The Timing Of Motivation

The Timing Of Motivation

Just out of college I worked for an at-risk-youth wilderness therapy outfit. We took kids into the backcountry for seven to thirteen weeks while their parents decided if they would come back home or go to a residential boarding school.

In the backcountry we did group therapy with the kids, taught them to start a fire with a bow drill so they could cook quinoa, of all things, and taught them basic environmental science.

This program ran all year in the Montana backcountry. It was the job that made me never take another backpacking trip, personal or professional, but that's a different issue.

One spring day, we saw a grizzly track. I made sure to show it to all the kids as an example of why properly storing their food was important. The kids, aged twelve to eighteen, all with severe mental health issues, predictably freaked out, and instead of internalizing, I shouldn't sleep with my cherry chapstick in my pocket went into full hysterics, and it took us an extra hour to move on from the track.

Finally, behind schedule because of the collective melt down, we reached a big mountain clearing where we decided to make camp for the night. We had a standard way of making camp. We designed it in a triangle. One point was the kitchen, one was the latrine, and one was the sleeping area. We assigned which kids were setting up which part and let them go.

The girl we assigned to set up the latrine came back a little earlier than we expected. Usually that one took a while because of how much digging was required, and when this girl came back, she was acting like a dog who had gotten into the treat bag behind your back but figured they could play it cool and you wouldn't figure it out.

But there was a lot going on, so it took a while before we double checked with her that the latrine had been set up.

"Yeah. I did it," she told us.

She pointed to the few trees in the clearing.

"It's over there. It already stinks and is all torn up, so it's like, perfect."

"What do you mean, it already stinks and is all torn up?" I asked.

She shrugged and asked if she could set up her tarp. I told her sure and went back to whatever I was doing.

Predictably, some kid had needed to take a poop since last night but hadn't at the morning's camp, so he was dying to get to the latrine. He went and came back.

"It's kinda scary. It feels weird, like I shouldn't be in there."

"What?" I said.

"It's like, what's that word? Ominous, man. Like, real bad juju."

By this point I was able to break free of whatever I was doing, and I walked across the beautiful mountain lea, the grass green, the surrounding mountians sublime in their spring snow, and entered the 'ominous' copse of trees that held the latrine.

Immediately, I smelled animal. Like a big animal. Like a predator, musky and primal. I looked at the ground. It was all shredded up. And scattered across the shadow dappled dirt, I saw pieces of a dead animal. And not just any animal, a fucking elk. A dead elk was scattered across the latrine. I picked up a long bone. It had been bitten in half.

I then saw the girl we had assigned to dig the latrine hadn't dug anything. A depression, now complete with a single human turd, had been scraped at the base of a tree by obvious claws.

I wasn't sure if a grizzly or a mountain lion had been using this spot to dismember and eat a half ton ungulate, but either way, pooping in it probably invited a fight that the three instructors and ten unstable teens weren't going to win.

I dashed back into the sunlight.

"We need a new latrine," I told the senior instructor.

He was predictably annoyed at this. Several kids were crying about some slight I hadn't had the pleasure of witnessing.


I looked at the kids and motioned him away from them. He followed me, clearly exasperated.

"I think it's a grizzly den. There are dead elk pieces all over the place."

He perked up at this.

"You know," he said, "the ankle bone of an elk makes a great hand piece for a bow drill. Did you see an ankle bone over there?"

I hadn't looked.

We assigned the same girl to actually dig the latrine in a location of our choosing. She cried, but we didn't tell her why we were making her re-dig it. It wasn't until we were trying to leave the next morning, that we told them, they'd almost put their latrine in a grizzly den.

That was the fastest we ever got out of camp.