hell out of the basement and ran upstairs. A bunch of people followed in the door, throwing their backpacks on the floor and making a mad dash for the cabin refrigerator. They were the field staff, and I was about to join them.
Another less formal meeting followed. Again, everybody sat down in the living room, this time grabbing all kinds of granola bars and snacks. Then we all followed out single-file into the snow covered field in front of the cabin. It was then that I learned that we were going to be divided into groups to move out into the field. Good news, I said to myself. The bad news, however, was that I was a last minute replacement for someone who failed to show.
Gear was packed up and I headed out in a large black van, not really sure where I was going or what lay ahead.
Thirty minutes later I the van stopped. I was in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. Somewhere. We weren’t told where we were because the supervisory staff said that it had to remain a secret to discourage the students from running away. students. Ironically these so-called students were here because they did bad things. Things from stealing cars to robbery to trying to kill or injure others.
Once the gear and equipment was unloaded, my team assembled and we loaded all of our belongings into a rescue sled and headed out. I was told that my destination was at the end of the trail and that further instructions would be waiting upon my arrival. I became a little skeptical about this whole job thing, but did as I was instructed.
At first, the trail was wide enough to allow for a car to pass, but it gradually got narrower and more unforgiving. Halfway to the end it became rocky and covered in ice. Towards the end it was barely in existence and I found myself climbing over moguls of rock and dirt and over patches of ice. I cannot count how many times the sled tipped over and spilled our personal effects everywhere.
Then at last, we arrived at the site. Trying to look like I was still game for this job, I walked right into the site, but failed to notice that I was standing on a well-packed snow drift that was a good two or three feet in height. I tripped over a missing section between two downed trees and landed flat on my face. Still clinging to the idea that I could still look game, I extricated my snow shoes from the gap, picked myself up and put on a smile.
I wondered why everyone got silent all of a sudden. A long uncomfortable pause ensued until someone rushed over to me in an effort to provide some completely unnecessary assistance. My face was flushed from being smacked into the snow and ice, and my hat was white with new fallen snow. The first impression that I was trying to create had just been lost forever, and there was no way to revive it once the initial opportunity died.
Again, a brief tour was given by my now, more immediate supervisor. He called himself Juice. He had a name, but due to his paranoia or complete stupidity, not sure of which, he refused to reveal his true identity to me. Juice claimed that he didn’t want any of these students tracking him down after they leave here. Throwing aside my opinion on the matter, I again nodded politely and continued the tour.
There really was no point to the tour. He showed me his tent site and made we swear never to enter the perimeter of his tent site which was clearly marked with parachute cord strung about like a very loose clothesline. The remainder of the site appeared to be a very back woods camp site. There were no comforts to speak of, just the same winter landscape as far as one could see.
I was to be sleeping outside on this night and was provided with a new blue plastic tarp from Wal-Mart and several lengths of nylon string that were cut to various lengths.
At the center of the site was a camp fire ring with an old green tarp hanging way too low above the fire to provide any sort of comfort, or any function at all other than choking its inhabitants with camp fire smoke. I wondered if I was going to see a bit of excitement and watch the tarp catch on fire. Sadly, I missed out on this entertainment; it remained intact, much to my surprise and amazement.
Off in the distance some hundred yards or so, I saw a nice brown and white cabin. I was told that this is used in the winter time for the staff and students to use. When I asked why we were sleeping outside during this time of winter, I was told that when the students act up, we sleep outside in the freezing cold as punishment.
Down a long trail of stomped-down snow was a meeting area. It was a work in progress to say the least. A bunch of saplings had been cut down and tied together to build makeshift walls and a roof. Pine branches were then woven between the saplings to better insulate the inside from the cold. It was a wilderness shelter that was started but never completed.
At the end of a much longer trail of stomped-down snow was a bucket with a toilet seat bolted to the top. I was told that if I had to go to the bathroom to take a blue plastic bag and eliminate into it. I chose not to after awhile, as did many of the students there I am sure, who urinated behind trees and bushes when nobody was looking. Sadly, the staff was always looking, twenty-four hours a day, even when you thought they were not.
The students that were at the site were placed there either by the state or by their parents for various reasons. Some committed crimes, others did poorly in school. Still others were there and they had no idea why they were sent there; their parents simply told them that they were bad and they ended up there.
