I would give anything to go back to the summers of my teenage years. I used to attend to an interesting and unique school that trained the students for field biology and other scientific careers. We were an Explorer Post and used to spend our weekends and summers in the field, working for the forest service by clearing trails or clearing streams of deadfalls or just scientific research, and geological, plants and bird and animal scatology identification.
We hiked and backpacked all over California and Oregon, we did some amazing, incredible things. Our teachers were unique people, and I learned a lot from them including how to get along with difficult and irascible individuals, a skill which has stood me in good stead over the years.
One summer I took over cooking for the group, over 60 extremely hungry and growing kids using Government surplus and Army surplus foodstuffs, if you want to call it that. We made the best of it, of course. We had already learned to forage so I tried to supplement the menu as much as I could, if not for everyone then for myself. There was the rattlesnake incident, of course, and I learned a trick from my older sister about letting the cheddar sit out so that it would age. She was the cook too during her years at the same school, five years ahead of me.
I remember finding wild chives on a mountain slope in Lassen national volcanic park along the slopes of Mount Brokeoff by a stream bed. I collected as many as I could find and added them to my government surplus pressed turkey roll sandwich and it made it actually pretty edible. I foraged dates fallen from the trees in the groves at Furnace Creek to add to the deplorable oatmeal. We got creative with Tiger Juice and canned pineapple juice for pancakes. Nothing really could salvage the dried eggs but I did my best to get them fluffy with powdered milk. You try making scrambled eggs for 60 grouchy teenagers sometime!!
During our survival exercises, we had to kill a lamb and kill Cornish game hens, to simulate killing a deer or wild fowl in the field. I brought a Bento box from home stuffed with herbs and spices to help flavor up my share. One teacher expressed scorn at my stash but a few others asked if they could us the garlic, rosemary and other herbs I brought. Bay leaves were added to everything, and I learned that if you picked enough bay leaves you could create your own tick and mosquito repellent, it worked, sort of, and I certainly smelled better than everybody else. I learned how to create a balm for said tick and mosquito bites by using Manzanita leaves, and the bark made a really nice tea.
Junk food like candy and chips and sodas were contraband, so we learn to enjoy acceptable contraband such as kippered herrings, salamis, Ak Mak and canned black bread. One blissful weekend each year was spent up at the Battle Creek fish hatchery where we would each be given a large empty tin can and sent out to collect as many blackberries as we could. We would come back stained purple and full with our cans also full. We made an incredible blackberry sauce to put over ice cream that was purchased from the grocery store miles and miles away. It was such a decadent treat and only happened once a year. There was that one memorable time we left the sauce out until the next day and it fermented! The sauce was an especially delicious treat with our high protein pancakes (high protein because the mosquitoes would divebomb the griddle, oh well!)!
We lived rough, sleeping on the ground, rarely ever with tents, and endured freezing cold or extremely hot temperatures, brutal hikes and hard physical labor. It was some of the best times of my life.
I learned skills that would surprise my current friends and coworkers. I learned how to climb trees using a rope and with a chainsaw to cut down deadfalls, rock climbing and bouldering techniques from actual experts, rather than what my sister and I tried to figure out on our own bouldering. We kayaked down class four rivers, learning how to flip our kayaks in the swimming pool at school. I learned how to tread water for over an hour fully dressed, and how to use my blue jeans to form a flotation device. We backpacked into Death Valley in extremely remote areas that most people don’t ever go to, into old gold mining camps, defunct borax mines and caves with hidden Indian drawings that only we knew about, and we kept that secret safe. We sang songs and wrote some too and there was always someone with a guitar. The music was amazing. I had a songbook from my early teens that had every hippie and folk song around and that was almost worn out from use. There were no cell phones or iPods but sometimes someone had a Walkman (also contraband) so we had to entertain ourselves on the 7-11 hour car trips. The bird of prey game was quite popular, negative points for misidentifying a turkey vulture for a BOP.
We were tough and strong and got really dirty and we had the most fun. We were smart and savvy and were safe. Nothing scared me, I did the most reckless and incredible things back then and have injuries, scars and wear and tear now to prove it. I used to backpack carrying 75% of my bodyweight in gear, wish we had the great lightweight gear that’s out there now! But I wouldn’t give up those days for a hot minute, despite what how my knees and ankles feel today. I pulled out my songbook the other day and tried to play a few chords on my soprano guitar and wished with all my might I could be out under the stars surrounded by pine trees and near a stream. Someday, ankle, someday!