This tale of teenagers struggling to remake their lives in the wilds of southern Utah manages to be both deeply lyrical and seriously sappy. Nature writer Ferguson (The Sylvan Path: A Journey Through America’s Forests, 1997) spent several months as a kind of counselor-cum-observer with the Aspen Achievement Academy, a wilderness therapy program whose philosophy blends pioneer self-reliance with a generous helping of New Age blather. The students, plagued by everything from drugs to depression to attention-deficit and eating disorders, are grizzled veterans of countless failed therapeutic schemes. Now they are dumped in a particularly stark stretch of Mormon country, stripped, searched, and outfitted for a two-month, no-frills desert and mountain sojourn. Dividing his time between one group of girls and another of boys, Ferguson charts the participants’ emotional and physical evolution, from their early days as “mice,” timid beginners who have to count aloud each time they use the bathroom so their counselors can keep track of them, into seasoned adventurers who can fend for themselves and, hopefully, bring some of what they’ve learned in the wild back home with them. Along the way, Ferguson hangs out with the hipper-than-thou staff and recounts stories of suicide watches, escape attempts , and countless therapy sessions. When he depicts the rigors and the beauty of the landscape, Ferguson’s prose approaches poetry, and his stories about kids who can’t concentrate long enough to finish a sentence mastering the painstaking art of starting a fire from a bow drill speak volumes about what these programs do best. But the author’s thumbnail character sketches read more like allegories of American ailments than the real stories of troubled young people, and his ecstatic embrace of all things mystical and Native American sometimes verges on parody. At its best, this book testifies to nature’s ability to heal and inspire. At its worst, it’s like being stuck on a long camping trip with Shirley MacLaine.