5 Realities Of The Rehab Camp My Parents Paid To Kidnap Me
You can add to the ever-growing list of shit Cracked can't believe is real but apparently is the "troubled teen rehabilitation industry." For a fee, a parent can have their own child kidnapped by strangers in the dead of night, hauled off to a remote location, and subjected to harsh conditions in the wilderness until he's cured of their bad behavior. It's legal, unregulated, and there's no evidence that it actually works at all.
A while back we talked to a woman who got hauled away to one of these programs when she was 16. So when we recently heard from a man named Dylon Peven who managed to escape from one of these places -- by trekking through the goddamned desert, on foot -- we had to hear his story:
You Can Get Carried Off At Any Time Without Warning
My parents sent me to a wilderness rehabilitation camp because I was being a stereotypically shitty California teen: selling weed, not coming home at night, failing at school, and generally rebelling without a cause. They'd tried their best to discipline me -- they pulled me out of high school in my junior year after I got suspended for punching another kid, and even tried to get me to open up to a child psychologist, but nothing worked. So one day they asked me if I'd be willing to go to a rehab camp in the woods for two weeks, just to try it out. I agreed to go at the end of the month.
"Why is it called Stalag Luft III? Is that Navajo or something?"
So you can imagine my surprise when at 4 a.m. that very next morning, two ex-Army-looking guys burst into my room, grabbed me, and shoved me into a car like a CIA abduction of a Taliban lieutenant. They told me that my parents had signed their rights away as my guardians and had given these two A-Team rejects complete authority to get me to Idaho with extreme prejudice. In this case, "extreme prejudice" just meant driving me to Idaho in a van, or maybe flying me there if I didn't put up a fight.
I agreed to cooperate peaceably enough to take a plane and save them a bunch of time, provided they let me make a phone call once we got to Idaho. My kidnappers agreed, and once we landed I borrowed one of their cellphones and called a friend of mine back home to tell him to find my pot stash and get it the hell out of my house before my parents discovered it. Considering I made this call in the middle of the abduction my parents had arranged to cure me of my delinquent behavior, I'm not sure how much more trouble I could've got in if they had found it, but better safe than sorry.
"Bring him home so I can send him back there a second time!"
To be fair, my kidnapping story went about as well as it could possibly go. The guys who do that sort of thing are called "escorts", and their behavior can range from perfectly civil (like the guys who got me) to "dragging you through the airport like you're on your way to a Corleone family indictment." None of this comes cheap, either: My parents dropped somewhere around $5,000 to have me stolen away in the night like a pair of goblin shoes.
The "Camp" Was An Empty Patch Of Desert
As Cracked has mentioned before, wilderness rehabilitation camps can be incredibly unpleasant places, and children totally die there sometimes, thanks to a combination of heat stroke, malnutrition, and counselors without any sort of medical training. The goal of these facilities is, ostensibly, to turn troubled kids into productive members of society through lots of "tough love," a phrase which here means "hiking around in the desert drinking water until you detox or build character, whichever comes first" (see "heat stroke," previous sentence).
"Legal says we're not allowed to call them 'hyperthermia-induced hallucinations' anymore. Now, they're 'vision quests.'"
So my "camp" was just a bunch of empty desert for us to hike around in. There were no walls, no buildings, nothing but blasted desolation as far as the eye could see. And since there are no federal regulations for how these facilities should operate, each individual program gets to make up its own rules and standards. When I arrived at camp, I was issued a set of clothes and a tarp. I was introduced to my group. Each group in the camp was headed by one male and one female counselor, who were completely unhelpful in answering any questions about camping or basic desert survival.
The only answer I kind of succeeded in getting was to the question, "Where's the bathroom?" The guy gave me a shovel. I asked him for TP and he told me to use leaves from a nearby sage plant, which wound up giving me a terrible asshole rash (a "rashole", if you will), so I switched over to rocks from then on. In case you just asked yourself, "Wouldn't that hurt?" the answer is "Not as much as a rash on your goddamned asshole."
Failing that, you can just drag your ass on the ground like you're a dog with worms.
Our diets approached prison-levels of monotony: granola for breakfast, pita bread and peanut butter sandwiches with dried apricots for lunch, and dried beans mixed in a zip-close bag bag with water and rice for dinner, heated under the sun for a few hours. If you were good (or if the counselor liked you), you'd get to add a little Tapatio or mustard. Spices were a reward for behaving, sort of like Dune only somehow longer and more painful. My group was the only one in the camp to earn mustard, and that was a big deal. We eventually earned powdered cheese, which basically made us gods unto the eyes of our fellow campers.
Incidentally, that kind of diet makes you fart more or less constantly. You just walk around emitting gas like a pipe in an old building. And there were no showers. Since we also wore the same clothes pretty much daily, we smelled awful. Some administrator lady came by to talk to us a few weeks in, totally unprepared for us or the desert in high heels and a skirt. She was absolutely shocked at how gross we were, which is what happens when you drop a bunch of teenagers in the desert, don't let them bathe, and feed them nothing but beans and mustard for some fucking reason.
