I had turned 12 before the summer my parents put me on a train for the three-day journey west—to the Tanner Brothers Wilderness School. The place sounded compelling at first: climb mountains, shoot rifles, explore seldom-trod canyons on horseback, and learn all the skills you might need if you ever were to survive a plane crash. That last part sounded a bit extreme, for sure, but the prospect of becoming as tough as Clint Eastwood appealed to most any candy-ass whippersnapper—even one used to seeing sunsets framed behind the skyscrapers visible from his living room window. And in my case the experience was meant to substitute for our annual family summer vacation spent at a fancy western “dude” ranch (a place where my mother would sleep in the mountain sunshine with an open book spread across her chest, the ranch wranglers would attend to my sister as she chased horses in a corral, and I’d fly-fish with my father in streams as fresh as the surrounding pine-scented air—and where, at night, we’d come together for a square dance, to enjoy the wide-brimmed caller scratch his fiddle and bellow, “Do-si-do and an alaman left, now promenaaade!”).
My parents had announced during winter that we wouldn’t be going away as usual, which saddened me. But the Tanner Brothers summer camp was offered instead, and I’m sure I would’ve jumped on that westbound train with unbridled gusto—had not Monique joined our household only a month before my scheduled departure.
A trained nurse hired to help tend to my sister (whose throat always sounded as if filled more fully than any cough could clear), Monique had once been from France. Youthful and pretty, her auburn strands of short-cropped hair arced forward along her cheekbones, tightly framing her face, a face with full, red lips, sweeping eyelashes, and eyes as dark and green as shaded grass. When Monique stepped off the elevator, her accent danced through our apartment, and I was in love even before she said, “You muss be zee beeg brothurr.”
And she could cook—boy, could she cook.
Before she arrived I’d avoided our kitchen and its table covered with rows of plastic medication bottles, but Monique drew me in; first, with a rhythm of clanging pots and pans, then with aromas: garlic roasting in olive oil, tomato sauce thick as stew that simmered with hints of basil, boiling artichokes, and, my favorite, the breaths of vanilla and coconut (or was that pineapple?) released from cake batter rising within the oven. And, of course, there was her sundress; pale purple and breezy, its hem floating—never lower than mid-thigh—over blushed curves I’d never noticed on a girl before. I imagined touching her hips, reaching for her hand, but she’d just smile before running off to soothe my sister’s echoing cough.
Little wonder that as I stood on the platform at Penn Station waiting to board my train, I hesitated to go. A porter pulled my olive duffel onto the shiny Pullman coach, and as I looked out from my window seat, I could see my parents stand with my sister, waving her bony arm, but there, too, was Monique, and as the train pulled away, I stared at her and didn’t stop until she disappeared in the distance. For what seemed an hour, all I wanted was to jump off and run back to her.
The yellow Union Pacific express (we’d changed trains in Chicago) squealed to a stop in some god-forsaken, treeless town where tumbleweed, or maybe it was just garbage, staggered down Main Street with each dusty wind gust; a real Wild West place where even outlaws must’ve wanted to escape. Courtney Tanner was easy to recognize, he looked like a mountain man with a red scraggly beard and furrowed forehead, who, when not speaking his carefully chosen words, whistled a steady, upbeat tune. Asked why he liked to whistle, Courtney just grinned and said, “I want the bears to hear me coming.” He herded all us campers together on the railroad station platform. There were 30 of us, from all over the country. The youngest, some 10-year-old kid named Flint, cried homesick for the entire first week, and the oldest, 15-year-old Max, who already shaved, brought the biggest bow and arrow setup any of us had ever seen (he looked fully capable of killing any critter that got in his way).
Then it was on a bus for hours of drool-dribbling sleep until jerked back to consciousness by the washed-out potholes of the camp’s gravel access road. We passed a stable full of droopy-headed horses before the bus hissed to a stop in front of a house-sized, white canvas tent, beyond which spread an icy, dark lake at the base of a jagged mountain rock wall with snowfields smothering the highest ridges. And behind us stood the tepees—seven of them—authentic, weather-stained canvas tepees with dry, gray support poles sticking out the tops.
