Warning: there is a four-letter word that many find offensive in the punchline of this vignette. If you would prefer not to be exposed to the adjectival form of this term that can be triggering, now would be a good time to stop reading.
That said, I want to put it out there that I somehow forgot to pick up my younger son’s luggage at the Salt Lake City Airport. That’s on me. My fault. No excuses. I’m not even going to point out that I did remember to grab any number of other bags, all the other gear. Nobody gives me credit for getting the backpacks, canteens, and headlamps into the rental car. You forget one lousy bag with all your son’s warm clothing and that’s all you hear about forever.
It can get chilly in Utah. But it never rains in the high desert so we didn’t bother to carry a tent for the two dads and four kids. Fortunately one of our company was able to build a shelter with sharpened sticks and a tarp. At night when the temperature dropped, we heated large stones in the fire and rolled them down a sandy slope into the makeshift structure. We didn’t sleep much, but we didn’t freeze to death either. And of course I gave my sweatshirt to my younger son who was getting understandably grumpy not having any clothes to change into or a heavy jacket to wear.
The next day we continued our hike through primitive back country, not far from where wilderness therapy programs help kids with life-threatening substance use issues. We didn’t see any other humans for two days although there were cows sprinkled about so there must have been people somewhere. We walked for several hours sometimes getting “canyoned out,” coming to the top of an outcropping with no way down. We had enough rope to lower ourselves eight feet down the sheer rock faces. We didn’t have a hundred feet of rope or enough nerve to rappel any father. So we would backtrack a few hundred yards, looking for a way down, wondering where on the complex topographical map we might actually be. Eventually, we hit level ground and walked several miles through a shallow river. My younger son who had been negotiating boulders larger than our house, managed to sprain his ankle in eight inches of water. Limping slowly—absent air support there was no exit ramp—he became uncommunicative. If the Bad Mood Lobby ever needs a spokesperson, they could do worse than this glowering adolescent. Did I mention that he had been unenthusiastic about the trip in the first place and that his ponderous backpack did not contain a change of clothes?
When we stopped to make camp that night, my younger son continued his come apart. Crawling up on a rock where no adult could reach him, he proceeded to eat all the food. Apples, granola bars, GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts,) Cheezits, Cheerios, dried fruit, chocolate baranks, Graham Crackers, marshmallows, and cold cans of soup evaporated without benefit of plastic silverware or heat. Anticipating the uselessness of “save some for the rest of us!” and “what are we going to eat tomorrow?” we kept our opinions to ourselves. Eventually but still silent, Will limped down from the rock and disappeared—as much as a six-foot four-inch child can be said to disappear—into his sleeping bag from which he emerged a scant 11 hours later able, if not eager, to continue our trek.
The next day brought warmer temperatures, but no improvement in the swollen ankle, now large enough to be seen from space. We used our purifying pump to find the few ounces of water unencumbered by cow poop and replenished our water supply. I noted the fifty degree delta in temperature—forty degrees at night and ninety during the day. “If you don’t like the weather near Bryce Canyon, come back in twenty minutes.” Six hours of steady hiking brought us to a road, the first one we had seen. A few hours later we were back at the car, then in the hotel playing rock, paper, scissors to determine who got the first shower. The kids checked messages on their phones for the first time in days. If they had missed anything newsworthy about Taylor Swift, they didn’t mention it.
Six months later, we are at the dinner table. Will is no longer giving us the silent treatment. He has forgiven if not forgotten being cold, wet, lost, injured, and miserable 30 miles from the nearest Chicken Kitchen. He no longer smells of woodsmoke, the twigs and dirt have long since been shampooed away. I am chatting—”pontificating” is a little harsh—about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. “The best way to stop is not to start” I begin. “Occasional use can become addiction and morph into chemical dependency.” Will, intimately familiar with this lecture, interrupts. “You don’t have to worry about me ever doing drugs or alcohol” he begins. “Because I am never going back to fucking Utah.”
What began as a camping trip involving forgotten luggage and cold soup ending up being a cautionary tale. I had intended to take the kids hiking and camping, tell some stories, see some stars, have some fun. I hadn’t thought about “Scared Straight” or any austere messaging. I guess the takeaway is that sometimes you have to go out of the way to get to where you need to be. Taking what turns out to be the wrong path down the canyon can end up being the ideal route in the long run. And any excuse to spend time with your kids when they don’t have their phones is likely to have pleasant if unintended consequences.