“Don’t be afraid to take your children with you next time you go on a hiking trip.”
–Laurence Parent, Hiking Texas
“If children are pushed too hard, not only will they (and you) be miserable but they also may develop a long-term aversion to hiking and the outdoors.”
–Laurence Parent, Hiking Texas, Two Sentences Later
I’ll admit that a dominant theme of my parenting might be my impatience with the length of the human maturation period, or, put in a more positive way, my enthusiasm for having our boys experience all the world has to offer, right away.
Six months after our national parks hat-trick in the Rockies, I learned that with my new university job came the splendid benefit of a full week off between Christmas and New Year’s. I learned this about a month before Christmas and floated an idea to Kirstin while washing dishes one evening: “I figure we can all either sit around the house for a week and get on each other’s nerves, or we could create some memories.”
We had had such a great time on our national parks tour that summer, naturally I thought a sequel would be a no-brainer, and since we had neither the lead time nor the money for another major cross-continent expedition, the obvious choice was the national park nearest to us, Big Bend, an eight-hour drive west and south.
She received my suggestion politely, but a day turned into three, and the topic didn’t come up again. When a week passed, I figured a full family trip was not in the cards. But by that time, I had moved on to another intriguing idea: Big Bend might just be my long-sought backcountry trip with Andrew, 9, and Cameron, 7.
No sooner had we returned from Yellowstone six months earlier than I had decided that backcountry camping — that is, camping with everything you need strapped to your back (I’d guessed that’s the etymology) — was for me, and by me I mean us, and by us I mean them, the boys.
While car camping was fun and had its place, there was a disconnect between what it claimed to be and what it was. One usually thinks of camping as the act of “getting away from it all,” and part of that “all” is other people. But the reality is that when we go camping, we go from the relative seclusion of our quiet suburban lots to scenes that look like NASCAR tailgating, tent manufacturer conventions, or middle-class refugee camps. Too often we drive sixty or a hundred miles into the countryside to pitch a tent seven feet away from other campers. These might be perfectly delightful or, they might spend the evening listening to their car stereo and cursing like drunken sailors as your children try to fall asleep. It’s a game of chance.
And car camping just barely counts as outdoors. Because we are only limited by the amount of crap we can fit into our car or, in my case, the back of a Ford F-150 pickup, it is all too easy to take the kitchen sink, to basically recreate your home for a day in the middle of the woods, again, seven feet from the next guy doing the same.
But this backcountry business — this was a purer form of camping. This was the original camping. The camping of John Muir and John Colter. This was the descendant of frontiersmanship, the heir to the pioneering spirit of Lewis and Clark, Boone and Crockett. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but this thinking simply followed a long pattern of my rejecting the easy path in favor of the supposed superiority of the difficult or more primitive: bow hunting over hunting with firearms, hand tools over power tools, hand-crank ice cream clearly better than electric, homemade anything better than store-bought anything.
So on a family trip that took us south of Austin, I carjacked us and steered into a massive parking lot that resembled that of an airport. We were at Cabela’s, the Mecca of outfitting. After an hour of hemming and hawing, I walked out with a backpacker’s fuel stove and burner, a package of freeze-dried beef stroganof, and one of the largest backpacks they sold, the 90-liter. They even threw in a handsome pair of collapsible, spring-loaded walking sticks as part of the special. I knew I had it bad for Cabela’s when I signed up for their credit card to get 10 percent knocked off the purchase and came out sporting a gimme hat.
In addition to its other virtues, such as the greatly increased athleticism it requires and the access it gives you to secluded and pristine scenes of nature experienced by few others, hiking and backcountry camping has another less-considered benefit: it forces one to really take the measure of one’s material needs.
Human nature dictates that we surround ourselves with comfort, and so to take something with us that will address every contingency. Better take a poncho in case it rains. Shorts in case it’s hotter than expected, and every conceivable combination of layers to maximize comfort in any climate. Binoculars in case some rare bird alights a hundred yards off. Food, of course, usually way more than needed lest we risk a single moment of hunger or unfulfilled hankering of any kind. Sun screen, and chapstick, and aspirin, and something with caffeine for the morning to avoid a headache. And so on.