I lugged my duffel to the assigned tepee and officially met Zach, a skinny kid from Chicago whose clothes anticipated a growth spurt still many years off, and Kenny from Atlanta (or “Alana” as he pronounced it), whose ruddy complexion betrayed a devotion to anything tasting greasy or sweet. We organized our sleeping bags on cots scattered around a campfire ring centered on the dirt floor. For the next month that tepee became headquarters to brag about adventures, wonder what’s the deal with girls, and break into hysterics from every fart and belch as we drifted into the deepest muscle-twitching sleep ever. But on that first night, we were still strangers and stayed kind of quiet. I stared up to where our tepee poles converged and drifted off into the bright stars swirling in the opening above…
She was cooking, perhaps my good-bye meal, her apron tied tight around her curves with a bow that looked as perfect as one ribboned on a holiday gift. Oven mitts engulfed her arms, and I watched the apron bunch up around her waist as she bent down to pull a pan out of the oven. Steam flushed her cheeks when she held up her creation for me to see: cheese, browned slightly, bubbling with a crimson sauce and clear orange oil more vibrant than an autumn maple. And before the scene changed, I saw her lips smile and her eyelashes blow a kiss.
Clang! Clang! Clang! sounded a bell right outside our tepee.
“Holy crap! What’s that?” Zach shouted.
We jumped into our blue jeans and scampered out the tepee flap with bootlaces trailing across the predawn frosted grass. Bob Tanner, taller and broader than his brother and wearing a spotless, wide-brimmed Stetson, banged a hammer against an oversize cowbell. His fingers looked strong enough to bend quarters, and I prayed the darkness masked my shaking. Standing at attention, no one dared interrupt as he announced we were expected to earn our breakfast— every morning—and any late risers would be washing down outhouses. At that moment I needed to use one.
For nearly an hour we chopped wood, hauled brush, and shoveled horse manure (each of us, no doubt, wondering if this was what we’d signed up for) before the brothers led us single file into the main tent. Our dust-caked noses were filled immediately with scents of grilled meats, toast, and fresh muffins, and if not for our labored breathing, the sounds of twisted, growling stomachs would’ve been unmistakable. Bob bellowed for attention and pointed to a rectangular sign hung above the serving table with blackened words seemingly branded into the wood. It was the Tanner Brothers’ “Eating Rules,” no exceptions allowed: “Take some of everything—finish all that you take.”
I didn’t understand the allegory, realizing instead, that if Brussels sprouts were on the menu, I would have to eat them—even if they made me puke.
Not an issue during that first breakfast: Their wide, flat grill sizzled with greasy shredded hash browns, plump link sausages, piles of bacon, dripping with fat, rows of eggs, sunny-side up, their edges turning brown and crispy, and stacks of toast and muffins at the end of the serving counter surrounded by bowls of butter and jam. As we sat afterward, holding our bloated stomachs, Kenny whimpered, “I think I’m gonna barf!” and then he disappeared for near an hour.
Surviving in the wilderness (plane crash or not) comes down to two things: finding shelter and enough food to hold out until the cavalry arrives (or crawl back to civilization if a viable choice). We had two weeks to prepare for the “Survival Hike,” the camp’s four-day examination, which loomed as the menacing equivalent of following a set of one-way footprints into a bat-infested cave. First off, we learned to make fires by scraping sparks off a magnesium stick into dried kindling—a valuable lesson, which taught us to never go anywhere—ever— without a magnesium stick. Next, we sewed a canvas backpack to carry the few supplies allowed: sleeping bag, poncho, one bullet (we’d share one rifle on the “hike”), hunting knife, and toothbrush (I also had a length of monofilament fishing line and a couple flies that my father gave me and which Courtney said I could bring along—since I knew how to use them). We learned to shoot, somewhat straight, set up small game traps and snares, skin animals (you cut around their ankles and wrists, slice up to the abdomen, and peel away—gutting them afterward is less fun), build shelters from branches and pine boughs, and even how to cross raging streams, which wasn’t so much about wading across with a support pole, but, rather, how to survive when you fell into freezing rocky rapids (something each of us was forced to experience).
Dinner the night before the hike was a feast: cheeseburgers on toasted buns, hot dogs, mashed potatoes, fruit, brownies, and chocolate milk; a meal we piled high and scarfed down as if it’d be our last, which seemed a distinct possibility. We waddled back to our tepees suspicious that our bloated bellies held another Tanner Brothers life lesson we were meant to decode— someday.
Kenny asked, “Do you think they’re trying to fill us so we’ll last the whole four days?”
“Only you,” said Zach. “You get big enough we won’t need to find food—we’ll eat you!” Then, as if on cue, he let out a tepee-quaking gas blast.
We laughed and then fell silent.
I tried thinking of Monique—her eyelashes, her full chest, the impossibly perfect taper of her calves—and I wondered if was she lying in her bed, too, and ever thought of me?
Our group woke well before the morning cowbell.
Then it was time to survive.
