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A Death in the Desert : Investigators pieced together a horrible tale: Of a boy in agonizing pain taunted and accused of fakery, of freezing nights without food and blankets. After Bob and Sally Bacon buried their son, they got one more shock: Theirs was not the first child to die at a wilderness therapy camp.

January 15, 1995|JOE MORGENSTERN | Joe Morgenstern is a journalist and screenwriter who lives in Santa Monica

At this time last year, when Aaron Bacon was 16, his young life was in tumult, though it was still a life.

A funny, endearing kid for most of his privileged childhood, Aaron had changed, within a matter of months, into a testy, withdrawn stranger. A gifted kid who had loved to write poetry in a lyrical mode, he was ditching school and lying about it. As his grades slipped, his writing lost its literary luster. More and more, his poems read like death-rock lyrics from the backs of old vinyl-album covers. Like so many of his peers, Aaron was caught in a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and anger.

His parents knew this. They had coped with the adolescent rebellion of their older son, Jarid, and recognized Aaron's behavior as another stormy rite of passage. Yet their knowledge was clouded by fear. Gangs had spread from Los Angeles to Phoenix, where the Bacons lived, drugs were pandemic, and Aaron had recently transferred to a public school, Central High, from a rigorous, and sheltered, private school in nearby Paradise Valley; with his beguiling gift of gab, he had lobbied for the switch on the grounds that his private school "wasn't providing enough socioeconomic diversity."

When Aaron was jumped by a group of local Crips in Central High's parking lot, he denied any involvement in a gang. But a witness said the Crips had called him Rabbit, which suggested something other than a chance encounter; Aaron's parents figured that he'd been selling the gangbangers pot. At that point, Bob and Sally Bacon--he is a Phoenix architect and designer, noted for big projects like the Boulders Resort in Carefree; she is an artist and part-time real-estate agent--realized that they had to do something right away.

They pulled Aaron out of school but found themselves at a loss about what to do next. Then Sally recalled having heard from a friend about a couple who had sent their rebellious son to North Star Expeditions, Inc., a 4-year-old "wilderness therapy" group in southern Utah. Several such organizations in the Western states take troubled youngsters on long, rigorous treks in the desert, the theory being that teaching kids survival skills and self-discipline will enhance their self-esteem. A few of these programs have excellent reputations, but the wilderness-therapy business as a whole has a tainted history about which the Bacons knew nothing when they called North Star's 800 number and asked for a brochure.

Wilderness therapy! The phrase plays, with perfect pitch, on the conscious needs and unconscious yearnings of desperate parents. It suggests the tough-minded challenge of Outward Bound and the purifying spirit of Thoreau. And in a crude, shrewd way, the cover of the North Star brochure struck its own resonant, even quasi-religious, chord: It showed the figure of a young man with a backpack in silhouette against a desert sunset, standing tall on a mountaintop and pointing to a shining star.

Never mind that the cover shot was a fuzzy composite, the star was a fake and the advertising copy inside was a pastiche of earnest-sounding slogans ("The students at North Star Expeditions learn that Mother Nature does not make exceptions.") and glib, semiliterate promises ("North Star Expeditions can and will help your child find their way home"). Sally and Bob Bacon were in no mood to scrutinize the prose with cool detachment. On top of the panic and despair most parents feel when their children spin out of control, they were beset by guilt: Sally, the attractive, emotive daughter of an Irish father and an Italian mother, had gone through her own drug wars in the '60s and '70s. Bob, a Midwesterner by birth and tightly wound, with a ponytail and a sharp, dry wit, was a recovering alcoholic, sober for 8 1/2 years after a drinking career that spanned two decades. "Aaron felt I was overreacting because of my own experiences," Bob said, "that I'd lost perspective on his life."

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