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My Story of Survival in a Utah Wilderness Program

Whiteout in the West Desert

Nora Ashleigh Barrie | November 13, 2022

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"Your Family is Our Passion"

Walkabout was a wilderness program for troubled teens. In 2004, less than a year after I attended the program, it merged with a handful of other programs within the Aspen Education Group, and changed its name to Outback Therapeutic Expeditions. As of March 2023, the NATSAP-associated, Aspen Education Group owned program is still open and running expeditions for troubled youth from all over the country. From the information I have gathered, not much has changed in the almost 20 years since I was forced to attend the program by my adoptive parents.

UPDATE: According to a statement from the company released on May 2, 2023, Outback Therapeutic Expeditions will be ceasing operation and closing permanently as of June 15, 2023.

December 22, 2003


I feel the light hit my closed eyelids and wonder why. My mom shakes me awake, telling me it’s time to get up. I slowly open my eyes, glancing at the clock. 4am. Why on earth is she waking me up in the middle of the night? Then I saw him. So dark he blended in with the room, so large his head almost grazed the ceiling. Suddenly I was blinded by the bright overhead light of my bedroom. Aside the giant man stood a pale, petite woman with hair the color of damp straw. She was holding my clothes. The man left the room while the woman followed me into the bathroom. I was taken aback. I asked her to leave and give me privacy. She refused by saying she could not let me out of her sight until she had transferred me to my “program”. What program was she talking about? It wouldn’t be to juvenile detention, the police would be there and I hadn’t done anything wrong. There is no way it would be a wilderness program like I had attended the previous summer; it was December and snowing in most of the country. The woman snapped me out of my thoughts by demanding I get dressed. She handed me clothes and watched as I dressed. I began to transition from confusion to shock and numbness.

Before we leave the house, I’m handcuffed with my hands behind my back. Then they lead me to a black SUV, waiting in the driveway, still running. We sit in total silence during the hour-long drive to San Francisco international Airport. The man drives, so big he makes the SUV look small. It’s still dark when we arrive. The car comes to a stop. The woman gets out, walking around the vehicle to open my door. That’s when I realize the child lock is on. Even if I had considered it, there was no way to run. I still wondered who these strangers were and where they were taking me. They still had not spoken a word to me.

She removed my handcuffs as we entered the airport. Probably so we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. Now running might be an option. Then she spoke. We were going to be flying to Utah. I was not to speak a word to her or anyone else in the airport or during the flight. She was not allowed to provide food or drinks to me, and on the plane, I was to only drink water when provided. Utah. I thought maybe I was being sent to live with my maternal grandparents for a few months. Maybe my parents thought I would be mad, so they had these strangers abduct me in the middle of the night. Nothing made sense. I had so many questions I was not allowed to ask.

Late in the morning we landed in Salt Lake City, just minutes from most of my extended family. As we exited the terminal, there was a pair of young people, a man and a woman, waiting for us. I would be going to a program with them. Again, I was not allowed to speak. I was driven past the freeway exits leading to all of my family members’ homes; past the mall I went to with my cousins when summer days became too hot to bear, and where we spent our Christmas money every year. What kind of program? I stared out the window as I wondered. It began to snow.

The sign read Walkabout. As we entered the small warehouse, the man left the room and I was ordered to take off my clothes. They didn’t use the term strip search. Squat. Cough. They watched as I showered. I put on the clothes they handed me. Carhartt pants, a thin t-shirt, and a green, knit Army surplus sweater. There were German flags on the sleeves. I again wondered what kind of program this was. I didn’t say a word. I was asked if I wanted to call my parents. I just shook my head. No.

Further inside the warehouse, stored on wooden shelves, was a collection of Army surplus camping gear. I stayed quiet as they piled gear into my arms. A sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a tarp, a roll of parachute cord, a small bag to store food, a plastic bag of food rations, a light jacket, a thin, waterproof poncho, a water bottle, a small, metal cup. I spoke my first word since I’d woken up. “Eight”. They handed me a shoebox with a pair of Faded Glory hiking boots, not waterproof, and three pairs of thin, cotton socks. I followed them further into the warehouse.

In a bare, open room, they had me lay everything out on the floor. I was already shivering from the cold. My hair was still wet, frost starting to form on the ends. I doubted they had heating in here, and if they did, they definitely weren’t using it. I was told to unfold the tarp and lay it out, then instructed to stack all the other gear in the middle of the tarp. Then, through a series of folds, I wrapped it all inside the tarp. I secured it in place, not well, with the parachute cord, making a terrible looking bundle, about 3 feet by 3 feet. This would be my backpack for the duration of my time there. I tried picking it up. It weighed at least 60 lbs. I put my arms through the parachute cord and felt it dig into my shoulders.

Three of us climbed into an old, red SUV and left the warehouse. We continued further down the highway, before exiting and turning onto a poorly paved road. This is where I was told to lay down and not look out the windows. Again, I was told not to speak. After about an hour, I felt the material of the ground change as we turned onto a dirt and gravel road. The SUV bounced as we drove into the desert and the sun sank behind the mountains.

