Running away and other outdoor skill development programs

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  • 22 October, 2017
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(The original publication of this article can be read in The Spokesman Review.)


At the ripe old age of 7 – having determined myself to have the wisdom and acuity to identify injustice as well as the courage to stand up against it – I ran away.

A line in the snow had to be drawn.

I had been outside on a wintery day peeling logs. The reds and browns of the bark made a carpet on the snow. Most of our living quarters were in fact outside because a family of five doesn’t exactly fit well in a pickup truck camper, no matter how much you love each other.

There was room inside only to eat, write sentences (our current form of discipline/homeschooling, two-birds-with-one-stone kind of method), and sleep. Everything else about our lives was done in the snow and timber of our new ‘home’ – 26 acres of off-grid paradise for the optimistic and naive Californians we were.

Seeing as we were busy gathering moss for chinking and cutting down trees for our future log home, we were pretty well occupied with our outside activities. My jobs were to peel logs, stir the beans and make sure my infant sister didn’t roll off the cab loft bed.

My recollection of labor hours may be skewed, but my 7-year-old brain is pretty sure some international standards were broken.

On one such afternoon, feeling particularly aware of the task at large, the callouses on my youthful hands, the sweat from my toe-head brow, I tromped into the camper, presumably to warm my frozen fingers, kicking snow from my boots and closing the thin door behind me. The camper was warm and inviting (comparably – usually there was ice on the floor and burn marks on the ceiling).

Ahead of me, in the middle of the work day, stretched out on the expansive grown-up bed, lay my mother with her nose buried in a trashy novel. Probably Danielle Steele at that. There were breasts on the cover. That was all the incriminating evidence I needed. My little sister, not even a year old, was nestled to her chest, feeding happily in the oasis of sleeping bags, propane heat, and prose.

I’m not sure what I found most offensive. I slept in the cupboard above the kitchen table, so maybe I was incensed that I didn’t have the same ability to stretch to my full length or hold a book more than four inches from my face. Most likely it was my lack of awareness: My mother was probably reading medical manuals to pass her midwifery exams while struggling to nurse my malnourished, adopted sister.

In any case, I took in that image of sloth and gluttony, seeing her sprawled out like a harem queen, a first wife, a Sorel-stomping enchantress, and revolted.

“What is this?” I inquired with vehemence. “How can you lay here wallowing in your inertia and lethargy [I was 7, I probably said ‘laziness’] and order me to work outside in the cold all day like… like a slave?!”

If I recall correctly, she sort of chuckle-chortled. That’s a half-laugh, half-cough, half-pause-so-child-can-run-before-inevitable-walloping. But I wasn’t done yet.

“If I were not doing all this work, you would not survive. Clearly you do not appreciate me. I am running away.”

Strangely, the conversation ended there. There were no protests, tears, no motherly sobbing or begging for mercy. No pleas for reconsideration or forgiveness. Just the quiet turning page of her cheap literature and the echo of her chortle.

True to my word and dedicated to my honorable fight against tyranny and oppression, I marched across the snowy creek and down the road. I wished I’d eaten lunch first.

Those sons of guns will see what sort of trouble theyve gotten themselves into. Whos gonna peel their logs now, eh? Theyll have to live in that camper forever!

Approximately 400 yards later I imagined they’d had enough of a lesson. I just wanted them to understand, not necessarily be scarred or damaged. Also, it was cold and I didn’t know how to build a shelter, just a log house. So I walked back to the camper.

Surprisingly, nothing had changed. The world had not ended. It was like I hadn’t even been gone. My mother was not in a panic trying to rouse a search party. In fact, she was merely turning the next page.

“I have returned,” I said. “I forgive your ignorance and know that you’ll try harder now.”

Then I went back to my log peeling.

And yet I learned one of my most valuable outdoor skills that day: Don’t wander too far because maybe no one is coming to find you. Also: pack lunch.

Later that day, my writing career began in the most subtle of ways.

I will not run away until my chores are complete.

I will not run away until my chores are complete.

X 100.

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