One kid was send there for smoking in school. Things that when I was a child might have resulted in after school detention or a week suspension now resulted in being placed in a wilderness therapy facility. Frank was placed there for smoking. He smoked as an escape from his crappy childhood, in which his parents were never home and his only friend was his video game system and cigarettes, which he stole from his mother. His parents apparently knew about his smoking habit, but when they found out that he had stolen them, he ended up in a behavior modification / leadership program.
Since the key to this program was being in the wilderness, he was allowed only things that were abundant in these surroundings. He sucked on a stick as a makeshift stand-in for a cigarette, flicking it ever so often to keep himself from cracking under the pressure.
The students were also required to write journals, which were read and scrutinized by the staff. No kid had any kind of privacy. Ever. It was a sad and stressful situation for both the students and the staff. A situation in which, despite my experience with students and the outdoors, I was struggling to adapt to.
I was told to set up my tent site before dusk, and I did so as best I could. Unfortunately, all of the good sites were taken and I had to settle for a spot between two very small pine bushes. It was the last spot that anyone would have sent up a tent spot, but it was the only spot remaining.
Night fell quickly upon camp and Juice announced that it was time for dinner. Everything was scheduled rigidly and every child took turns cooking. On this night, the cuisine was ouzo and onion soup. Not my idea of a meal, but there was nothing else anywhere in sight. I had survived solely upon chocolate chip granola bars all afternoon that I had stashed in my backpack.
We all sat around the camp fire telling jokes and silly stories. I told the students about my job as a firefighter, paying special attention to those times where I was staring directly in the face of danger. In other words, well over-exaggerated stories of fighting fires and saving people from burning buildings. The mundane everyday tasks of the average firefighter suddenly became the inspiration behind a typical Hollywood movie. Once the students learned that I once had a job as a firefighter, the students began to look at me in a different light as if to hold me in higher regard.
One student took a higher than usual interest towards my over-inflated exaggerated stories and kept questioning me for details. At first I took it as flattery, or perhaps the youngster was looking for favoritism.
(On a side note, I later learned that he was part of this experience because he was caught and subsequently arrested for arson.)
Juice became increasingly jealous and then resorted to bark out orders and complain about time constraints as a demonstration of authority. In my eyes, it was nothing more than a confirmation of his egotistical and self-righteous personality.
Immediately following dinner, the students were told to hang a bear bag in a tree using a length of rope. I was told to allow the students as much time as necessary to complete the task. It was a needless task to say the least because there were no bears within twenty or thirty miles, but the students were lead to believe that they were in the middle of nowhere.
After about an hour or so (Juice had them on a stopwatch), the students still failed to come together and get the job done. I offered a suggestion and Juice immediately jumped in and started to belittle me in front of everybody.
At this point, I decided that Juice was someone that I could neither work with, and possibly could not trust, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see what happened next.
I went to sleep cold, hungry, and seemingly homesick. The night was cold and dreary with only the sound of the wind through the trees and the students rolling around in their sleeping bags.
The next day started at six in the morning. The sun was just coming up over the horizon and everything within sight was covered in snow and ice. I woke to an ice-covered tarp hanging above my head and ten students still sleeping in the freezing cold.
A simple breakfast followed, consisting only of plain oatmeal made with water. The staff was given first dibs on the hot water to mix their oatmeal. I was hoping for something more flavorful, but nothing was available. I settled for an unopened jar of peanut butter I found with the community food bag that nobody else wanted.
Before the students were allowed to eat, they had to roll up their sleeping bags and get their packs ready for the afternoon hike. Juice kept telling the students that he would not heat the water any more and that it was getting colder by the moment. If the students didn’t get finished soon, they would have to mix their oatmeal with cold water. I could not believe that anybody could be so cruel as to make youngsters prepare oatmeal with cold water, but apparently Juice was one of those people.
After finishing my oatmeal and about a fourth of the peanut butter, I washed it all down with a big cup of water with a sliver of ice across the surface. Apparently it was so cold that the surface of anything sitting still for more than a few minutes would begin icing over.
One of the key elements to this wilderness program was the absence of information. The students were kept in the dark about every minute detail, including scheduling plans and the time of day. To a certain degree, even the staff was kept out of the information chain.
On this particular day we were going to go on a hike. I was excited to hike yet another peak in the Adirondack mountains. On this day, it was Cascade Mountain.