It was already dark when we got there. I was ordered to sit up. A fire glowed in the distance as the SUV approached it. Seven young girls stood frozen in the headlights. A man approached us. I lifted my makeshift backpack out of the trunk, the cord digging in sharply as I put it on my back. I looked up and saw the Milky Way. The stars were bright. There was no moon. Snowflakes glinted in the headlights as they slowly fell.

The man introduced himself. I was given rules. Tomorrow, I would make a spoon out of a stick. That would be how I would eat. I was not allowed to eat until my spoon was finished and approved. I would begin collecting the materials I would need to make my own fire using sticks, parachute cord, and tree bark. Until I was able to make my own fire, I would not be allowed to use the group fire, eat hot food, or be allowed into the group. I was not to talk to anyone except staff until I had made my fire. I would make my own backpack out of tree branches and strips of leather. Our shelters would be made from our tarp and parachute cord. Our sleeping bags would go directly on the cold, bare, desert ground.

I was led to a small juniper tree, separate from the rest of the group and instructed to set up a shelter. I was not instructed on how to do this. He asked me to hand him my food bag, since I was not to eat until I had made my spoon; my boots, so I couldn’t run. He then turned, and walked into the darkness, back towards the distant glow of the fire. I was alone, in the middle of the dark, cold desert. I cried silently as I struggled to set up a makeshift shelter in the intense darkness through tear-clouded eyes. I took me longer than it should have, the fire had gone out before I had finished. Under a sagging tarp, inches from my face, I climbed into my sleeping bag, eventually crying myself to sleep as I shivered in the dry, frigid air.

December 23, 2003


I was awoken by footsteps approaching my tarp. It had collapsed on top of me in the night. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, the cold dirt stinging my feet through my thin socks as I fought my way out of my tarp. It was the man from the night before. He was carrying my boots, handing them to me as he approached. I was told to pack everything as I had the day before, and to wait for him when I was finished. I once again struggled to wrestle my gear into a roughly square shape and tie it together. The cord dug in again as I lifted it onto my back. I felt bruises on my shoulders from the night before. I stood, waiting, next to the small juniper tree. Just as I was starting to wonder if I had been forgotten, the man approached again. I was reminded that I was not to speak to anyone but staff. He led me over to the rest of the group and we started to hike. A light snowfall began.

We hiked until the sun was high in the sky before stopping for lunch. I was not allowed to eat. I felt nauseous, not hungry. I realized I hadn’t eaten in 36 hours. We were allowed fifteen minutes for lunch. Then picked up our packs and continued hiking. There was no trail, no road, nothing to show us where to go or where we were going. We hiked through the sagebrush, seemingly with no destination.

We stopped hiking as the sun dipped behind the mountains once again. I was told to go find a stick, juniper was best, so look around the juniper trees, but not near the rest of the group. I then walked off alone into the desert, in search of a suitable stick. I found a juniper tree and quickly looked around. I picked up a random stick that seemed sturdy and big enough to make a spoon, and returned to the circle of staff members. One of them handed me a knife, without turning away from the group. The man from the night before told me to go sit separately from the group and make a spoon shape. As I wandered away from everyone, I wondered why I was being left alone with a knife. They knew I had a self-harm history. I dropped my pack onto the ground and sat on it. I began to scrape layers of wood off the stick, carving it into a rough spoon shape. As it began to get too dark to see, I finished my spoon. I returned to the group, handing the knife back to its owner. The group had started a fire, the rest of the girls had finished setting up their shelters. The man from the night before led me away again, to another juniper tree, told to make a shelter, had my boots taken, and was left alone in the dark, cold desert.

I unwrapped my bundle of gear, tied my parachute cord between two juniper trees, draped the tarp over it, and spread out the sides. I slid my sleeping bag under the tarp and climbed inside. I could hear the pattering of snowflakes falling on the tarp, sliding down the draped-out sides to the ground.

December 24, 2003

Early morning

I woke up just as the sky started to lighten. I crawled out of my shelter, glancing toward the area where the rest of the group had been the night before. The fire was cold, no one was stirring yet. The cold ground stung my feet, so I climbed back into my sleeping bag, shivering, to wait for someone to bring me my boots. Sitting in my shelter, half inside my sleeping bag, I noticed the tag on it. I grabbed it, reading “20 degrees”. We had definitely already been sleeping in less than that. Snow had been falling lightly during the day, meaning it was getting much colder than that at night.

We did the same thing today as yesterday. Pack up, breakfast, hike, lunch, hike, dinner, sleep. We were hiking for hours a day, with just one full bottle of water. We didn’t get more until we got to our next campsite, where there had been water and food left for us. So we hiked. And rationed our water. By the end of the day, I wasn’t feeling well. By sundown, I had started throwing up.

