The straw-haired girl with the slack face of the enduringly limited mind sat doubtfully across the bus aisle from her diminutive Asian boyfriend, who comforted her fears with a continuous stream of smiles sent wafting phone-to-phone like a bouquet of digital kisses.
I’m leaving home and I don’t know if I will be back. Seventeen years old, I angrily sort through my meager possessions sorting the “going” from the “staying”. I have a plane to catch.
Still stinging from the decision forced on me days before the start of my senior year of high school, I throw clothes into the gaping jaws of the pale blue suitcase on the bottom rack of the ancient bunk bed.
On the floor of the closet I face the real challenge. Clothes will fit well enough in the suitcase but what about those items?
From one edge of the little closet to the other, standing cheek-to-jowl, are my shoes.
Boys aren’t supposed to collect shoes and yet it is said shoes make the man so for the first time I take inventory of my footwear which seem to be loosely arranged by mass.
In the heavyweight division, the undisputed champion is the pair of massive Raichle hiking boots. These are must-haves, even in the cement forest of downtown Denver. I can’t yet know the vital role they will play in the second semester, carrying me unerringly through the Sonora desert, Rocky Mountains, and beyond. Indispensible.
Black dress shoes, one pair. Cheap, worn, but well-polished. Going.
Black patent leathers, one pair, to be worn with the tuxedo which was the costume of the jazz ensemble I sang in last year and expected to this year. Shoes, tuxedo and expectations: staying.
New Balance tennis court shoes, which outclass my Goodwill-edition racquet (not to mention my skills on the court) by several degrees: going.
Black baseball shoes with steel cleats and white Adidas-style stripes. I love the crunching sound of the cleats on pavement even though it ruins them. Going but I doubt I’ll even put them on.
Converse All Stars, black, one pair. My everyday-plus-basketball shoes. Going.
Holding down the left flank of the formation is the limp pair of black Capizio ballet shoes I’ve worn for three years of Hiliners. A smirk wriggles across my face when I imagine people thinking I can dance ballet when they see the Capizios – I never called them ballet slippers, only Capizios. I love Hiliners and feel the Loneliness Birds hatching more stone eggs in my gut knowing I will never dance with my friends again. Going, but packing no hope with them.
These shoes don’t belong in the same closet together but to me they are one family. They are my story, they tell of the fields, the churches and cemeteries, the mountains, the courts, the stages I’ve trod – some might say trampled – so far in my brief, unremarkable, journey.
The suitcase fails to swallow the meal I’ve selected for it. I deselect items until the latches snap. No shoes were harmed or removed in making that suitcase close.
The Wrong Road Home. Our group had begun the Mexican adventure at one end of the designated territory then ended at the opposite. This gave us a tiny advantage: everybody else had to come to us to meet the buses, except for the group that ended in El Desemboque, where we began. They got a ride back.
One by one, the other groups trudged into our camp. After collapsing in the sand, one group dug into their packs and threw bags of food out on the sand, angry at lugging so much extra weight. They happily surrender a sack of Bisquick which we turned into pancakes on the spot, devouring as many as we could.
Another group found out who we were. “Oh, so you are the Commandos? We heard about that. Cool.” We didn’t know we had a nickname until we weren’t a group anymore.
As soon as everyone had arrived, we packed up our gear into the buses then drove a few miles down the road. On the way, Ziegler explained our final activity: a 10k race in the wilderness. Just what we needed.
We turned off the gravel highway into dusty trails then lurched to a halt. The route had been flagged with white fabric streamers so all we had to do was follow the markers. The track guys began whooping it up, challenging each other as to who would win the race. No prize was at stake, other than bragging rights.
I was in good cardio shape but never had been a distance runner. My plan was simple: finish. I’d move at the pace that suited me. Read More…
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. Read More…
Sargento. Solo. The key event for the time in Mexico was Solo. When Zeigler spoke of it, both during his recruitment speeches and for our preparations, he became almost solemn, reverent.
People had experienced life-changing insights, visions (read: hallucinations), raptures, whatever. Life-changing sounds good until you learn the price.
Solo is time spent alone in the wilderness without food; three days in our case. I looked forward to changing my life, to the new horizons that would open up after such an experience.
Pam would supply us with water each day. We would put our canteens out where she had access but wouldn’t risk meeting up with us. We took our sleeping bags, matches, pencil and notebook (most urgently critical for scribbling our ketosis-induces musings), and knives.
It was vitally important, we learned, that we be spaced far enough apart that we wouldn’t see each other. It wasn’t enough to stay in our own private zones; we had to feel in every respect that we were completely isolated.
We trekked out past the estuary to shallow bay. Across the water we could see the dunes that melted into the sandbar leading southward towards Shipwreck Island. My camp anchored the Southern end of our desert Maginot Line guarding this unnamed bay. Pam and I agreed on a canteen-refill location then she and the rest of the team trudged on. Read More…
“I want everybody at Kathy’s camp tomorrow morning. Wait for me there.” With those final instructions Pam huffed into the Sonoran night trailing her anger like a cloud of locust.
Laura poked bitterly at the fire until she couldn’t contain herself. “Why’d you tell them about the fish?”
“I don’t know,” said Ray. “It just came out.”
“You could have said anything. You could have said nothing! Tell them Laura’s taking a piss and she’ll be right back! Damn it, Ray! Now we have nothing!” Read More…
Ziegler crunched his way determinedly into the darkness, through the scraggly underbrush and over the berm in search of Laura and the soon-to-be-legendary fish.
Pam folder her arms tiredly as the fire light danced across her face. The cool night air felt suddenly hot on my face as I felt the urgent, desperate need to monitor every minute detail of the fire.
“Where are Dave and the others?” she asked.
Now it was my turn to make things worse. “They’re getting more wood. For the fire,” I answered. Pam rolled her eyes at the small mountain of sticks nearby.
“Why aren’t you where I left you?” she said, changing the subject only slightly. Read More…