Last summer I packed up my family (or more precisely gave my wife some useful packing instruction) and moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona. My plan was to spend a year in the mountain wilderness north of the Mexico border, studying the life-style of a kind of tropical raccoon, the coatimundi. To help with the fieldwork, I drafted my teenage son and two of his high school friends.
There is a popular theory that the good life is not to be found these days in a split-level but in a pup tent on the forest floor. This is the woods-is-good syndrome. For months before leaving, I was besieged by friends, neighbors and acquaintances who wanted their sons to be accepted for enrollment in my Boondock U. The boys, as much in favor of the idea as their parents, were somewhat of a type, shaggy youths who thought it would be cool to drop out of Eastern schools and Eastern homes in order to Wild West it about the mountains for a year. The parents included a naval officer, a public accountant, a scientific instrument distributor, a high school principal, two editors and an antique dealer. The parents were both more various and more articulate than the boys. Their presentations were brilliant examples of exhortative discourse and social blackmail, but nearly all boiled down to three points: 1) the parents were concerned about how to keep their sons occupied and out of trouble; 2) they were certain that a year spent in the Arizona wilds by the latter would give the former temporary peace of mind, at least; 3) they hoped that the experience would make men out of their boys, i.e., make them forget about the Grateful Dead, easy riding and unacceptable kinds of dope. Perhaps it would set sons to thinking about naval captaincies, antique dealerships, high school principalships, etc.
There is a belief in the almost magical therapeutic value of exposing young males to the wilderness. Faith in this formula is general and deep-rooted. Anyone who might conceivably be in the market for youthful outdoor labor is thoroughly familiar with the situation.
Each year thousands of high school-and college-age boys appeal, by mail and in person, to state and federal parks agencies and forest and wildlife services, seeking temporary jobs, no matter how menial. More inventive youths with similar ambitions hound biologists, geologists, archaeologists and outfitters. Parents use whatever political, economic and social influence they have in an effort to help sons land such jobs. Often the boys and especially their parents are not concerned with how well, or even if, the jobs pay. A good many of the currently fashionable Outward Bound, survival, tough-it-out schools and camps are kept afloat by well-heeled parents who have been unable to wangle legitimate woods jobs for their kids. Fathers are willing to pay somebody to simulate wilderness trials and tribulations. What they appear to want—the parents openly, and the sons more covertly—is to get the boys enrolled in a sort of super self-improvement course that according to our folk wisdom is offered the year around in rare and righteous corners of the American bush.
May 16, 1971
None of this is new. In fact, a good bit of the country was explored by young bucks who were packed off from European castles and universities by families to find, if not fame and fortune, at least themselves in the howling wilderness of the Western world. One of the many dispatched for this purpose was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a half brother of Walter Raleigh. After dropping out of Oxford, he tarried long enough to establish his own line and then shipped out to America. There, in 1583, while attempting to find either the Northwest Passage or the site of Buffalo, N.Y. (the chronicles are unclear), he became confused and disappeared without trace. Nevertheless, we Gilberts are proud of him. The Hump may not have been much of an explorer but he was one of the founders and first victims of an important and lasting institution, Boondock U, which in its time has served many prominent folks and enrolled such diverse students as Horace Greeley, Theodore Roosevelt and the Kennedys.
As the personnel offices of any woods or wildlife agency can testify, the public still rates this institution highly. Unfortunately, it is now considerably more difficult to matriculate at Boondock U than it once was. Getting a bona fide, if temporary, woods job is about as difficult and competitive these days as landing an appointment to one of the service academies once was. The harsh economic fact of the wilderness business, that the agencies have little money to spend on youthful employment, is not the only reason for this. Most woods bosses have a preference for what might delicately be called the more mature hired hand. Perhaps this is an example of generation-gap injustice.
The Bounding Main is not the woods, but for educational purposes it is regarded as much the same thing and almost as good. The publicity Jacques Cousteau has received lately has made the Two-Years-Before-the-Mast Course one of Boondock U's most popular. It is hard nowadays to throw an anchor without hitting some kid (and his old man) wanting to be taken on as an apprentice marine explorer. Recently I have been turning over requests for such appointments to a man who may be called Ivor. One such letter came from an acquaintance who is an advertising executive. It read in part:
"Despite his difficulties with the bomb and narcotic squads which you may have read about (a society that hates its young is in real trouble), we are quite proud of Kevin. He seems to be dealing successfully with his alienation. For the past several months he has had his heart set on exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Dotty and I are very enthusiastic about this, particularly since it is Kev's own idea. We are counting on you to make arrangements for him to join the next group leaving for that area. I am sure Kevin would make a valuable addition to any party. His biology grades are up this quarter, he holds a senior life-saving certificate and is very interested in organic foods. Naturally he would expect to work in as a junior member and would be willing to do any sort of work. Swabbing decks, for that matter. The salary is not important...."