"You were only supposed to order 100! What the hell are we going to do with 100,000 cans of beans?"
Every day we'd sleep in a different place, wake up in the morning, pack up our tarps, and hike from 7 a.m. to noon, when it got too hot to continue. You can already see how the complex social, psychological, and emotional issues that cause kids to lash out would just melt away like magic. And then you realize ...
This Can Go On For Months ... Or Years
So why did I choose to escape, rather than just sticking it out? Because I was pretty sure I could wind up stuck in this program for years.
Pictured: not a counselor.
Remember when my parents sold me on the idea of going off to rehab for two weeks? Well, it turned out the whole camp was on an eight-step program, which I guess makes it 33 percent more efficient than Alcoholics Anonymous. We had to make it through each step before we'd be allowed to go back home. Two days into my stay, we were visited by a group of campers on their eighth and final step. These kids had all been there for three or four months, and they did their best to commiserate with our unhappiness. I remember one girl saying "I hated it too, but now that I'm on my final stage I realize how much I've learned. It's been a really great experience."
At the time, I assumed she'd been brainwashed by too many weeks eating beans in the desert, but later I learned that she was just trying to graduate and go home: Part of the program requires you to come back and talk to step one campers and tell them how rewarding the program eventually is if they stick with it. Unfortunately for her and everyone else there, it turns out that whole graduation thing is a lie. Completing Step Eight means you graduate, but it doesn't mean that you get to go home. You just graduate from the "wilderness" portion to a boarding school.
Think of it like Hogwarts, only not.
My parents were very heavily considering that boarding school. Now, I was about to turn 18 in a few months and transform into a legal adult with the right to ruin his life on his own terms, but there were rumors flying around camp that there was a way your parents could talk to a judge to give the camp custody until you turned 21. I didn't know if this specific rumor was true, but a judge can absolutely place an 18-year-old in state custody until the age of 21 and send them to camps like mine, so the rumors were plausible enough for me to be worried.
So I decided to escape.
Andy Dufresne ain't got shit on me.
It's not like escaping hadn't occurred to anyone before: One kid fled our group early on, only to get caught two or three days later. It was made clear to us that this was the only way escape attempts ever ended. Anyone caught trying to run off was automatically booted back to step one. They had off-road vehicles to send after escapees, and we even heard rumors of helicopters. They expended less effort chasing Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. On my second or third day there. a counselor asked me, "Are you thinking about running?"
"Yes," I said.
"We've been here 25 years. Know how often kids try to escape? Every day."
"How many kids have successfully escaped?"
"And if we don't get them, the Sand People do."
"I'm gonna be the first."
"Call me when you get home, then."
I promised I would. On my 24th day in the desert, I went for it ...
Escape Requires Careful Planning And Help From Strangers
We'd been hiking for two days straight, up to the top of a mountain. That gave me a decent vantage point for the first time in my trip, and I was able to see lights in the distance, which told me that we weren't in fact in the middle of some endless expanse of nothingness -- it looked like there was an honest-to-god town nearby. If I could keep moving long enough, it wasn't that much of a stretch to believe that I could probably reach those lights before dying in the desert and getting my at-risk teenage skeleton picked clean by buzzards.
Which is admittedly a worst-case scenario. There was a decent chance coyotes would get to me first.
My first big obstacle was the shoes: One of the counselors would go around every night with a garbage bag to collect our flip-flops before bed for the specific purpose of discouraging us from fleeing. So I worked out a plan -- when the counselor came for my shoes, I dropped them down the side of the bag, instead of inside it. Since it was dark, and my shoes made the right sliding-down-plastic sound, he bought it, and moved on without a word.
So I had my flip-flops, and my PJs, and two bottles of water I'd managed to hide. There weren't any walls, so at that point there was no barrier between me and freedom except for the stories they'd told us about kids who got lost in the desert trying to run and nearly died. But now, I knew we weren't a hundred miles away from the highway or anything. The lights of blessed civilization were nearby, and I was a'comin'.
"Second star to the right and straight on till you collapse from exhaustion."
It was a warmer night than usual, and the moon was especially bright, which made things easier for me. Once everyone seemed asleep, I just counted to 1,000 and started walking. I walked towards those lights for around nine hours, until I came to a power line pole at about 4 a.m. That pole led me to a paved road, and that paved road lead me to a farm. See, what had looked like a town from the mountain was really just a massive sprawl of farms, each a mile or so apart. I'd gone maybe 20 miles at this point, and I was exhausted. My legs were cramping, and I started to wonder if perhaps I'd bitten off more of an odyssey than I was prepared to Odysseus. The possibility that I'd fallen victim to a diabolical mix of hubris and wishful thinking was beginning to seem pretty likely.
That's when I saw a bike on the porch of the farm house. It wasn't locked, because who steals bikes from farms in the middle of nowhere? (The answer is exclusively fugitives.) I'm sorry to whoever I inconvenienced, but finding that bike was a frigging miracle. I rode it off into the breaking dawn.