The hike started on a flat, dusty horse trail heading north, parallel to the gray granite spires to our east, and only gradually did the trail arc toward the peaks, steadily gaining altitude until, by midday, what had been a hike now seemed more a climb. Dinner was long forgotten and sweat soaked my shirt. Kenny looked ashen, while Zach, alone among us, appeared unfazed and spritely, whistling an unrecognizable tune that was infinitely more annoying than the one Courtney blew up ahead. The trail rose sharply alongside a cascading stream, into which any of us would’ve liked to dunk our sweaty heads and which drowned out our frenzied inhalation and breathless coughing.
As if knowing we’d reached our limit, the trail flattened through meadow grass and into a high country valley. The stream now meandered through a slough of willow thickets and beaver ponds, and although no trees were visible on the scree-covered flanks of the surrounding glacier-topped mountains, the valley’s craggy hillsides sheltered numerous groves of spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine. We trudged, exhausted, behind Courtney as he headed off the trail, angling toward an isolated clump of tall spruce, where, upon entering, he finally said, “We’re here!”
Shelter first: Zach, Kenny and I wedged a log in the crook of a tree, leaned branches against it, and in no time had the frame covered in pine boughs, the result barely able to withstand a high-country thunderstorm but better than nothing. Next: food—God, did I need food. None of us wanted to admit our hunger, but I, at least, was certain the starvation process had begun.
I joined a hunting party, and soon the eight of us—with eight bullets and one .22 rifle—scampered over nearby hillsides and boulders, looking to shoot anything that moved (hopefully, something edible). But our procession was odd at best: If they couldn’t smell us, any self-respecting animal must’ve felt the vibration of boots crunching on rocks or our none-too-quiet whispers. Our best chance was to spy some dumb, curious critter, or one paralyzed in fear on a tree branch, before it showed the good sense to skedaddle.
Our first shot was at a squirrel working over a pinecone at the base of a tree. Max had the rifle. He waved us down behind him like an Army lieutenant and raised the rifle purposely, taking aim. My shoulders tensed, waiting for the report. I closed my eyes. Bang! The shot echoed off the hillside, and we all looked at the target. The squirrel was gone.
Of course, Max wanted another shot, but he’d have to wait his turn and our rifle had announced our group’s intentions. We saw one more squirrel and a rockchuck before the sky darkened over the eastern peaks and we headed back. I was grateful my turn to misaim the gun never came.
A raging campfire flickered off the branches above, its warmth doing little to dull the stomach pangs made worse by gulps of fresh, clear stream water. If I’d wanted to fall asleep thinking of Monique, there was little chance.
By morning my nose felt frozen—it was goddamn cold.
None of us wanted to leave our sleeping bags. White, wispy smoke rose from still-smoldering embers, but no one makes a move to blow them back up into fire. Only when sunshine rose, above the peaks and sliced into the grove, did we emerge. Zach and Kenny wanted to set traps; their boots were already tied, so I followed them to a south-facing hillside cobble just beyond the pine grove. The fact that we had no bait and would need an unsuspecting creature to misstep to achieve success was left unsaid, but it felt good to be busy. I dug holes for covered drop pits, fastened twine to a sage branch bended taut against a trigger stick, before brushing sand over the calm snare loop, and as I lifted a wide, flat rock—I saw the snake.
He was a big one—biggest garter snake I’d ever seen (they were a regular sight along shore rocks when fishing with my father)—and he sat still, coiled loosely like a paper clip, staring at me from a rock in the warming sun. I lowered the stone I’d intended to suspend as a trap and stared back. He was an old-timer—he’d shed a lot of skins—and this was his hillside. I wondered if he had ever seen other campers during previous summers but knew it wasn’t a good idea for any animal, even a snake, to be seen by the likes of us.
He straightened his coils and I turned my head, slowly, to make sure Zach and Kenny hadn’t noticed. When I looked back, not one second later, he was gone.
Zach said, “What are you lookin’ at?”
And I replied, “Nothing.”
By late afternoon we’d gone more than a day without food. Skin tightened between my eyes and ears, and my fingerprints were visible through dust and dryness. Another hunting party returned—this time triumphant—with Max carrying a medium-size rockchuck. In short order its skin was off and stretched over a log, the belly sliced and scooped clean, and the remaining gray meat chopped into chunks and skewered onto willow saplings to balance over the campfire. We learned a sad reality at that moment about small, fuzzy animals: Once you get rid of the fuzz, there isn’t much left to eat. The rockchuck meat cooked down to less than a single small chicken, and when split 20 ways, all anyone received was two, maybe three, bites of genuine high-country varmint. And it does not taste like chicken. Honoring the Eating Rules did little to quell our hunger. Still, none of us imagined only a few months earlier that we’d ever volunteer to sample the flesh of a wild animal, and, no doubt, we would retell the story endlessly upon our return home. But at that moment I wouldn’t have minded a plate of steaming Brussels sprouts either.