When you’re not only planning for yourself but for your children, the list grows exponentially. I can live with a little sun, but if the kids get sunburned and spike a fever, I have the massive guilt of having endangered them as well as the justified thumbs-down of their mother.
But of course, this is car-camping mentality. In backcountry, every single thing you choose to bring — be it for comfort or safety — must be weighed against, well, its weight. Because it all adds up to a crushing load. A war is waged in the mind of the backcountry novice, a war between the fear of encountering some need in the wilderness, including needs that can mean life or death like enough water, and the fear of loading oneself down so much that the whole journey turns to misery. The most serious backcountry hikers have it down to such a science that they even cut the handles off their toothbrushes to shave a quarter ounce off their load. It’s a highly enlightening exercise made even more so when carried out in the context of the most materialistic society the world has ever known.
I had decided to start my backcountry career with a very modest outing with our oldest son, Andrew, who was a spunky, sturdy 9. I selected a primitive section of a nearby state park. We would walk in for 3.5 miles, camp overnight, and walk out on the other side of the 7-mile loop the next morning, reward ourselves with an extravagant lunch, and return home victorious by early afternoon. We talked about it excitedly and prepared for weeks as the temperature continued to hover above three digits every day during what turned out to be the hottest summer in any state in American history.
At last, the days began to shorten and the mercury dipped just enough that I decided it was time. It was Sunday afternoon, the eve of Labor Day. “We’re finally on our way, Andrew!” I said, pounding my steering wheel with joy as we pulled out of our neighborhood onto the highway. “Nothing on earth can stop us now!”
But an hour later, as we neared the entrance to the park, something did stop us. We were turned away by state troopers and a huge and growing cloud of smoke overhead. We were witnessing the birth of what would become known as the Labor Day Bastrop County Complex Wildfire, an inferno that would burn for three weeks, claim more than 800 homes, devastate the Lost Pines area of Central Texas for a generation, and go down as one of the worst wildfires in Texas history.
In the moment, though, it was simply the thing that had denied us our first backcountry experience.
I was astounded to find that Bastrop State Park was really the only public backcountry camping option I could identify within 100 mile radius. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but it says something profound about our society when you have to get in a car and drive more than three hours just to pick a patch of ground, set up a tent, and do nothing. What would the world have been like before every scintilla of wilderness was spoken for and fenced off with a threatening sign, and, if public, was so highly regulated that you were prosecuted if you stepped foot off the trail or pitched a tent a foot outside the designated 12 x 12-foot tent pad? If Woody Guthrie could pen “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940, imagine his indignation today.
Anyway, three weeks later, Andrew and I tried again by driving four hours into East Texas to hike in and camp one night on the Lone Star Trail, but the same drought that had fueled the Bastrop fire had prompted the Forest Service to ban all backcountry camping in the Sam Houston National Forest as well. We stayed in a campsite and got a 7-mile hike in the following morning.
When the Christmas break came and we set our sights on Big Bend, one hike above all of the many we could have done beckoned: the South Rim. For years I had been noticing that all of the most scenic pictures from Big Bend — on travel guides, parks and wildlife magazines, books — all carried the same caption: “View from the South Rim of the Chisos Basin.” The hike to the South Rim was No. 1 in my newly purchased book on Texas hiking, the author noting, “This is probably the classic Texas hike.” I read that entry almost to the point of memorization, and practically every other write-up I could locate. I read a 50-page PDF on it published on the Park Service website. My point is, I did my homework. Bear this in mind, gentle reader, as we go forward.
Indeed I prepared nearly nonstop for a month. If I wasn’t reading, I was worrying over the details in other ways. A South Texas boy with little stomach for cold, I was bound and determined that whatever else happened, we were not going to suffer through a cold mountain night.
But neither did I relish the thought of buying all new everything. So I made a study of what it would take to upgrade our sleeping bags, most of which were rated only down to 40 degrees F, to something that would insulate us from mountain air in winter. I read up on how animals, through their fur, use dead-air zones, almost microscopic, to create an envelope of compounding body heat. And I looked for material I could use to line our sleeping bags with. The hottest thing I could think of that I owned was a pair of slippers with a fleecy lining. No matter how arctic the floor got, I could never keep them on for more than ten minutes before kicking them off my sweaty dogs. Surely, whatever the inside of those were made of would keep us warm.
