I slept that night on a pile of backpacks in the rear of a rusting Oldsmobile station wagon as we drove south through Owens Valley with a wall of mountains beside us and a firmament of stars overhead. It was my finest hour. Earlier in the day my scoutmaster told me, in a surprising bit of forbidden language, that I was “one hell of a scout.” He promised to split a beer with me in celebration of my achievement. The backpacks made a lumpy bed, but I slept good that night.
The cuss word was a big deal. Hearing it felt grown up, like a secret initiation, a collusion between two men mature enough to be trusted with such powerful language. And so too was the offer to split a beer. But the truth is, I wasn’t accustomed to sharing. For the past several months dad and I had been taste-testing our way through every imported beer at Trader Joe’s. (My favorite was Newcastle Brown Ale.) After school I’d walk over to dad’s office on the church campus, and when he got off work we’d walk home a mile or so to the new apartment he rented after the divorce. We’d usually stop in at Trader Joe’s to pick up dinner and a couple of beers. For a while we lined up the empty bottles around the countertop in the kitchen ranked by taste. At some point dad thought it wasn’t a good idea and tossed the bottles. Our church tolerated underage drinking, but I was only thirteen and we didn’t want to give the wrong impression.
There was no merit badge for being a hell of a scout. I earned the honor by volunteering to hike out of the deep valley where we had camped for a week alongside the upper Kern River in the central Sierra Nevadas. This was a backpacking trip, but the troop hired a train of horses to carry a carnival of old-fashioned gear recommended by one of the troop’s cranky old survival gurus. Apparently during the Great Tribulation we’d be sleeping in giant sheepherder’s tents, so we might as well get familiar with them. And apparently we’d also be eating homemade beef jerky and beef jerky stew with dehydrated vegetables cooked in Dutch ovens. The jerky had a faint taste of sulfur.
The problem was, once we descended into the valley the troop realized the hike out would be a more difficult than anyone had prepared for. So we asked the outfitters to bring enough horses for us to ride out instead. Except that when they returned they were two horses short. I had recently been appointed senior patrol leader, so all eyes were on me. I didn’t so much volunteer for greatness, I had the honor thrust upon me.
I remember the place vividly. The Kern River was wider than the narrow mountain streams in the San Gabriel mountains, too wide and too swift to cross. There were rapids and rumors of whirlpools that could suck you into underground caverns. Beside our campsite there was a trickle of a stream fed by a warm spring. This was the Golden Trout Wilderness, but no one caught a golden trout that week. We did scoop up minnows and dare each other to drink them from a stainless steel cup. I thought I would feel them swimming in my stomach, but I didn’t. I remember patrolling the banks of the river with the Diawa Mini Spin my mom had bought me for my thirteenth birthday the week or two before the trip. Surely I’d at least catch a rainbow trout, but I don’t remember catching anything at all.
The scout troop was changing. This would be the last camping trip that would include scouts who were not members of our church. There was Tony, who’s father was a teacher at Cal Tech, I think. I liked him. And Rob, one of the older scouts. When we were outside of the earshot of adults, he was the one I think who started a lively conversation about new and improved masturbation skills. I never saw them again after we became a closed troop. There would be no more worldly outsiders, no more dabbling in the occult, no more talk of Dungeons and Dragons.
Our scoutmaster, Mr. Moody, announced near the end of the trip that he was leaving. He and his wife were leaving California altogether and hoping to start a family far, far away from Pasadena. In North Carolina or something. Like the scoutmaster before him, he had taken me under his wing and even taken me in to his home.
When dad and I moved into an apartment together, Mr. Moody would come by often to offer a sympathetic ear. He would sit quietly in the living room, the only room with furniture, while my dad would unload his burdens. Mr. Moody said it always made him feel better after he left, hearing my dad’s spiritual trials. Maybe he was the reason dad tossed our empty beer bottles.
Dad didn’t stay single for long. Forty days after the divorce paperwork was final, he attended a singles mixer at the church. Forty days, of course, is how long Jesus spent in the wilderness, a sign that his days of trial and temptation were over. That very night God answered his prayers when he met Carolyn, a divorcee with two kids who loved dress up like a cowgirl and go country western dancing at night. When dad bought a cowboy hat and boots I knew life was going to change again. I stayed at Mr. Moody’s apartment during their honeymoon.
When I admitted I had embezzled funds from our candy bar sales, Mr. Moody was patient. We stopped at a general store in the mountains before we set out on our hike, a final chance to get snacks and souvenirs. The extra spending money for my birthday was money that I had pilfered from our fundraiser. (Dad decided, since we were broke, that the money I raised could be my birthday money, so we never turned it in to the scouts.) Mr. Moody called it what it was, theft, and I remember the nauseating shame of being exposed. I had stolen. I had violated the honor of the scout law. A scout is trustworthy, and I was a thief. But after that brief rebuke Mr. Moody never mentioned it again. He was the second scoutmaster who saved my life.
So at the end of the week, when the time came to ask for volunteers, I offered to hike out. It was an opportunity for redemption, an opportunity to prove I was worthy of being senior patrol leader. It was an especially steep hike. One stretch included three thousand feet of elevation gain in about as many miles. I remember the elevations because it was twice the climb of my first real mountain hike the year before. The switchbacks were endless. We got a good head start but the team of horses, with my fellow scouts all riding comfortably in the saddles, passed us part way up the mountain. I can still taste the dust and smell the sagebrush and pine. Mr. Moody encouraged me all the way to the top, and when I reached the cars at the trailhead I was a different person.
I was now one hell of a scout. I was now going to share a beer with my scoutmaster. I now knew I could hike three thousand feet up a mountain trail. I now knew I could go home to a new and unfamiliar family. I could overcome. I could do hard things.
These days I seldom sleep as fully as I did in the back of that station wagon. No seat belt, a jacket for a pillow, sprawled out on a mattress of clumpy external frame backpacks. If my muscles and bones ached it was from exertion rather than obesity, inactivity or the ambiguous side-effects of medication. I didn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to pee. There was an uncertain future ahead at the end of the drive, but I felt better prepared for the fight.
I don’t look back with nostalgia. Those were days I never want to relive. But there was a moment then, a few hours, that I would hold onto. As on that day, I’m on a hike that I’ve not precisely volunteered for. None of us have, really. Some days it’s dusty and hard and I feel envy toward those on horseback as they pass me by on the trail. Perhaps the most significant difference is that back then I knew what was at the end of that trail. Water, refreshments, rest. A bit of applause. The destination this time (unless faith draws me to look beyond this life) has death and taxes as its only certainties. Or so they say. Decades after that hike, in a doctor’s waiting room, I would read Thomas à Kempis who said of God, that “he gives us occasions to fight so that we might learn to win.” That night, driving home through the desert in a rusting station wagon, sleeping on top of a pile of backpacks, I felt for a moment what it meant to win.