I packed up my belongings and a days worth of food rations and headed out. I noticed that Juice had all the latest and best equipment and he carried things in his pack that there would be absolutely no need for. I carried food, a GPS, and a flashlight in my bag because it made sense. He, on the other hand, carried things that were worthless and would only be used as show-off items.
Strapping snowshoes and crampons on my feet, I headed out of camp and down the path I originally came in on while dragging the supply sled. I was excited to get out of camp and go on a hike, despite the fact that the sky didn’t look promising. I was taught as a boy scout to keep an eye on the weather. Snow was falling hard by seven in the morning as we neared the meeting point where a company vehicle was waiting.
The driver told us that weather was bad atop Cascade Mountain and advised us that today might not be a good day for a hike. Juice decided that we would go anyways, despite the weather forecast. In his eyes, a weather forecast is typically 60% inaccurate, and nothing was going to stop him from hiking on this day.
To confuse the students as to their whereabouts, the driver took us down a very random route to the mountain, going over seasonal use roads that were both unpaved and unplowed. Snow was falling hard snow plows were working overtime to keep the roads open. I had a bad feeling about todays hike that only got worse by the moment.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at the trail head. Much to my dismay, the driver dropped us off on the side of the road and took off, leaving us with no other option than to hike. It was cold, dark, and visibility was terrible. Juice made a feeble attempt to lift everyones spirits by telling the students that there would be a great view awaiting us at the peak.
I rolled my eyes sarcastically.
The hike started immediately and Juice told everyone that the pace would have to be quick because there was a time limit on todays hike. Hiking 4 miles up a steep grade in winter months and then back down again in five hours didn’t seem like the best idea to me.
Trail conditions began to deteriorate rapidly within the first hour of the hike. Ice covered every surface both horizontal as well as vertical. There was nothing for which to get a decent hold on, even with crampons and snowshoes, it was getting increasingly difficult to keep from sliding off the trail.
A couple of the students began to slip and fall on the trail. Things didn’t look good at this point and I became very worried about someone getting injured in these conditions. At first I let it go, but after the students started falling more and more often, I decided it was time to speak up.
I told Juice that I didn’t think that this hike was a good idea. He looked at me with resentment and shook his head.
“Giving up already”, he asked. To which I replied, “It’s just not safe. I think we should turn back.”
From that point on, it became clear to me that there would be no turning back. Nothing short of someone getting seriously injured or killed would change his mind. At this point, it also became clear to me that Juice was a person who not only lacked good judgment, but obviously had a really bad attitude problem.
After three hours, the students were allowed a ten-minute lunch break. The students opened up their food bags and began eating whatever they could within the ten-minute time limit. Juice went on to complain that we were not making great time and that now we were going to be expected to speed up the pace considerably.
When I questioned Juice he snapped back proclaiming that, “my opinion did not matter”, and that, “I was not in charge.”
Lunch time ended abruptly because Juice became angry at the thought that someone would think to question his authority. The students noticed this, of course, and began questioning him too. To divert away from his blatant negligence, Juice asked if I was doing okay, but when I offered my opinion, he feigned interest, and feigned it poorly at best.
The weather soon took a turn for the worst. Instead of snow, pea-sized hail began to fall. The ice that covered everything now had more icy pellets on top of it, making it all the more slippery. The students I was hiking with began to have bigger falls, and then without warning, our first injury.
Seeing an injury, I immediately snapped into EMT mode, trying to treat a nosebleed. Juice grabbed me by the coat and pulled me away from the injured student.
“Let him cry”, he screamed, “you are not to touch him because you are not a wilderness EMT.”
A wilderness EMT? I have almost ten years EMT experience in the real world. The real world which just so happens to include working in New York City. Apparently, in Juices’ world, if you’re not a wilderness EMT, you don’t know anything.
The fallen student finally regained composure and stood up, blood covering his nose and mouth.
We continued on and we were now just minutes from the peak. The weather continued to worsen as the altitude increased.
Just moments from the top I started to slip. I regained composure, but all of a sudden, I felt myself sliding. Without an ice axe, I was forced to ride it out. Fearing the worst, I covered my head with my hands and prepared for impact.
Instead of experiencing an impact, I felt my right foot get caught up in a tree and my leg twisted around. I then did a complete 180 and struck my head against a completely different tree. At this point, Juice was laughing hysterically. At this point, I still felt okay because when climbing mountains in the winter, falls happen. Putting all cares (and common sense) aside, I tried to again resume climbing towards the peak, now just moments away.