At Hancock Fabrics, I found a bolt of tan synthetic fleece and bought the whole thing. Back at home, I opened the boys’ sleeping bags up, custom cut the fleece to match the inside, and told them to bed down in them for a test. Kirstin looked at my mother, who was visiting in the days before Christmas, shook her head and they shared a laugh at the scene. I didn’t care if it looked funny, we weren’t going to be cold.
If I wasn’t concerned enough, the following day my mother stopped me in the middle of the living room and said, “You know, this is horrible, but I thought recently about something that happened when I was in high school. There were a couple of boys from Lubbock that went camping out on the Caprock, got caught by a surprise norther, and froze to death. FROZE TO DEATH!” she repeated.
It’s one of those things a grandmother is simply compelled by nature to say, and I neither held it against her nor blew up in a defensive rage. I did point out, though, that the Caprock Escarpment was five hundred miles north of our destination, and that Big Bend’s latitude was one of the reasons I had picked it for a December trip to the mountains in the first place.
On the eve of our trip, I spent the entire day making lists, packing, and double-checking our supplies. Honestly, if we hadn’t gone on this trip, I don’t know what else I might have accomplished during the winter break. I could have recorded an album. I could have written three chapters of a book or remodeled a bedroom. At one point, instead of a mere list, I created an exploded diagram of what I wanted the boys to wear, illustrating each layer radiating out in turn like assembly instructions for toilet guts or light fixtures.
The exploded diagram included a few items I felt we needed but didn’t have yet. But, restrained by the infamous sticker shock of outfitting, we mostly made do with found items. Instead of pricey new longjohns on their bottom halves, the boys would wear Andrew’s black soccer socks, which reached their mid-thighs, making them look like 1880s San Francisco whores as they paraded through the house in their underwear and thigh-highs. Above the waist, they would wear fleecy pajama tops, Sponge Bob and Star Wars, respectively, under long-sleeve swim shirts as their insulating layer. We would make this work.
* * *
I had set the alarm for 3:45 a.m. the following morning, but didn’t need it. The combination of excitement and worry made for light sleeping, and I was up at 3:20, coaxing the boys out of their bunks. We drove for four hours before eating breakfast in Ozona, then pressing on west, then south into the high desert of the Big Bend country. After paying our way into the park and checking in at the backcountry office with a ranger named Heather, we arrived in the impressive Chisos Basin around 1 p.m., feverishly eating our peanut butter sandwiches before leaving civilization behind.
As instructed, we parked near an amphitheater about 15 minutes downhill from the main trailhead, which was situated behind the visitor center.
We strapped all of our stuff on, surveyed the back of the car for anything we might have missed, and as we strode away from the car, I laid out of a few ground rules. First, whatever else happened, we would stay together. We came up with a system in which I, usually in front, would say “Sound off! One!” then Andrew chimed in “Two!” followed by Cameron’s soprano, “Three!” As we walked we devised other threesomes we could use: “Peanut! … Butter! … Jelly!” “Snap! … Crackle! … Pop!” and so forth.
Immediately, and I mean immediately, I realized we were in for more than I had bargained for. Just the trail to the trailhead was hard-going, consisting not of hard-packed dirt nor of crushed granite like the trails we were used to, but of millions of jagged rocks that lubricated each others movement to form the sensation that you were walking up a slide, each step achieving only about 80 percent of the progress it should. A fire was immediately lit within my thighs and buttocks that would burn non-stop for the remainder of the day. My state-of-the-art backpack, which I had tried on fully loaded numerous times in the months-long run-up to this moment, now cut into my shoulders and collar bones.
After ten hard minutes up the trail toward the visitor center, I realized I had left our campsite permit on the front seat of the car. But after this very significant initial effort, I certainly wasn’t going to make the boys hike back down to the car and then repeat this climb. So I left them and my pack under a tree and briskly — almost at a jog — walked down to the car, so light already that I felt I was floating.
This was, of course, literally less than ten minutes after I had preached my fiery sermon to them on the theme of staying together no matter what. When I realized this, I concluded it surely would be faster back to them if I moved the car up to the top of this trail. I’d beg forgiveness from park officials later, and heaven knows we’d appreciate not having to walk those 15 extra minutes down to the car at the weary end of the trip. I moved the car up to the visitor center and locked it again. But there were at least five trailheads leading in different directions down from the lodge, none of them marked “Amphitheater.” Panicked, I jogged back and forth like a ninny between them.
