I’m sure I was a delightful, cheerful child when I was small – although I can’t be sure. My mother did mention that my sister and I used to giggle together so much that it would drive my father crazy – so I’m going to assume that I was perfectly pleasant (for the most part), wonderful to be around (on most occasions), and a joy to parent (nearly all the time).
This all changed when I became a teenager. I wanted to be more of an adult and less of a child, able to be more independent and make my own decisions. When I was 15-years-old, I noticed a poster outside the school counselor’s office, advertising summer work opportunities with YCC – the Youth Conservation Corps. I stopped, intrigued, and as I read the fine print, I learned that the YCC is a government summer employment program for “diverse young men and women ages 15-18 from different backgrounds to work, learn, and earn together by doing projects to protect public lands.” I saw that the Forest Service (which ran the program) paid minimum wage – which seemed like a fortune to an unemployed youth like me! I also noticed that this particular position was based at Dutch John, Utah – which was the nearest form of civilization to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. I would be LIVING AWAY FROM HOME for six weeks!
I applied and was accepted, and as soon as school ended, my parents were thrilled agreed to drive me the four hours to Dutch John to start my adventure! There were about 40 young people from Utah and Wyoming who had landed a position that summer. I was assigned to a pre-fab house, which I shared with 7 other young women, and then I was assigned to a work crew of about 8, made up of both boys and girls. We were told that we would be working eight-hour days, five days a week, regardless of the weather. The projects would be varied, consisting of things like trash pickup, trail building and maintenance, and bathroom cleaning. We were told we would learn valuable work ethic, communication skills, and an appreciation of the natural environment.
Every morning, our first stop was the cafeteria of the local elementary school, where we would dine on delicacies such as overcooked oatmeal and stiff Cream of Wheat. Every so often, when the cook was feeling frisky, we might be graced with rubbery scrambled eggs or cold pancakes. After choking down dining on these nourishing delights, we would then line up and grab a sack lunch on the way out the door. It was always the same thing – bologna on Wonder bread (with a smear of mayonnaise to kick it up a notch), a bag of generic chips, and a soda. The groups would then meet with their adult crew leader, climb aboard the trucks, and start off for whatever exciting job we had been assigned to that day.
I loved YCC! I mean, cleaning up public bathrooms and mucking out campfire sites left a lot to be desired, but I was away from my parents, I was making new friends, and for the most part, we were treated like adults. After we returned to camp and ate dinner in the evenings, the adult leaders went to their houses and we returned to ours – free to listen to music, play cards, read, watch ancient black and white televisions full of static, or flirt with the boys. However, as I had barely turned 15-years-old and was the youngest person in camp, the boys tended to look on me as a kid sister – so, much to my dismay, I had no romantic entanglements that summer.
On the weekends, the camp leaders would take us on field trips – hiking, hiking, hiking, and on a few glorious occasions…something terrifyingly wonderful! Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to do something – and your mom responded with an unequivocal, “No!” So, then you tried to justify your request by telling your mom how all of your friends were doing it? And what did your mom say then? I’ll give you a second to ponder, although your probably don’t even need it. Yes, she said something like, “If all of your FRIENDS jumped off a cliff, would YOU?” In my case, the answer to that question is an emphatic – YES – yes, I WOULD jump off the cliff!
The camp leaders would drive us to a secluded part of Flaming Gorge, with cliffs that were 25-40 feet tall and deep blue water below. By the time you climbed to the top of the cliff and were looking down, the cliffs suddenly seemed more like 200-300 feet tall. It was terrifying and exhilarating and took me about an hour before I was finally able to muster up the courage to make the leap – but after that, I couldn’t climb back up and hurl myself off that cliff fast enough. There’s nothing like plummeting through the hot, dry air, wondering if you had launched yourself far enough out to avoid the rocks below, and then plunging into deep, icy cold water – surrounded by the effervescence of hundreds of bubbles that race you back to the surface.
I think the experience of being on my own, a tiny adult, earning my own money was a changing point in my life – and maybe not for the better for other people in my circle. When I returned home, I chafed against my parent’s rules and I didn’t feel like they understood or respected me. When later that summer I had my back fusion and went into my body cast for nine months, I became even more sullen. But I loved YCC and if I had my life to live again, it is something I would repeat (although I would probably skip the back surgery that came later).