I was enthralled by a classified ad that appeared in late March 1976. To work in some way conserving the outdoors where I’d grown up fishing, hunting and foraging wild plants was how I’d always envisioned my life. But what job could this be?
The ad’s timing was ironic. I’d just returned home from two futile months couch-surfing off friends of friends in Washington, D.C. Buoyed by a new degree in an oddly cobbled major that Penn State called “Environmental Resource Management,” I’d made cold-call visits to the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and any other “service” whose title sounded as if it might offer “outdoor” work in wild places. When I walked into federal headquarters asking for a job, the receptionists’ stares were blank. Thankfully, I had a lot to learn about a government employment search, because that help-wanted ad led to the most demanding and memorable work of my life.
I called the number and learned that Pressley Ridge Wilderness School, near Ohiopyle, had placed the ad. I’d hunted grouse and fished for trout around Ohiopyle for years, yet I’d never heard of the place. The last half mile of the drive to my interview made me glad for my 1969 Bronco’s four-wheel drive, and I felt more at home than in any stuffy office I’d crashed in D.C. That comfort, though, was short-lived. The first sight to confront me was a tall adolescent boy cavorting on the roof of a rustic but official-looking building, tearing up shingles and flipping them, like Frisbees, to a delighted knot of boys below. Two taller and bearded young men were trying to restore order.
Pressley Ridge Camp, as it was sometimes called, was a therapeutic outdoor program for “emotionally disturbed” boys. I learned that the job offered was teacher-counselor and that my lack of formal training in psychology or childcare was not considered an obstacle. My interests and skills in the outdoors, I was told, would fit well into the school’s way of working with troubled kids. Each counselor lived with a group of 10 boys and one counselor-partner in tents on the school’s “campus.” Four groups were already living there, widely spread across 1,200 acres of boulder-strewn woods. If hired, my partner and I would nurture 10 new boys, yet to be enrolled, filling out the program’s complement of five resident groups.
When I was called later and offered the job, I was conflicted. I wouldn’t be working to protect wildlife or conserve forests, as I’d imagined my career, but I’d be out in the woods every day. I accepted, and after a couple of weeks camping with experienced counselors and their groups, my new partner Terry Dunkle, a trained childcare worker from Pittsburgh, and I met the boys with whom we’d live in the woods.
Most were from tough Pittsburgh neighborhoods, but some came out of rough rural parts of surrounding counties. All were behaviorally challenged in some way, most on the wrong side of the law. Many had no secure family foundation.
Nothing revealed the challenges these boys faced like their “home-stays.” At six-week intervals, we drove them home for brief visits with whatever family they had. One boy, Hank, (all boys’ names are pseudonyms) was a chronic bed-wetter, which brought on considerable scorn. Terry and I tried hard to help him overcome the humiliating habit, waking him at night then walking the trail to the latrine through all kinds of weather. Hank was morose and quiet the first time we arrived at his mother’s dank apartment for home-stay, where a suffocating stench enveloped us at the door. Nestled deep within a bulky recliner, Hank’s mom apologized for the odor but confided that since she could not muster the motivation to get up and walk to the bathroom, so she voided her bladder there in her chair.
Pressley’s staff arranged a family conference for another boy from a declining coal patch in Somerset County. His mother arrived for the meeting with a male companion, and as we discussed her son’s progress, she and her date engaged in an intense make-out session in the crowded room, with her son in attendance. The camp director aborted the session. I couldn’t imagine how a young boy processed such a thing, but things like this explained some of the misbehavior. Fathers were not in the picture for most of the boys.
Another window into their backgrounds was “pow-wow,” convened by each group around their fire every night before bed. At pow-wow, boys spoke openly about anything they wished that dealt with their progress in camp or their hopes for the future. Pow-wow was always enlightening, sometimes heartwarming, and often sobering. Encircled, their faces flame-lit, the boys shared their home-lives or lack thereof. I learned for the first time how fortunate I’d been.
In camp, the group took the place of family. Groups worked, cooked, ate, slept and planned their week ahead as a unit. Group progress and comfort depended on every member’s input. Ours was among camp’s older groups, ages 15 – 17. Pressley Ridge encouraged adoption of Native American tribal titles, place names or cultural icons for the names of groups, and boys referred to their teacher-counselors as “chiefs.” After weighing several suggestions, the boys chose “Quehanna” as our group’s name. In my understanding, the word is of Algonquian origin, translating roughly to “camping place near a stream,” fitting ours well.
