“Doesn’t matter if we’re sick,” one of the other girls says. “If we’re puking, if we have diarrhea, we still hike.”
Brandi Heiner, a Redcliff counselor, rolls her eyes. “It’s not that dramatic. If you guys are really sick, we send you on a med run.”
Later, Nicole, a new addition to the Bobcats, talks quietly in a clearing a few feet away from the campsite. Her hair is fashioned into two long braids, and she’s wearing a red jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up to reveal dozens of horizontal scars on her arms.
“I’m in a red suit because I overreacted,” she says. “I told them I was going to hang myself with a pack cord. I didn’t really mean it; I just wanted them to send me to the hospital, because I’d rather be anywhere but here … but I’m really disappointed that I did this to myself. I put myself here. No one else did. My mom did it because she cared. I’m not saying it’s a bad place here, but it’s not a place you want to be.”
After the sun sinks over the mountains, three of the girls who have been at Redcliff longer sit cross-legged in a circle. Asked what brought them there, they all flash sheepish smiles.
“I started smoking weed a long time ago, when I was 14, and it kind of just progressed into other things,” one says. “I hung around kids who were doing heroin, and I tried it once myself. All my friends were doing meth and smack, and they weren’t good people to be around. I wasn’t going to school, and I just didn’t have any direction in my life.”
The two others have similar stories, and they say despite their initial dislike of the program, Redcliff has taught them how to live more meaningful, responsible lives.
“I never really focused on life … now I’m noticing the little things that I do in the present,” says Penny, another senior Bobcat. “It just makes me think how much time I wasted on the outs.”
The third girl, who has striking red hair and light blue eyes, jumps in.
“It was so hard being away from my parents, being in the middle of nowhere and realizing I had to face my problems full on,” she says. “But everything here is a metaphor for life. Like, learning how to build a fire, or hiking, which is a big stress. You go into bowing thinking, no way can I make a fire with a stick and a rock. It’s so hard the first time, but you learn how. I remember the first time I tried, I was crying, like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ But now I can.”
Their experience stands in stark contrast to Marc Fleming’s stay at Tierra Blanca. Even over the phone, the pain in his voice is palpable.
“My only escape from the program was when I would sleep, because then I would dream that I wasn’t there,” he says. “I actually created a world where the program was the nightmare and my dreams were my real life. I would tell myself this is all just a bad dream and eventually it’s going to be over and I’ll never have to experience it again.”
He pauses for a moment. “Then I would wake up and realize where I was, and that nobody—not a single person—was going to come help me. I was completely alone.”