Not wanting to guess wrong, I jogged into the visitor center and was greeted at the door by a life-sized model of a mountain lion, which are much bigger than you’d think. Oh, God! I thought, less than 10 minutes in and I’ve abandoned my boys in mountain lion country! I breathlessly asked the park ranger to point me to the trail to the amphitheater. As I entered the trail, I saw Cameron sitting with my pack almost immediately; we had been within 50 yards of the visitor center. In the six minutes I had been gone, Andrew had, of course, left Cameron to come down to the parking lot and find me when he figured I had been gone too long. It was all like some bad dream, in which one well-intentioned decision sets events in motion that just cascade and cascade farther and farther out of your control, and you go from making a grill-cheese sandwich to ordering a nuclear strike in about five steps.
Fortunately, Andrew was just around the bend and we were soon reunited and headed uphill again. I gathered myself and reemphasized the importance of staying together, though all my moral authority on this point was long gone. I was physically and emotionally drained, and we were not yet even to the trailhead — to the beginning of the hike proper! Was this an omen that we should try something less ambitious? Or was it a Providential innocculation, a small reminder in a relatively harmless setting that I’d better really bring my A game?
A bathroom break. A trail map purchase. And a quick conversation with the white-mustachioed park ranger, who asked, “Where are you trying to make it to?”
“We have a site reserved near the South Rim,” I replied.
He smiled serenely, “Better get a move on. You got a flashlight, right?”
Passing through the complex consisting of a low-slung lodge, visitor center, store, and restaurant, we found the trailhead and at long last were on the real trail to the South Rim.
Almost immediately we started uphill again, picking our way carefully through a minefield of jagged, differently sized granite and slate-colored rocks that slid against each other, making it virtually impossible to not twist an ankle. This was really the first major reality that had not been conveyed in the many guidebooks and online descriptions of the trail I had read. If you hired someone to come up with a more dangerous surface to walk up and down a mountain on, they could scarcely do better than this. If the trail had been made of greased broken glass and rusty nails it would have been infinitely easier going.
When we had trod for about fifteen minutes, most of it climbing through switchbacks, Andrew complained of his pack bothering him, and complained in a way I could tell was only going to get worse. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage on our house for this trip, I had decided that their L.L. Bean school backpacks were sufficient, and while they had no belts to shift the weight from the shoulders to the hips, they did have clips that held the shoulder straps together in the front, and we had done plenty of dry runs around the house. I had even taken Cameron on a forced march around the neighborhood carrying a full thermos of water in his pack and his sleeping bag bungeed atop it.
No sooner had I loaded Andrew’s pack on top of mine, hoisted the whole ridiculous affair onto my middle-aged back, clicked top and bottom, and taken twelve more burning steps up the trail, than my own sleeping bag unraveled and slid onto the rocks. I summoned everything in my higher nature to arrest the stream of foul language trying to escape my lips.
Not only had we gotten a late start for the South Rim, we were making the worst time in park history. What with the baby steps and the multiple clinics on how not to bungee your equipment together, Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball would have been passing us.
“Dad,” Andrew said, “if it’s too much stress, we don’t have to go.” God, how I loved this fourth grader.
Still, I didn’t know if he was being thoughtful or clever — if perhaps he and Cameron had already turned against the expedition in a soft mutiny and were simply doing a Jedi mind trick to get me to turn back. I continued to work with my load. I unfolded my sleeping bag and rolled it back up so that it was twice the width and half the girth, a splendidly stabilizing trick I would repeat in time with both of the boys’ packs. As I worked on stoically, Andrew spoke again: “You’re a determined dad! That’s one reason I like you.”
Well, if I had been vacillating as to whether or not to prosecute this hike, that comment sealed it. What else could I have done after a comment like that but press on?
This was the point at which it felt we really stepped out on the limb, the backcountry limb.