Heartlessly, I suggested Kevin and his father write directly to Ivor. After politely telling them that it was a poor year for Great Barrier Reef expeditions, Ivor wrote to me, sourly but pertinently: "They all want to swab decks. Is that some new sort of a password? As you well know, anyone who has enough money to splurge on a deck swabber wants a professional. Old, dried-out winos are scarce but good. They keep things clean and their mouths shut. The two kids I have been exposed to (both sons of trustees, you dig?) were indifferent swabbers. They were more interested in fighting sharks bare-handed and lecturing us on the Selective Service system."
Men like Ivor are generally looking for mute, menial laborers. Most of the kids, despite their protestations about being willing to do anything, are looking for adventure, moments of truth and sharks of one sort or another with which to duel. At the moment the inland equivalent of shark fighting is scaling difficult mountains and shooting white-water rapids. There is nothing wrong with this; youths are meant to be high-spirited, but there are few people who need to pay kids to do these things for them. A park superintendent who wants a boy for chow-hall KP is not likely to consider the ability to do Eskimo rolls in the pot sink or rappel down the grease trap as necessary, or even desirable, skills.
Also, as Ivor indicated, the kids who actually end up with woods jobs are, in addition to having more than average pull, apt to be very bright and talkative and mentally as well as physically venturesome. Stimulating conversation and sophisticated disputation can be as refreshing in the wilderness as elsewhere. However, there are a lot of places and times when this sort of entertainment does not appeal. A mammalogist I know who is studying the food habits of the Arctic lemming admires, above everything else in an assistant, the ability to lay a symmetrical grid of 500 mousetraps and the temperament to work day after day in the bugs and bogs gutting ripe lemming carcasses. My friend is not particularly interested in an assistant who can feed back to him large, intellectually undigested chunks of The Naked Ape or the territorial fancies of Mr. Robert Ardrey. A Swarthmore sophomore may have wider ethological interests than an alcoholic, unemployed trapper, but the latter is likely to be handier with a mousetrap and less finicky about getting decaying mouse tripe under his fingernails.
Because they have such romantic notions about woods work, kids who end up with some of the jobs often suffer serious morale problems when they discover they have been hired to do things that are as hard, repetitious and dull as anything that goes on in a school, office or factory. For instance, sheer, unadulterated, corroding monotony is a formidable occupational hazard of being a fire-tower lookout, a job that from a distance seems to offer great chances for young Werthers who want to master the guitar, write manifestos and commune undisturbed with their souls or navels.
"The best fire watchers," says a U.S. forest ranger who has three towers in his district, "are those old prospectors who have been living back in the canyons since before the flood. They have been alone so long that they do not need anyone to talk to. Even radios make them nervous. They just sit there and watch and think about whatever prospectors think about. The kids are sharp in the beginning but they get flaky pretty quick. When you stop by a tower where you have a kid, it is hard to get away from him in the same day. He wants to tell you everything he has thought about since his last relief—how to get out of Vietnam, what to do about pollution, his retirement plans, about the girls he knows and the ones he wishes he knew.
"We had an awful time last summer. A couple of schoolteachers came panting into a campground all scratched up. They said a wild man had chased them off the mountain. All it was was the kid we had in the tower. He had made a vest out of string by tying square knots, hundreds of them. He saw these two old girls down on a trail and went crashing through the cat's-claw after them. He just wanted to show them the vest and talk. The trouble is there are a lot more kids with VIP connections than there are out-of-work prospectors."
As the ranger hints, another reason prospective employers, particularly government ones, are leery of youths is that they are afraid of them or at least of their patrons. Any GS-11 land manager is going to be more comfortable with the average prospector than he is with a college undergraduate in whose file there is a letter that reads: "I am happy to recommend Peter Pull whose father, Conrad J. Pull, is an old and valued friend. I have assured Mr. Pull that you will make every effort to accommodate his son. Yours Menacingly, Senator Horace Hightower Hack."
In truth, for every unpleasant incident involving boys in the woods, there are dozens of pleasant ones, examples of woodsmen who have hit it off famously with kids and of kids who have, as they are supposed to, done well in the woods. My experience this year is happily a case in point.
My son Ky's place on my field staff was assured, one of the strong secondary reasons for the expedition being to make a man of him. Ky and his friend Terry, two 17-year-olds who should have been high school juniors this year, made the trip West with me by Volkswagen. John, 19, who gave up life as a college freshman, joined us a few weeks later, motorcycling in from Delaware.