Quehanna lived in a cluster of tents beside Long Hollow Run, near a flat spot between boulders where we would build a cabin for winter shelter. We needed to get the cabin finished before winter hit Laurel Ridge but constructing a livable structure working with boys who had rarely cooperated with anyone on any endeavor was a daunting task. Yet, it presented just the kind of group challenge and reliance on one another that brought out ways to employ each boy’s skills, and progress quickened as autumn approached. That cabin, built by Quehanna in the summer of 1976, remained in use throughout the life of the Pressley Ridge program. Later groups built lighter shelters of canvas lashed to logs every spring for summer use, then dismantled them each fall before moving into the cabin, so that all groups passing through the program provided shelter for themselves.
We cut firewood almost daily (no chainsaws), worked on our cabin, dug the latrine, and laid a gravity-aided water-line from a spring higher on the ridge. We cooked at our campsite three days each week and ate common meals in the dining hall the rest. Say what you will about assigning adjudicated boys to the woods with sharp tools in their reach, but camp life offered them something I believe is missing from the lives of nearly all modern American youth — tasks simple enough for a boy to complete, yet also important to the group’s welfare and comfort. There’s therapy in that.
Because of my own affinity for outdoor life, I suppose, my most vivid remembrances surround the boys’ blossoming ease in what was initially to them an alien place. Some could mimic bird calls — jays, thrushes or ovenbirds among them. Weather predictions soon came from informed experience, and boys taught newcomers to pluck teaberries along the trail for snacks. “Tastes just like gum,” they’d proclaim. Quehanna boys learned to know all the trees of the Alleghenies — which trees’ wood was useful as fuel, which split readily, and which could last as coals in the cabin’s woodstove, quick to rekindle at wake-up, through nights when our boots froze to the floor.
Always, I will remember the first time a grin replaced one boy’s habitual scowl. His name was Teddy, and he’d grown up in Pittsburgh’s Garfield district. Teddy was tall, athletic and quick to anger, but he had a sensitive side when something cut through his steely façade. We were cutting wood with bow saws. It was hot, and I bent to slurp cupped handfuls from the clear cold spring where Teddy had refused for weeks to drink because “That’s dirty, man.” But this time, in the July heat, he relented. He stretched his long frame on the ferns and slaked deep. When he rose his face was dewy, a cool tautness to his dark skin, and his smile flashed wide. “Y’all is makin’ me into a mountain man!”
Sometime later, Teddy and I paddled a canoe among snags of flooded timber on Cranberry Glade Lake. As we drifted close to one snag, a hole in its trunk at eye-level filled up with metallic-green feathers, and a tree swallow flashed away over the lake. We sculled in close and Teddy peered inside the cavity, leaning the canoe to starboard. I saw his jaw drop and his grip on the snag melt to a caress. Turning back toward me, he could not contain a child-like awe through the bluster he normally bore. Inside, he’d seen the swallow’s nest crammed with nestlings, open-mouthed and reaching. I think he perceived their vulnerability amid a hard indifferent world, like the one he’d known himself.
I think about Teddy more often than any other boy I knew there. For months after the tree swallow sighting, Teddy walked the trails to dining hall and showers with his long arm slung around my neck, leaning his weight into my stride. But once, after I’d slighted him in some way that I didn’t suspect, he wheeled around in the path and sucker-punched me hard in the face. I heard an internal “crunch,” blood gushed from my nose and lips, and, in case you have never absorbed such a blow, you really do see stars.
Such violence wasn’t routine, but as with any group of boys that age, fights sometimes happened, and rebellious campers did chafe at their chiefs’ authority. But mostly the groups functioned as cooperating quasi-families, as Pressley’s treatment model envisioned.
Sometimes there was poignant tenderness that I would never have experienced in any other way. Late in my tenure at Pressley, I was promoted to “roving counselor.” Rovers were not assigned to a group but circulated around camp, offering veteran insight and helping chiefs who were struggling.
In this role I spent some time with the camp’s youngest group, in which twin brothers Duayne and Dave were enrolled. Both were slight and shy, small for their age. And like many of the black campers, each carried a “pick” in a hip pocket for grooming the Afro hairstyles then popular. Sometimes, in the evening before the boys quieted down to bed and while the woodstove exuded coveted heat, Duayne and Dave would sit on rough wooden benches next to one of their chiefs and me, pull out their picks, and comb our beards.