I had experienced this sensation with Andrew in Sam Houston National Forest, and it is the essence of backcountry — that every step you take away from the car is a step farther out on that limb. And the farther you go, the narrower your margin for error. A thousand things could go wrong out here, even without a mountain lion encounter, and all it would take is one of them — one — to turn an afternoon stroll into a mountain rescue situation. We were working without a net. It’s one thing by yourself and something else when you’re caring for two of the three most precious things on earth, not only to you, but to about five other people. But in the final analysis, all of life is a limb. There are no guarantees. No absolute safety. No bright line between enrichment and endangerment. It’s all a numbers game — a game of odds.
At one extreme of the spectrum is the completely foolhardy, negligent parent who fails to provide the least measure of security or common-sense boundaries. And we saw enough parenting that approached this to know that this way lies the collapse of civilization. But at the other extreme is the Boy in the Bubble — the one who’s never allowed a single step out on that limb for fear of cold germs, pollen, crazy drivers, peanut dust, bullying, perverts, gluten. That life, it seems to me, is not really much of a life at all. Somewhere in the middle we tried to strike the balance, hold on to the golden mean, the middle path, not so far out on that branch that it snapped and the cradle did fall, but far enough out for Baby to see something worthwhile, far enough to give Baby a view.
If the first rude awakening was the trail surface, the second was the climb. I had spent weeks preparing us against cold when I should have been preparing us against gravity. I had put all my chips on the wrong number. The guidebooks soft-peddled this aspect to a criminally negligent extent, assuming I would just deduce that one would not get to something called a “rim” unless he did a substantial amount of climbing. They would write things like, “This hike passes through meadows at first and then involves some climbing, before leveling out ….” What it should have said is, “This will be the most intense physical activity you have ever experienced. If you have never been on an inclined treadmill for five hours while balancing a 75-pound weight on your back and fielding a nonstop stream of questions about Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, do not attempt this. There is a fifty-fifty chance your heart will explode out of your chest. Several times during the hike, you actually will wish for a fatal mountain lion attack so that you will not have to continue.” Stuff like that. Instead, we get euphemisms like, “some climbing.” Oh sure, next to “Difficulty” it said “Extreme,” but we all know they have to say that for the lawyers.
The third reality check, which really is just a corollary of the second, was distances. I’m very sorry but there is no possible way that the distances posted on this trail are accurate. I know, more or less, what a mile feels like. There’s a one-mile loop in my neighborhood that I used to walk my dog around a couple of times a week. I did it at a leisurely stroll in about twenty minutes — three miles an hour. There’s a four-mile loop around a lake in downtown Austin. If I walked with purpose, I could trace it in an hour. That I wasn’t crazy was confirmed to me when I heard another man the following day exclaim loudly, to no one in particular as he labored passed the visitor center, “I want to meet the man who came up with those distances… Maybe as the crow flies!”
In the first place, there seems to be fairly wide disagreement about just how far it is around this venerable loop. Granted there are several shortcuts, but you’d read 14.9 in one source, 12.5 in the next. My first thought when I started seeing mileage signs back to the trailhead, was that they were simply decimal errors. The sign that read .3 miles surely meant 3 miles, and whatever federal prisoner had been assigned to cut the numbers out of the sheet metal had simply slipped and punched a decimal before the number instead of dotting the “i” in “miles.” The sign that said 3 miles must have meant 30. I was completely incredulous at every marker. Distances were inconceivably longer than indicated. Every sign that should have been a trophy and a spirit-lifting beacon of progress was instead a demoralizing punch in the crotch.
My mind groped for an explanation. If they had estimated the mileage by an aerial map, they might have failed to capture the distance in the third dimension of elevation, but surely they weren’t this crude. Perhaps they had just laid a length of kite string on a large map in the general area where they thought the trail was, and so had failed to measure the innumerable switchbacks.
My last and favorite theory was that their surveyor’s wheel was turning perhaps half the time, the remainder simply skidding over the endless bed of slippery rocks.
But withal, the boys managed to maintain a happy banter, peppering me with questions about Clone armor and whether the Gungans, of hyperstatic underwater bubble fame, and the non-amphibious Naboo had ever actually gone to war. At times we walked along in silence. These were special times, when we seemed to communicate merely by being together instead of by incessantly chattering. But those were few and short-lived.