In the beginning there were certain adjustment problems. We had our own shark-fighting situation. There are numerous caves in the mountain range where we sought the coatis. A wandering tribe of the animals will often den up in one of these caves, but almost always in a small one. For obvious reasons, a cave with a mountain lion-sized opening does not appeal to the coati elders who determine where the tribe will sleep. The boys, however, were more interested in the big caverns, which they would pop into at the drop of a carbide lamp. These offered splendid chances for spelunking.
Initially, there were also hierarchal differences of opinion. If it became necessary for two of us to climb 3,000 feet up into a canyon, one carrying binoculars and looking about for coatis, the other lugging a 40-pound live trap and watching his feet, I assigned myself the former job. I did not consider that this was discrimination so much as it was obedience to physical law (by nature 17-year-olds are better equipped to carry heavy loads up mountainsides than are 43-year-olds) and sound management principle.
During the first month or so, the boys were handicapped because they had nothing to sustain themselves except a few vague notions concerning the glamour of the Western wilderness and certain Disneyesque, Frank Buckish misconceptions regarding the pursuit of wild beasts. Being bright, curious and sensitive they shortly began to understand and become increasingly enthusiastic about our real prospects—trying to find and penetrate unobtrusively the exotic life of the coatis. By Christmas the boys were better coati watchers and much better field companions than any winos, prospectors or commercial trappers with whom I, at least, am acquainted.
Perhaps the best thing about youth is youth. Put under very light rein, exuberance, freshness and especially vitality are exceedingly valuable commodities in this kind of work. After we located the coatis and developed certain techniques for staying with them, we would sometimes remain in the mountains three weeks at a stretch. What with the necessary camp work and recording of notes at night by lantern light, our days were often long, 12- or 14-hour ones. In the real world the boys had regarded six hours of classes or an eight-hour job as intolerable but in the mountains they seemed to thrive on double shifts.
One windy, snowy morning John and I got out of our sleeping bags well before dawn in order to set up cameras in front of a cave entrance where we knew a tribe had spent the night. In due time the animals emerged, we photographed them and tried to follow them for the next 12 hours as they foraged through the rough mountains. "It has been a long day," I mumbled to John as I sat numb with fatigue by the fire that night.
"It's been cool," John corrected. "Wouldn't it be great if you could do this all your life?"
One of the coolest, most striking memories, an interior snapshot that I shall keep from this year, has to do with John. He is a tall, very slender, long-legged boy, once a scholastic miler, and in the mountains he wore his black, shoulder-length hair tied back with a bandana, Navajo-fashion. Late one winter afternoon, when the thin Arizona air was so clear that it gave the illusion of magnifying, I watched from an outcropping while John followed a coati tribe on the mountain above. At first the animals were foraging in an oak thicket, along the edge of which John glided, downwind. Above the thicket was a mountain spur, almost treeless, covered with curly highland grass which in the winter turns golden. The coatis reached the edge of this highland prairie and then began to run across it, toward the ridge top.
Coatis are not great sprinters but they have a rolling, loping gait that cats up the ground and they are also extremely surefooted in rough terrain. There no longer being any point in deception, and not wanting to lose the animals when they passed over the ridge, John, too, stretched out. He began to run hard, turning in, it appeared to me, about a 60-second quarter as he approached the summit. For a moment he was visible on the crest. He was in full stride, in profile, the golden grass below, the blue-black cloudless Arizona sky above, long legs stretched, long black hair streaming behind him. It was a nice thing to see.
Each of the boys developed specialties. John became, by day, our photographer, and at night, with his guitar, our entertainer. Terry turned into an efficient and enthusiastic camp-keeper and cook. He now can lay a fire on a ledge on a finger-numbing morning and make breakfast for four in such a way that the eggs, hash and coffee are all ready at the same time. It may not sound like much, but running a good camp is a skill that verges on an art.
All the boys became competent observers and note-takers, but Ky proved to be the best at this. Knowing what one has seen, while resisting the impulse to see what one would like to see or thinks he should see, is again something that sounds simpler than it is.
The chances are remote that the boys will be able to spend the rest of their lives watching coatis in the wilderness or, for that matter, will ever have another year similar to this one. Therefore, it could be argued that becoming good coati students is of not much more practical value than developing a good Parcheesi game. However, it seems to me that it definitely should be different. You cannot be any kind of a coati chaser, fire watcher, smoke jumper or trail crewman without learning certain things: about ingenuity, endurance and discipline; about your body, mind and passions; about the workings of the world. These are manly arts and virtues that should be negotiable instruments in many places other than these mountains.
All of which is another way of saying what any descendant of Humphrey Gilbert is almost bound to say: that the woods are good, that in this case folk wisdom is real wisdom. How this antique self-improvement course can be made more generally available is a matter worthy of general attention, as important as constructing rustic toilets in parks and forests.
As for myself, I am busy looking around for a crew to paddle canoes north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean next summer.