We never asked them why they did this, and we never felt justified in discouraging such an innocent outreach toward human warmth. During the day, the twins could be as quick to throw a rock in anger or sneer out a curse as any of the others. But when they stroked their picks through our ragged beards, it seemed the boys had surrendered to a basic craving to be tactilely close to an adult mentor. I don’t recall their family history, what kind of relationship they had with their father, or if they even knew him. I only know that it was humbling to sense their quiet satisfaction in this simple act of affection.
The other boys never mocked Duayne or Dave for what in any other setting would have appeared an unthinkable breach of norm. I believe the others understood the twins’ need and maybe let the beard-combing stand for their own unexpressed longing for adult bonds.
Learning through experience was at the core of the camp model. One evening in early November of that first year, we cooked supper at our Quehanna camp. We had nearly completed our cabin, which, though still crude in appearance, was dry and warm — warm if the boy whose turn it was got up in the night to feed the stove (a simple but important task, openly lauded by the group when accomplished). Chief Terry and I looked forward to a placid evening around the hearth, but some insult incited a melee, and chaos reigned until past the hour we were normally in our bags, lanterns extinguished.
Outside, around the fire where we’d eaten, all the cooking gear lay strewn like the brown leaves of late autumn. Whichever boy had dishwashing duty had been embroiled in the strife like everyone else and the chore went undone (This was unusual. The boys’ pride in a clean camp was impressive and nearly universal.) When calm finally reigned, we chiefs had no energy or patience left for any task beyond getting the boys into bed.
That night, 12 inches of dense wet snow, the first of the season, fell across Laurel Ridge. Sleep had soothed all tension, but no utensils for cooking or eating could be found beneath the snow. Still, the boys could always get a fire going, another source of pride among them. So, we sat around that fire, the 12 of us, passing around two big cans of tepid pork and beans bashed open with an axe, and the one dubious spoon someone found by their bunk. No one in our somber circle could escape the truth that undesirable consequences follow irresponsible impulses.
I think that one of the things boys truly liked about life at Pressley Ridge Wilderness School was that it carried a sense of mild adventure. One summer morning, Frank, a boy known to the group for his habitual lying, led our single-file return after breakfast. Trailing everyone, I couldn’t see Frank ahead, but his agitated voice pierced the screening laurel.
“Snake! Chief Ben, there’s a snake up here!” Frank squealed.
Everyone assumed the outburst was one of Frank’s untruths. Yet, something in his alarm said he’d been too shocked to concoct a tale.
“Chief! Get up here now,” Frank yelled. “Rattlesnake!”
I shouldered along the line and heard it before I reached his side — that angry, chitinous buzz. The group pressed in around Frank and me in concentric rings. At our center, in the trail, a large yellow-phase timber rattlesnake writhed in tense coils, its broad head poised. The velvety-black tail stood erect among arcs of keel-scaled muscle, swaying back and forth while the terminal rattle blurred with motion. Jagged black chevrons slashed across its sulfur hide.
I found a suitable stick and pinned the head, then grasped the neck close behind the skull and picked the snake up, cradling its heft with my left hand and forearm. The boys’ hooted exclamations sounded far away, but they pressed nearer.
At Pressley Ridge Camp, boys were encouraged to share their wildlife encounters in the dining hall at evening meal. Revealing some unique observation was a daily aspiration for groups. Quehanna kept its rattlesnake in the shade in a cleaned plastic trash barrel until supper, when the boys had the honor of standing before the entire camp, recounting the capture, climaxed by a showing of the reptile to the enthralled assembly.
The next day, with the snake in a knotted pillowcase, our group hiked to a remote ledge on the tract’s perimeter, where we released it unharmed in the morning sun. The rattler capture was, for me, a happenstance way to win a bit of the boys’ regard, which helped our relationships in various ways. At pow-wow, the event wrought an earnest discussion about the import of being believed when one spoke. Quehanna signed “Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” out of the camp library, and native reptiles were a topic in the boys’ talk for the rest of that summer.
Less dramatic adventures brought the boys intimate contact with other wild creatures. Because our campsite crowded a hemlock-shrouded mountain run, I kept a back-packable, 5-piece fly rod in my tent. When we took “siesta” at mid-day, meant for napping, reading, or quiet time, some of the group would accompany me to the stream. Stealth is key in such fishing, but difficult for boys of that raucous age. Still, they grasped its import once they understood wild trout.
