Many of us derive our attitudes toward today's youth from the rude groups we encounter in malls or around convenience stores or from the carfulls that pull up next to us at intersections with radios thumping out the volume of an artillery barrage. Even worse, we base our attitudes on the headline and television litany about the activities of street gangs.
Of course there are such bad kids. But there are so many more high quality youngsters who deserve our respect and admiration. I met a few of those good kids recently in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.
For two days Jim DeWan of Binghamton and I had backpacked south from the Big Creek Ranger Station. We had finally climbed to the lean-to at Cosby Knob on the mile high ridge. We stumbled into the shelter bone tired and sopping wet from the heavy rain that had now turned to snow. We could see our breath and were on the verge of hypothermia.
Like the others already there and those who arrived later, all we could do was change into semi-dry long johns and sox and climb into our sleeping bags. From there we lit our stove to heat tea and soup. Only after we had gulped down these hot liquids did my shaking stop and I was able to talk with our overnight companions.
Our ten bunkmates were all through hikers along the 2100 mile Appalachian Trail on their last night in the Smokies. They were on schedule, having covered 200 miles from Georgia before May 1, but they would not complete this adventure until they reached Maine in September. These young boys and girls, several traveling alone, others in groups of two or three, were facing up to a major physical and mental challenge. Their six months "walkabout" would try them to their very souls and those who complete the task should be honored for the ability to maintain focus that is rare among us all.
Although they each went about their camp responsibilities -- cooking and cleaning up, hanging their food to protect it from mice and chipmunks -- they were open and friendly to us obvious outsiders. They talked of their experiences with the abominable weather they had encountered, and told us of their cravings, after a steady diet of camping food, for the cheeseburgers they would eat when they reached "Mountain Mama's" restaurant at the end of the park. (The 20 degree cold the next morning and the two inch snow cover deterred none of them, but it did us. We "wimped out" -- aborting the rest of our scheduled trip and retreating down the mountain.)
I share just one of their stories. An enthusiastic Missouri teen-ager whose trail name is Moose told us of an episode several nights earlier at another lean-to. Just as it was turning full dark a young girl arrived alone, sobbing and in terrible condition, her summer clothing giving her no protection from the freezing cold. She had lost her way on a day outing. Immediately the through hikers took her in. They shared their gear with her -- sox from one, leggings from another, a sweater, a jacket -- which was quite remarkable because these kids pack so light. Two girls zipped their sleeping bags together to make room for her as well. The next morning Moose hiked back seven miles to deliver her to a search party and her frantic parents.
We met Moose again the next day after his food stop. He told us that eating that burger was thirty seconds of ecstasy.
With kids like that around, the future seems bright to me.