Fifteen-year-old Maryan trudges up the trail to the Timpanogos Caves, greeting with skepticism the multiple returning hikers who assure her: “It’s totally worth the hike.”
“There is nothing American people will not do,” the Kenyan refugee mutters breathlessly. Voluntarily climbing uphill does not carry obvious appeal when life has placed mountains in your path at almost every turn.
But YouthWorks — a skills-development course for teens from underserved communities — is about facing challenges together. The 15 Salt Lake County girls enrolled this summer do what they can to encourage each other up the slope to the caves, and Maryan offers a steady supply of wisecracks and exaggerated trips and falls to entertain her friends. Her dream is to become a comedian.
Although YouthWorks’ primary emphasis is on professional skills — the teens manage community service projects and learn to build resumes and handle job interviews in three-month classes — the girls in this summer’s class say sisterhood has been the most meaningful takeaway.
“I got to see what it was like to be part of a team of girls,” said Patricia Estrada, 16, who joined YouthWorks with her sister Estrella when they saw the group’s booth at the Rose Park Festival this year. The National Parks Conservation Association and Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks have partnered with YouthWorks to develop an outdoors component of the program, which alternates classes of boys and girls every few months.
Most of the girls on the Timpanogos trip are eager to reach the caves, but Maryan is apprehensive. A cold, dark hole in the ground is an intimidating metaphor, she says.
Orphaned at age 3 when her parents died in the Somali civil war, Maryan was raised in Kenya with extended family. Her uncle forced her into child prostitution, she says, taking the money and subjecting her to frequent rapes. When a Catholic aid group brought Maryan and her siblings to Utah about two years ago, she says, she faced a long, difficult recovery from PTSD. The Tribune generally identifies child victims of sex crimes by their first name only.
Maryan previously braved Utah’s wilderness during a camping trip in therapy, but she says she prefers to work out her feelings in writing — and her friends in YouthWorks are eager to talk up her skills as a storyteller. Outdoor pursuits, however, are a less natural source of confidence for Maryan; she has never been inside a cave before, she says, and she fears it will be tomblike.
“I think caves are for dead people,” she says as she approaches the door at the mouth. “I have a lot of emotion about dead places. It makes me think about my parents, and what I wanted to do [to myself].”
In the caves’ entryway, Maryan returns to her comedy, poking her friends and scaring them in the dim light: “Raaaaah!”
But in the first room of the tour, she falls quiet and traces the calcite formations with her eyes.
“It’s so beautiful,” she murmurs.
As Maryan follows the trail into the three connected caves, she inhales deeply, taking in the sweetly musty smell. Her mood darkens briefly as ranger Royce Shelley tells of child volunteers who maintained the caves during World War II — “I hate wars,” she says — but brightens again as Shelley points out “Rocky,” the Saint-Bernard-looking calcite formation. Maryan gleefully improvises an elaborate parody of Stephen King’s Cujo, in which the ghost of Rocky rampages a cave tour.
Through the comic banter, dark thoughts, creative flow and a few moments of hushed awe, Maryan emerges from the cave in agreement with the hikers she met on the ascent.
“Now I know why it was worth it to hike all the way up here,” she says.