They gaped the first time I lifted a native brook trout from its emerald pool, dazzled by a new sense of what a fish from western Pennsylvania woods could look like. And with coaching, they too pulled up wriggling trout, speckled and smooth, from that step-across run. Like Teddy and his epiphany at the spring, those fishing sessions dominate my thoughts about camp even now. It would be crass to pretend such brief idylls changed the boys’ lives in any way; their futures were all uphill. But I will say that, for a moment, when a boy felt that courageous tug from beneath some hemlock root, his demons eased, and a reckless grin consumed his face.
I will always treasure the pride I felt in association with Pressley Ridge professionals. I admired my co-workers and my supervisors there, and felt my own self esteem boosted knowing they considered me a peer. Clark Luster, then executive director over all Pressley Ridge programs, often visited camp, and once he referred to us chiefs as his “blue-jeaned psychologists.” The honor I felt in that impromptu moniker is hard now to put into words, but I can still sense its impact.
Working with difficult boys in the woods instilled bonds of camaraderie among chiefs that I have never known equaled in a workplace since. I offer here a sense of this bonding through an incident you may find hard to believe happened in an enlightened university town in 1976, but it did.
During one of the boys’ longer “home-stays,” our entire staff rode the camp bus to in-service training at Tremont Environmental Education Center, inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stressed the very aspects of therapeutic camping that I took to naturally. I loved the trip for all kinds of reasons, and when the sessions were complete, we drove that bus into downtown Knoxville for an evening of social diversion, cold beers and dancing with some female students from the University of Tennessee. When we left the last bar, a mob of young fellows about our age followed us and surrounded the bus. Shouting slurs and pounding on the windows, they demanded that we turn over to them one of our two black chiefs, or else our bus wasn’t moving. They got more than they bargained for. Toned by wood-cutting and cabin-raising, and seasoned to confrontation, we all piled off among them at once. When we smugly re-took our seats, our bus was free to roll, and that mob slunk away with a new regard for the Yankees they’d jeered.
I don’t know why the wilderness school closed. When the last boys walked the last trail there, I had long moved on to other things, marriage among them, which was not compatible with the job’s residential demands. Based solely on my layman’s observations, groupwork in the woods had seemed a fiscally efficient and effective way of working with certain kids, thoughtfully chosen for Pressley’s “open” program, and I’m sure the decision to shut down the camp was not made lightly. Viewed now in hindsight from near the quarter-mark of the 21st century, I sense that the whole therapeutic camping concept has fallen out of favor among the childcare profession nationwide, plagued, I’d wager, by societal hyper-paranoia about insect bites, sun exposure, natural darkness, isolation from the internet, and our modern incomprehensibility of living without central air.
It is hard for me to fathom that the boys I came to know best at Pressley Ridge Wilderness School would all be in their late-50s now, graying, with grandkids, perhaps, a part of their lives. I see them instead frozen, forever young, looking backward through my own life lens as if they’d been immutable features of that mountain landscape, like the boulders outside the cabin we built before winter’s snow. They were not immutable, of course. They were boys maturing to men, and I hope so deeply that some bright path opened to each.
The theory behind the camp
Pressley Ridge launched its wilderness school under the example and guidance of Campbell Loughmiller, considered the father of therapeutic camping. In the early 1940s, Loughmiller developed Camp Woodland Springs to serve troubled boys from the Dallas area in the pine woods of East Texas. He directed that program until the early 1970s.
An accomplished naturalist and author, Loughmiller with his wife Lynn wrote “Texas Wildflowers: A Field Guide,” “Big Thicket Legacy,” a collection of stories about pioneer and rural life in the East Texas bayous and “Wilderness Road,” which conveys his philosophy and experiences directing Camp Woodland Springs. Immersing kids in nature was implicit in Loughmiller’s model, as he wrote in Wilderness Road: “Such a life calls into play numerous individual skills, provides an outlet for almost any ability a boy may have, and constantly encourages new and ever-broadening experiences of the individual and the group…Whether a boy is on a canoe trip, climbing over southwest Texas mountains, camping in east Texas forests, or enjoying everyday experiences such as catching a snake, wading a stream, feeding birds, catching a fish, or cooking a meal — there is novelty, excitement, adventure, and exploration that lend zest and enthusiasm to living.”
The Pressley Ridge Wilderness School ran from 1974 to 2008. The camp property is now preserved as part of Ohiopyle State Park.