A Life Lesson

Article & photos by Jack Olson —

Sometimes a life can change under the simplest circumstances. No heroics. No national attention. I still wonder how the lives of some troubled boys might have been altered.

Many years ago, when I was fairly new to Colorado, I became a member of the Colorado Mountain Club to meet people and learn about places to hike in the mountains. Soon after, a Denver community organization connected with CMC to create a program called “Hike Out.” It paired social workers with a person familiar with the mountains and hiking. The idea was to take disadvantaged or troubled boys and give them an experience in learning something new and testing their mettle.

I volunteered for the hiker role and was paired with two social workers. We were joined by six boys. We would have six weeks, one day a week, to acquaint these boys with the outdoors, with the exercise of hiking, and with some joint problem-solving. We would try to build some team spirit. The boys were about twelve years old. Five of them were seemingly streetwise, rough-on-the-edges kids. But the last one was dressed more neatly, with hair combed, and was more withdrawn. The other boys just ignored him.

This was quite a different experience, hiking in the mountains with boys who might have never been out of the Denver area, with the possible exception of the quiet boy. The first day we had been hiking for some time, through dense, dark woods and grassy, sun-flecked meadows. One of the rough-edged boys asked me how many blocks we’d hiked. How many blocks.

One day we arrived at the ruins of a forlorn, forgotten mining camp. I thought they’d be fascinated by a peek at Colorado’s history from the previous century. But they started clambering on the wooden buildings. There were even open pits much too close to adventurous boys. We couldn’t have that kind of behavior or “Hike Out” might become a newsworthy disaster. There was only one thing to do. I hiked them until they were pooped, and they’d just lie down when we stopped. They were not used to the elevation. Score one for the old guy.

The weeks went on, and the rough-and-tumble kids melded with us more and more. But they still ignored the quiet boy. It appeared to have to do with a feeling that he was not really their kind. I didn’t think things were going to change, but we adults tried to encourage and support him. There didn’t seem to be anything we could do to make the boys into a complete team.

On our final day of “Hike Out,” we drove clear up to Summit Lake at 12,800 feet. We wanted to give the boys an experience in the high country, to see what it was like when there were no more trees. Summit Lake lies in a cirque beneath 14,265 foot Mt. Evans, one of the highest mountains in Colorado. It’s a stunning environment of tundra, wildflowers, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. It is absolutely spectacular, and I thought the boys would feel proud of their achievement. But strangely, the rough boys, especially, seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the massive walls of rock towering above them. As we began to hike around the lake, they were unusually silent. No roughhousing or boasting.

We got about halfway around the lake and saw a small bird rising up from the lake then falling back, rising up and falling back, over and over. The bird was wrapped in fishing line, surely a fatal situation. It was flapping around and the tough kids shuddered, afraid, cowered back. But the quiet boy strode right over to the bird, picked it up, unwrapped the fishing line, and the unfettered bird flew away.

Everything changed in an instant. That boy immediately became one of the group. They gathered all around him, amazed at his courage. We were a team. I would like to think that the boys, all of them, learned a valuable life lesson that day.

I did.