Like sisters, the Girl Scouts in my troop only allowed their hearts to purr with affection for one another on occasion—most of the time, it was catfights and hissy fits. This made overnights a dramatic affair. Probably the most memorable was a 24-hour trip to a leadership camp in upstate Wisconsin, where we were expected to overcome our fears by going through obstacle courses and discussing deep personal issues around the campfire at night. What ensued was a mildly competitive battle for domination like a scene from Lord of the Flies, but with more tears and menstrual blood.
The van ride was a long haul. The girls in our party of five got annoyed with me, since I kept asking to pull over at fast-food joints on the side of the road to pee. (I drank too much soda.) By the time we arrived at Camp Eagle Ridge, we had missed the welcome lunch. We heard from the other girls there how amazing the food was—a lavish array of chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, all-you-can-eat Thin Mints for dessert. My stomach growled like a jaguar with cramps.
Then it was off to the woods. We were introduced to the guy who would be our guide on this group quest toward confidence. His name was Chad, a man in his 30s with a California-surfer look (bleached hair, buff, beard of brownish scruff). "High five! Gimme five! Up high!" he shouted with a jumbo smile after we completed the warm-up challenge—counting to 20 as a group, though only one girl could speak at a time. (It took us about fifteen minutes. Ella Brantley kept messing up, then shouting, "Crap!") Some girls bonded over their shared attraction to Chad, while most grew territorial over his approval, though he seemed immune to flirtation. "Think of me as your chief! And you're my tribe!" he bellowed like a blond Tarzan as we lined up behind him on the way to the next task.
It was a five-mile walk. On the trail, a volunteer mother named Paula slipped over a tree root. This was bad. Paula was in her 50s, not sprightly, so it took a good half hour before she was resurrected from the ground by a hoist from Chad. We applauded for Paula and continued on our way. She walked with a heavy limp, like a Captain Hook with a much bigger bust.
Soon we came to a remote clearing, emptied out except for a small plastic shed and a large wooden telephone pole. Chad opened the shed and removed a web of fancy rope and a harness. He began to spin it around himself, from biceps to groin, until he wore it like a sexy diaper with suspenders. He explained the challenge: Climb to the top of the telephone pole, then swing down on a cable.
One by one, we clumsily shimmied up and down the pole. Most made it about three-fourths of the way up, always anchored to Chad, a puppeteer pulling the strings of our preteen fantasies. Being competitive by nature, not only did I make it to the top, but once there, I swan dove from the perch, causing Chad to grunt and throw his hands over his groin from the impact of the sudden pull. (I apologized.) But the real shocker was the climb of Laney Reid. On her way up, she unknowingly revealed to everyone a small patch of red on the back of her white cargo pants, where she had gotten her period. Nobody said a word, but a few girls pointed and began to giggle in an eerie chorus. Chad was especially congratulatory of the fact she made it to the top and even gave her a personal high five. But Laney's eyes remained glossy with tears. Sorry, sweetheart, hissed the demons of rejection. You are no longer in the running to be America's Next Top Girl Scout.
The last big challenge required teamwork. In an area enclosed by lanky pine trees, there stood what appeared to be a metal balance beam and a big wooden board that looked like it had been picked from the top of a dining room table set. The challenge was to make the board balance on the beam by distributing our weight on either end. A handful of go-getter girls climbed onto one side—the more tentative among us were left to fill out the other. When the board began to tip, Emma Finley lost her balance and took down a slew of girls in an elaborate tumble. I was among the girls to go down, and my tooth clipped poor Stacey Field's forehead. It bled—a lot—all over the platform and all over me. She was a good friend of mine, so I felt terrible.
That night, the mothers threw together a mini inferno from wooden logs and leaves, and we roasted hot dogs on sticks. Stacey Field nursed her head wound with one of my T-shirts, which bore the image of a smiling cauldron with the words "Hot Stuff" written underneath. While we made s'mores for dessert, Megan Mendell told us an enthralling tale of how she got her first set of hickeys from a boy in high school, until the counselors told her, "That's enough," and bade us farewell as we returned to our tents.
In the tent, the girls and I recounted the highlights of the day, laughing until we fell asleep—except for me. I'd only eaten one hot dog at dinner, and I was still hungry. I got up and left the tent, searching for scraps of food around the fire pit. Some mothers were still up, chatting. But there seemed to be some heavy shit going down. One of the moms had interrogated another about a recent divorce, and she had flared up in reactive flames of rage. She shouted back, stood up in tears, stormed to the outhouse, and slammed the door. The remaining mamas cackled softly. I wandered back to bed.
Laney happened to be in my tent that night and kept tossing and turning in her sleeping bag, moaning like a dysthymic kitten. I suspected she was having nightmares about her period trauma, so I gave her a pat on the back. She grumbled and rolled over, eyelids half-raised, and shook her head with a furrowed brow. "Sorry," I mumbled. She'd already drifted back to sleep.
Far too hungry to fall asleep myself, I thought about the claw marks that had been inflicted that day. The wounds that would take the longest to heal were not the physical (Paula's fall, Stacey's bite to the head, Chad's groin), but of course, the invisible ravages that came from vicious judgment. Like lionesses, we ladies love to bask languidly in our fragile senses of pride—until we get our period at the wrong moment. Someone always ends up licking their wounds in the outhouse or growling in their sleep. The best we can do is toil on—climb that damn telephone pole! There might even be a high five (or swan dive) awaiting us as reward.
On the drive home, I caught up on my Z's while the girls in the backseat talked about cute teachers at our middle school. Fortunately, I woke up in time for our stop at the IHOP on the side of the highway. I noshed on curly fries and ice cream, and listened to the conversations. Apparently, while I was asleep, I'd missed Megan Mendell's story of how she had used a showerhead to…well, use your imagination.