Sadly, there was no barbed wire to jump.
For the last several hours of my hike, I'd heard the intermittent sounds of a train. My vague, hilariously naive plan was to hop on and ride it to freedom, presumably sharing a hat full of Mulligan stew with some kind boxcar hobos. Once I had the bike, I was able to make it to the tracks, where I hid under a bush and waited for the train, which finally came by going around 60 miles per hour. There was no way I could catch it without becoming an "Odd News" article about a pair of disembodied hands found latched to the side of a freight train.
Instead, I got back on my bike and rode until I reached the highway. I took it west, because I was trying to reach California, and California is as far west as anything in this country goes. At about 11 the next day, I rode into a gas station in a small town. Picture this scene in your mind: a 17-year-old in PJs and flip-flops, bleeding from the feet and exactly as filthy and smelly as you'd imagine someone would be after a two-day hike/bike ride through the desert, stumbling into a service station. Some nice ladies saw me and freaked out, asking me what the hell had happened. I just told them matter-of-factly, "I had a bad night. I need a phone."
"Don't be embarrassed. We've buried our fair share of snitches in the desert too."
They gave me Gatorade and hot dogs and let me make a call. I called a trusted friend and asked him to kindly drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to pick me up. He told me his car couldn't handle the drive, but he said if I could get to a Greyhound station, he'd wire me some money. After riding the bike into oblivion like Rooster Cogburn's horse in the end of True Grit (the tires gave out after 30 miles), I was able to hitchhike with two good Samaritans. I told one guy I'd been camping in the woods with my girlfriend, but she'd gotten pissed at me and stole my car and my clothes. The other guy I hitched a ride with didn't ask me a single question. He just drove me all the way to the Greyhound station. Idahoans are apparently just the nicest people on Earth.
I was able to call my friend back to wire me some money, but Western Union wouldn't let me pick it up without an ID, which I did not have. So I spotted this cool-seeming young guy with his girlfriend, took a chance and just told him the whole story -- that I'd just run from a teen rehabilitation camp and I was trying to make it back home. I asked if I could use his ID, and he obliged (see "Idahoans are just the best", above). My friend wired him the $200, and he handed it over to me. I tried to pay him something for letting me use his ID, but he refused, because I had apparently stumbled upon a living saint.
And he has since been canonized as the patron saint of wanted fugitives.
Now that I had money, I was able to buy a Greyhound ticket and made it back home a month ahead of my 18th birthday.
You May Need Rehab From The Program Itself
I was a local legend for about a week. Berkeley has lot of kids who rebel against their families, and those families tend to have money, so they're able to afford things like paying people to black-bag their children away to expensive wilderness rehabilitation camps. So I wasn't the first kid who got shipped to a place like that, but I was the first one they'd ever seen escape.
Sadly, despite my efforts to get it going, nobody started calling me "Snake."
When I got home, I immediately staked out my house and called my mom. I lied and told her I was at the Greyhound station (by now they'd been told I had vanished from Desert Camp), and asked her to pick me up. When I saw her leave, I went in the house and grabbed about $2,000 in cash that I had hidden in my room. Then I left, called my mom back and explained, "Hey, I'm going to keep my distance, but I just wanted you to know I'm safe." It might seem shitty, but after everything I'd just been through, I was pretty upset with my parents (and, I feel, justifiably so).
Unfortunately, later that day I wound up getting into a shouting argument in a public place, and the cops got called. They ran my ID and discovered that I was listed as a missing person in Idaho, so they called my parents. At that point, I was sure I was going to be sent back. But my dad was really impressed that I'd managed to escape, and they told me they weren't going to send me back ("What would be the point?" he asked).
"You really showed a lot of initiative and follow-through. That's all we've ever asked for."
That period after my stint in camp was the most fucked up, irresponsible time in my life. I lived with friends for a while, got tattoos, bought a gun, started experimenting more with drugs, and developed one hell of an anger management problem. I was still furious at my family (and at that camp) for taking away my freedom, and I was bound and determined to show everyone that I was my own, free person, even if that "free person" was an aggressive asshole.
Eventually I wound up getting in a fight, beating a guy up, and getting arrested. My parents bailed me out, and oddly enough, that helped me learn to trust them again. Gradually I grew up, learned some tough lessons, and turned into a productive, responsible member of society. Not because someone made me wander around in the desert for weeks on end, but because I had a chance to figure things out for myself. The truth is, there is no magical cure for a teenager who can't handle obeying the rules. If somebody comes along and insists they can whip your kid into shape by having them walk aimlessly around in the wilderness (for a huge fee, of course), maybe save your money and try doing absolutely anything else instead.
"We can either throw pies at you while you watch every episode of Bosom Buddies on a loop, or you can go to the camp. Your call."
Robert Evans is an editorial manager at Cracked, and he has a Twitter.
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