As we sat around the campfire afterward, Courtney asked Max what he planned to do with the rockchuck pelt, and he said, half jokingly, “My girlfriend will love it.”
Once the three of us were zipped into our sleeping bags for the night, each quiet and staring at the steep-slanting pine boughs above us, Zach broke the silence. “Any of you guys ever kiss a girl?” he asked, most likely inspired by Max. And although the subject sounded incongruous, for whatever reason, no one objected.
“I kissed Claudia DeSantis on the last day of school,” Kenny said skyward. “She drew a heart in my yearbook, but I imagined I was kissing her mom—everyone is in love with her mom. What about you?”
“Not really, I mean, I kissed Vicki Everett on the bus once,” Zach answered, “but I must’ve done it wrong, cause she wouldn’t talk to me anymore.”
We must have been too tired to laugh, for we just chuckled. And I knew it was my turn. I closed my eyes and lied: “I kissed my sister’s nurse once.”
“Nurse?” Kenny drawled. “What’s that?”
“My little sister is sick…” I said and then hesitated, suddenly filled with a biting emptiness.
Someone said, “Yeah, okay.” And our shelter went quiet, sleep winning out.
I felt guilty that I lied about Monique, but how could I admit the truth? That I was in love beyond all reason? They were my friends, sure, yet they could never understand—hell, I wasn’t sure I could understand my feelings. So I had tried, instead, to say something, anything, that sounded cool. But as I lay there, fighting off my exhaustion, I realized I was ashamed, ashamed most of all, that I hadn’t thought of my sister even once since leaving home.
We checked the traps in the midmorning sun, and of course, they were empty. Although a few trails of tiny footprints skirted around nearby rocks, those animals had stayed shrewdly distant from our efforts. Kenny stated what he thought was obvious: “Maybe we should spread around some rockchuck guts.”
“Oh, come on,” Zach said as if that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. “What do you want to catch? A hawk?”
“Now that oughta taste like chicken,” Kenny answered, which got us laughing.
We spread out on the rocks to soak up some warmth. Almost three days and we’d eaten only a few bites. A cool breeze competed against the sun. Off in the distance a single rifle shot echoed.
“Can’t be many bullets left,” said Zach into the sky.
My eyelids shone scarlet, closed against the sun. The warm rock pushed against curves in my back, but I relaxed, almost melting into the granite.
“What do y’all suppose was the best meal you ever had?” asked Kenny, apparently way too fixated on what seemed so far removed. We remained quiet, thinking. Then he continued, “Well, I can tell you, for me it was chicken: battered, fried, and spicy with pepper…”
I didn’t hear the rest of what he said, yet I remember Zach picking up when Kenny stopped, something about pizza stuffed with all manner of meat and cheese, and I was drifting, again seeing Monique blow hair from her eyes—and my sister, this time laughing as when she chased horses at the ranch. Someone was talking at me, and I opened my eyes.
Zach said, “Hey, maybe a fish would do the trick. I mean for bait. You still got that fishing line?”
Before I could answer Kenny stuttered, “H—holy crap—look at that!”
Somehow I knew it was the snake. He slid along the ground below the rocks where we sat. He was oblivious to the danger, and I wanted to scare him away, but I also wondered at the same instant, why?
It was too late; Zach and Kenny jumped off the rocks in pursuit. He hid beneath a rock. They pulled it up and he was off again, scurrying fast out of sight. Then Kenny shouts, “Over here!” And there, in a drop-pit hole I’d dug the day before, coiled the big snake, his two-pronged tongue flashing in terror. God, I wanted them to leave it alone—let it live out its days undisturbed—but Zach grabbed the snake’s tail, and within seconds we were marching back to the pine grove with our now limp and headless snake.
They were happy to make a contribution, finally, to our survival cause, but the morning left me sad, and I watched silently as they prepared to roast the animal. I knew the thing would taste lousy: too old and tough, and who ever heard of anyone eating a garter snake (rattler, maybe, but not a garter)? In fact, that poor old snake ended up tasting putrid and even Courtney agreed to suspend The Eating Rules—”Just this once.” But I didn’t wait for my measly taste and slunk off instead toward the stream with the fly line and fly my father had given me, and I realized as I walked away from the spruce grove that I had never fished alone.
