Senior Seminar, Part V
Sargento. Solo. The Away Team returned an hour after the Leadership Invasion confiscated the contraband salmon. The ensuing yelling match caused a change in whale migration patterns for years after. It was more about the hunger and disappointment than any real blame. Well, except for Ray and his inconveniently honest mouth but it can be tough to sell recriminations over truth-telling.
After the frustrated Commandos emptied their emotional magazines we learned the details of the mission.
The guys had spent a lot of their time waiting for the adults at base camp to settle into sleep. They huddled in the bushes until all was quiet, at which point it became evident they would be caught if they tried to reach our gear, since Pam was snuggled down at our main fire. At that point the plan was revised to scavenge the buses for anything that might prove useful in converting raw salmon to succulent cooked salmon.
The buses had little to do while the Seminar was in operation. One of the buses became storage for the barrels of replenishment provisions for the teams. As quietly as could be managed, these were searched.
In the end, nothing came of the foray into the heart of enemy territory except to alert the leaders that wayward Soloists were running loose. Why the intruders weren’t apprehended on the spot is a question I’ve never learned the answer to.
Eventually our adrenaline faded and we chased the dark edge of sleep the best we could.
Sargento. Solo: The Morning After. By order of Zeigler and Pam, we dragged our weak, heavy boots back down the dunes as early as was seemly, rounding up the remaining (and unaware) team members until we all plopped down at Kathy’s solo habitat. Here we were to remain until Pam came to further chastise us for our transgressions.
It was like putting an entire kindergarten on time-out, except that we were truly weak from lack of food. The hunger kept us from wandering off but also emphasized the tediousness of the situation.
At long last, Pam plunked herself down and started in. Embarrassed, disappointed, etc. But wait; was that the edge of a suppressed smile? It was!
Later, at the team homecoming party in Denver, Pam confessed her anger revolved around her stash of beer in the resupply barrels. She was afraid it would be found out by Zeigler, or that we might have stolen it. Plus she had to put on a good display for the boss. When the beer turned out to be a non-issue she was actually impressed by the mission.
Pam concluded by sentencing us to another two hours on “solo” before we could return to base camp. It was a devilish move, horribly painful, as we sat on the dunes, waiting.
There was only one topic of conversation: food. What we missed the most. What we couldn’t wait to eat when we got home. How much we would eat when we got home. What we haven’t eaten in ages. Plus endless variations on each of those topics.
It didn’t ease the hunger pains one bit, though.
Unnamed Mountains. The morning after the conclusion of Solo we packed up to leave Sargento base camp. We hefted our now-unfamiliar backpacks then pushed out into the brush for our next destination.
Our hike this day would take us deeper into the desert. We skirted the edges of the estuary on an easterly heading. Shortly after midday we crossed the highway. Yes, we looked both ways if only to marvel at the emptiness of the road. From there the nasty little crag of our destination loomed before us. Today would be pure fun. Rock climbing!
Zeigler thought Solo was the big deal of Seminar but this was the event I’d been waiting for.
We picked a camp site, tossed our packs on the ground then hurried up a little canyon to the bottom of the cliff that would serve as the classroom du jour. Here we learned cool new words like carabiner, belay, and rock! In pairs, we strapped on web harnesses then ascended the wall. Like everything in Seminar, this experience was designed to give us a taste and a challenge without undue risk or overwhelming.
The cliff was difficult for us beginners thereby providing a nice thrill of achievement.
I was impatient for my turn. Sue and I roped up at the same time then we began to pick our routes. I moved from hold to hold as nifty as a mountain goat, occasionally resting my entire weight on a nub of a single toe-hold. Before I knew it, there was the top where I released a huge shout into the wild.
Ahead of me, Laura dithered over taking the elevator (rappelling) down or walking the long way around. She struggled mightily over the choice as the fear played out on her face. When Sue finally reached the summit, after getting stuck on the wall looking for her next move, Laura was forced to decide. She walked.
One of the biggest adrenaline-inducing activities is the transition from vertical to horizontal at the start of a rappel, trusting the rope and the workers who made the gear to keep you descending at your own pace. Once horizontal is achieved the rest is a walk down a cliff face. I immediately wanted to go up again but the sun would not permit second helpings.
Next-to-Last Supper. That evening as Kathy stirred a pot of noodles for our dinner, Kevin hunched next to her, eyeing every move of the ladle. Then it happened: she carelessly over-stirred, sending a small amount of the food into the sand. It was at most a teaspoon full.
Kevin exploded in a rage. He screamed at her for wasting food. The skirmish ended quickly by Pam’s edict but there it was, at last.
We didn’t know we were starving.
Why would we think such a thing? We had our meals every day but a chain of circumstances had left us in a state that could have turned dangerous had anything gone wrong.
The first link came when the girls excluded the guys from participating in food shopping. They thought, and bought, like the teenage city girls watching their figures they were. Hell, they probably looked at Seminar as some kind of weight-loss regimen.
We had been burning calories in the upper-five-figures daily for over a week but replenishing only a fraction of that.
We missed two meals the night on the island, followed a day later by Solo (in which, despite our best efforts, we went hungry for three days). After Solo we had to eat very light, not much more than a broth. The next day we had a long, hot hike and rock climbing, all of which served to further sap our reserves. No other group had the island and solo back-to-back.
The monster of starvation lives just below the conscious level of the brain. In our case, the monster quietly rose up, like the eyes of a crocodile hovering above the surface of a still lake. It stared us down.
It marked us, knew us, had seen into our souls, but we knew it, too, and how close it lives.
When we had packed up to leave Sargento for rock climbing I discovered a gallon bag of gorp. Nobody knew about it and I instantly decided it was my secret stash. As much as I wanted to gorge on it, I would only indulge in private. Others, I found out later, had done the same thing with other food items.
Back home I immediately headed to the grocery store buying up whatever struck my fancy at the moment then suspiciously squirreling away my goodies in the closet. I would only eat them behind locked doors.
This persisted, intensely for days, gradually decreasing over several weeks. It was paranoid, irrational, embarrassing, and impossible to combat.
Final Station. We hiked a couple of miles down from the rock climbing camp to a gorgeous stretch of white-sand beach on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. On the hike my ear felt itchy so I started scratching at it only to have a thick slab of dead skin peel away from the ridge of my ear in a solid chunk. Sunburn-upon-sunburn had baked my ears to a crispy crunch.
The purpose of this, our final stop on our trek through the Sonoran Desert, was to build group cohesiveness. Of course, we would have no opportunity to apply the lessons of the day as the group would effectively cease to exist once we boarded the yellow school buses for home the next day.
Pam had a list of problems/games for us to solve: fill a barrel that has dozens of holes drilled in it; move everyone twenty yards while only allowing ten points of our bodies to touch the ground at one time; several other exercises of this sort, each providing both physical and mental challenges.
In spite of the effects of starvation building, the mood was high. We were going home tomorrow.