December 25, 2003


I woke up freezing. I glanced outside and saw the snow. There had to have been at least 3 feet of it. Piled up outside and drifting into my shelter. A pile of snow on my head, and the aching of my stomach, had woken me. I threw up again, just outside my shelter, into the pile of snow. As I shivered, I shrunk deeper into my sleeping bag, knowing for sure that it was below freezing. My jacket and sleeping bag did nothing to block the wind. I could still feel it gusting under the tarp from outside and under my already icy skin.

I woke up four more times that night to vomit, always into the same spot in the snow. By morning, nothing but yellow stomach bile was coming up. When the sun rose, a female staff member came around to check on us. I was still separated from the group, I had not yet finished collecting the materials I needed to make a fire. Now, we were snowed in. The only food I had left was dry noodles and beans, both needed fire to be cooked. I was cold.

I threw up continuously all day. I stayed tucked into my sleeping bag, only emerging to throw up. I couldn’t eat, there wasn’t anything to eat without fire. I asked the female staff member if I could cook on the fire. I was told it was against the rules for me to be near or use the fire until I made my own. I crawled back into my sleeping back, my stomach aching, and fell asleep again.

When I woke up, it was dark. Quiet. Everyone was asleep, except one staff member tending the fire. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

December 26, 2003

The snow didn’t stop all night. By the time I woke up again, my shelter had collapsed on top of me, heavy snow pinning me in my sleeping bag. I was still trying to dig myself out when a staff member came to check on me. There was at least 6 feet of snow outside. I still hadn’t eaten. I begged to use the fire, or to trade my food that needed to be cooked for some that didn’t. It was against the rules. I would get more in the next food drop when we hiked to our next campsite. The snow kept falling, I kept throwing up.

I asked for my boots, and a female staff member brought them to me. I was able to take down my shelter, and using my bare hands, dig the snow off my tarp. I kept digging. I dug a shallow grave out of the snow, down to the dirt, with walls made of snow. I used the snow I dug out to anchor down the sides of my tarp. I again slid my sleeping bag into my shelter, climbed inside, and went to sleep.

I woke up many times that night, my stomach was in knots, and I still had not stopped vomiting. I had designated half of my shelter, closest to one end, for throwing up and the other half for sleeping. They had taken my boots again. I needed to use the bathroom. I wriggled out of my shelter, and walked a short distance away. The snow instantly burned my feet through the insufficient socks. I did what I needed and walked back through the deep snow to my shelter, and, with cold, wet feet, went back to sleep.

December 2003- January 2004

I don’t remember much of the next week or so. It was a blur of sleeping, throwing up, walking through the snow to relieve myself and back to my shelter, barefoot. I don’t remember seeing anyone for at least a few days, although I’m sure they must have checked on me. I hoped they had. I wondered what the other girls were doing. The fire glowed in the distance, until one day, it went out. They had run out of wood to burn.

A staff member brought me a vacuum sealed pack of tuna and took my beans and noodles. We had to pool our food together and ration it out, because we were all running out of food. Within 10 minutes of finishing the tuna, I had vomited it up again. I was having trouble keeping water down. We had run out of water as well. Staff showed me how to pack my water bottle with snow, then put it in the foot of my sleeping bag until it had melted enough to drink. A full bottle of snow yielded about 8 ounces of water. The bottle full of snow just made my feet colder.

I slept; I woke long enough to relieve myself and throw up. It kept snowing. The rest of the group had already merged together to build a group shelter where they could huddle together to stay warm. I still had not been able to collect the materials to make a fire because of the snow. We needed sage, and now, it was buried under 6 feet of snow. When I needed warmth the most, I was denied it. I lost feeling in my feet.

We were stuck in the snow for 13 days. One day, the sun finally came out, and melted enough of the snow that we could hike out to our next campsite. We would finally get to eat again. I packed my now vomit soaked belongings back into a bundle, and, with the cord digging into my shoulders yet again, we hiked. The feeling in my feet alternated between burning from the inside and completely numb. We hiked long past nightfall until we made it to our next spot. Everything was still buried in snow. Like before, I dug myself a shallow grave into the snow between two juniper trees and set up my shelter.

I had become so weak over the last 2 weeks. I had to stop digging many times because I was exhausted. I had lost so much weight that my clothes had begun to fall off. By the time I finished my shelter, I dropped to my knees and prayed in thanks to a god I didn’t believe in. My hands now numb from digging without gloves into the deep snow, I crawled into my sleeping bag, and, staring at the moon through the small opening at the end of my shelter, fell asleep.

January 17, 2004

One day, the red SUV returned. I was told that I would be leaving the program. I started to cry. I packed my things, and for the last time, threw my pack onto my bruised shoulders and carried it to the waiting vehicle, along with another girl, whose name I don’t remember learning. For some reason, my mind says Grace. Her snow-white hair shone in the sun, as blinding as the white powder blanketing the ground. We climbed into the back seat and the SUV bounced down the dirt road, back towards civilization.