A break in willow thickets allowed me to kneel quietly and dangle the fly that I’d knotted to the line and a 10-foot leafless willow branch out onto a still beaver pond’s surface. Tiny ripples expanded over the water, and I jerked the branch, raising and dropping the fly and— swoosh—a splash erupted. But my reactions were slow, and I missed the strike. My heart raced and I tried not to breathe as I let the surface smooth back to a reflection of the afternoon clouds. I twitched the fly again onto the glassy surface—another splash—and this time a little brook trout hooked itself and darted jerkily to escape. My willow branch bended and wavelets riffled the water, but the hook held firm and I lifted the frantically convulsing fish above the willows and onto the grass—its crimson spots and white-tipped fins appeared as neon; its gills pulsed and mouth gulped for air. In the skinny fish’s panicked eyes, I saw my father’s creased face the night before I left for camp, after we’d finished Monique’s meal and after she’d put my sister to bed, when I had asked him quietly if my sister would ever get better.
I fished among the beaver ponds until the sun lowered behind afternoon clouds, and an errant flip snagged the fly in an unreachable bramble. I knew Zach and Kenny would badger for being gone so long with nothing to show for it (“Hey, we thought you knew how to fish!”), but I just smiled, preferring to remember each of the many fish I’d caught, how they looked so vivid and wild, how I couldn’t imagine their bright hues graying in the dry air, and how it felt to
release them all back to cool, still water.
My sister died not two weeks after I returned from the Tanner Brothers. Her lungs had thickened beyond her strength and any medicine’s chance to clear them. We never discussed it but my parents must not have wanted me to see her waste away. They, too, needed my time away to steel their emotions for the inevitable, and although they looked weary when meeting my train, their look never betrayed the sadness that filled our apartment the next few days. I couldn’t avoid the despair of a dying sister—my parent’s child—yet I nonetheless felt prepared, knowing instinctively to stay out of the way.
Monique was gone not a month later. I wrote her twice during the following year, each a rambling report on school, friends, and lousy food without any expression of the emotions I’d felt all along (funny how a love left unrevealed becomes a love that never really fades). She didn’t write back but one day the phone rang, and I heard my mother mention her name; Monique now owned a restaurant high in some mountain ski town, perhaps not too far from the Tanner Brothers camp—and she had married. I didn’t care. We talked for over an hour, about what I can no longer remember, but I know I didn’t want the call to end, and, of course, when I’d said almost everything there was to say, we said good-bye. And never spoke again.
During the days after my sister’s death, I remembered a jumble of thoughts: I considered my parents selfish for sending me away from a true love; a thought soon replaced by the realization I’d never have met Monique had my sister not been ill; and then, too, I’d never been sent to the Tanner Brothers Wilderness School, where, perhaps, that big old snake would still be scurrying in search of a warm boulder to rest while worrying only about the hawks circling above. All of which would bring me back to thoughts of a sister I’d barely known and how, for some strange reason, during the last night of our camp survival test, I had foreseen the events soon to come.
That night, high in the mountains, it was cold, and we were near starved and exhausted. My eyes soon stopped following the moonlight arc through pine branches above, and my sleep swirled into a dream. I was home, floating from room to room, the wall shapes familiar yet colorless, and a trembling murmur drew me toward dozens of people I could remember, dressed in dark suits and dresses and speaking in whispers. Their lips stopped moving as I drifted past, and a rhythmic scratching replaced their sudden silence, pulling me toward the kitchen, where warm air encircled me and all shapes seemed to distort as if a mirage. Centered in the rippling air, Monique came into focus. She stood in a black dress, her arm mixing an invisible liquid. I reached for her and tried to tell her, excitedly, about animals hunted, the old snake, fish I watched swim away, and how I’d thought of her whenever moonglow lightened the treetops. But she couldn’t see me and continued placing formless morsels on trays whisked away by expressionless, white-gloved servers. I glided about, angling to touch Monique’s bare arms, knowing that if she could feel my touch, she might grasp hold and the dream would become real. But she opened an oven door instead, releasing a wave of heat, which repelled my approach, the warmth beading sweat on my forehead. I called out for my parents’ help, yet the murmuring guests drowned out my voice, and when I screamed for my sister—all sound ceased—and Monique’s face turned from pale to sallow. I struggled to stay in the dream, but drops of moisture rolled into my eyes, blurring vision until cooler waters splashed against my cheek and I saw clouds above snow-draped branches drifting against an early-dawn sky.