Again, I felt myself slipping, and again, another slide down the peak, this time resulting in my other foot getting caught up in the same tree. This time I was prepared for the impact with the tree, which never came. Instead, I took a tree branch from the first tree to the face.
“Juice”, I called, “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. You go on without me.”
Apparently failure was not an option for Juice as he once again reminded me and the others of our shortening time schedule.
With the assistance of another student, I was able to finally reach the peak and just so happened to observe the benchmark set in the rock peak. Expecting time to regroup and catch my breath, Juice announced that we were now overdue for our scheduling and we had to make it down the mountain as quickly as possible.
The group of about twelve students formed a line on the ice and sat down with their legs spread apart, forming a makeshift train. At the count of three, they were off, down the ice-covered slope. Throwing all caution to the wind, they built up some considerable speed before crashing one by one into a row of pine bushes.
Having fallen on the way up to the peak, I felt determined to not fall during my decent from the peak. I took a few steps, intentionally digging my crampon-equipped snow shoes deep into the icy surface. At first it worked, but once I came near to the spot where I had fallen previously, this time I was in for the ride of my life.
Hoping to control this fall, I rolled over and drew my feet in close to my body, using my feet to slow down. It worked until all of a sudden, my snow shoes grabbed some unexpected traction, which sent me head over heels down a snow-covered embankment and off a small cliff. Thankfully, a stand of pine trees caught me before I went any further.
This time Juice came running to the edge off of which I had just fallen. Concerned, he called down to see if I was okay. When I once again returned in one piece, covered in pine needles and snow, his compassionate side disappeared and he disciplined me for setting a bad example.
The remainder of the descent was filled with slips, falls, and bruises. Three more students fell more seriously on the way down, this time requiring a trip to the local emergency room. I myself sustained quite a few serious bruises which warranted a trip to the E.R., but since I was staff, Juice denied me this option.
Finally, back at the road side, Juice used a 2-way radio to call for a pick-up. This whole wilderness thing was being played-up way too much by now and it seemed more militaristic than anything else. He called me to the side of the van.
“What the hell happened up there”, he demanded.
“It was your call”, I replied, this time with an attitude.
He didn’t like the fact that since we were out of the proverbial woods, I was giving him an attitude right back.
“You should have been in the girls group”, he continued, “You suck”.
Trying to still hold onto what little piece was left of my job, I agreed with him and took a seat in the front seat of the van. The students loaded into the back and we headed back to camp, this time taking a completely different route.
When I got back to base camp, I was instructed to pack up all my belongings and head down to the supervisors cabin. I did as instructed, and was told that I could return when I felt better. My spirits lifted, I gathered my things and said goodbye, for now.
After a long walk down the road to the cabin, I was finally able to relax and rest on a traditional bunk bed.
The things we take for granted, I thought to myself. My right leg felt like it had been shattered. The entire lower half of my body was in very intense pain when my supervisor walked in and offered me a ride to the red cabin. I agreed.
For reasons unexplained to me, my supervisor took a very alternate route back to the red cabin, which took almost twice as long as the ride in the day before. Upon arrival at the red cabin, I loaded all my belongings into the back of my car and made a phone call.
It was To my wife.
“There’s been an accident”, I said in a depressed voice, to which she replied, “Is everything okay? Where are you?”
The ones you love are always way too far away when you are injured or in pain. I was experiencing both at this moment in time. She suggested I go and get a nice bite to eat and then come home in the morning.
Whenever I’m depressed, I crave fast food. Being injured, in a lot of pain, or just under the weather can usually be eased with a good meal. And, yet another boring fast food meal ensued. I returned to the red cabin and fell asleep rather quickly.
The next morning I awoke to the sun in my eyes. It was just turning six in the morning and I left for home. I was told I’d get a call back in a week.
A week went by. Then two. I decided to call the job to find out when I could come back and let them know I’m all better. A secretary took a message for my supervisor, who just so happened to be out of town every time I called, which was once every other day.
Finally, three weeks had passed since the accident. I took a trip to the job to meet with my supervisor directly. The secretary this time gave me a very bad attitude and told me he was out of town. I turned around to see him about to walk out the door.
I took one very long look at him, then to the secretary, and knew my position here was over. Nobody had to tell me that I had been “let go” due to an injury. I left out the front door and never looked back.