I should hasten to add that they peppered me with latter-day Star Wars questions in spite of my utter indifference to Episodes 1 through 3. Though Episodes 4 through 6 played a major role in the youth of any American my age, I was in general accord with comedian Patton Oswalt’s dark fantasy about using a time machine to return to 1990 and kill George Lucas in his sleep with a shovel. I generally keep these thoughts to myself as I don’t want to rain on the boys’ parade, but the fact remains: Meesa no likey the prequel episodes so muuuch!
And when I wasn’t fielding questions about why Anikan always addressed Obiwan, and Obiwan addressed Qui-gon, with the term “master,” I could give as good as I got when faced with prolonged silence. On one particular stretch, punch drunk from the climb, I burst into a full-throated rendition of a space education song I had learned in elementary school. It is rendered in a sort of jaunty style that might fit a musical sea epic or German tavern:
The sun is a mass of incandescent gas
A gigantic nuclear furnace!
Where hydrogen is built into helium
At a temp’rature of millions of degreeees!
Yo-ho! It’s hot! The sun is not
A place where we could liiive,
But here on earth there’d be no life
Without the light it giiives!
Over the course of the next four hours, we gained about a thousand feet, occasionally turning to see the lodge growing smaller and smaller below us in the distance. Just before we topped a ridge to head into a high canyon, we saw a metal sign nailed to a tree: “WARNING – Mountain Lion Country. This area is known to have active mountain lions that can be aggressive toward humans. Avoid bringing small children into this area.”
A. What do you mean by “small”?
B. If the problem is serious enough to post an unnerving sign like this, one might have thought that Heather, the park ranger, would have mentioned it as she sat across the table from Andrew and Cameron earlier that day and assigned us our campsites on the other side of this area, and
C. Would it be an idea to put a sign of this nature AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TRAIL?!!!
Relying on the park rangers’ apparent lack of concern, we pressed ahead into Boot Canyon.
I know in hindsight that I was carrying at least 20 unnecessary pounds, and even at the time I wished like hell there were a magical way to extract all the weight of things that would never get used. The extra pair of socks and underwear. The meals we would never get to. The 17 ounces of leftover water we would never drink. The tissues I would never blow into. Nineteen of the 20 tools of my pocket knife I would never use — but you never know when you’ll get your hand stuck between two boulders and have to saw your arm off at the elbow, am I right? When I reached the four-hour mark I realized that in my back pocket I was carrying, of all things, my checkbook. I never carry my checkbook anywhere. But thank goodness I had carried it up the side of a 2,000-foot basin just in case there was a bank branch where I could pay our mortgage or some Girl Scouts selling cookies outside a Wal-Mart.
Every half hour or so we would continue to see mileage signs that seemed asymptotic in nature — always getting nearer to the goal but never actually reaching it.
And now the light was failing, and the temperature, falling. And the canyon was narrowing. As we plodded on in single file, a gray rock-face rose nearly straight up on our left. To the right of the two-foot-wide trail, the ground sloped steeply down forty or fifty feet to a series of stagnant pools fed occasionally by a spring. A bad step and a fall down there wouldn’t have been fatal, but it wouldn’t have been fun.
I paused. “It’s getting cold, guys,” I said. “Time to get our coats on.” Andrew and I went into our packs and retrieved our heavy coats. I then unzipped Cameron’s pack to find … a scarf. With genuine horror, I then realized that his coat, presumed to be in his pack all along, was at this moment, safely in the backseat of the car. I had not seen it as I surveyed the space behind the backseat when we set out. I heard my mother: “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock. FROZE … TO DEATH!” I took off my red flannel shirt and put it on Cameron, who then reminded me of Bugs Bunny disguised as Elmer Fudd. I would have mummified him in my coat if necessary, but this was enough for the moment.
Minute after long minute we trudged on by the light of our three headlamps. Now Andrew began to cry. Then Cameron to whimper. Exhausted, yes. Hungry, yes. But mostly they were just scared. Boot Canyon, especially in the dark, was something right off a Wizard of Oz sound stage, with bare scraggly branches black against a charcoal sky and gray craggy cliff faces borrowed from Mordor.
“Dad,” said Andrew, “we should be sounding off all the time, shouldn’t we?”
“Guys, I promise, the first place we reach where we can camp, we’ll stop. I promise.”
A few minutes after this promise, my headlamp swept to our left, and I spotted a little area just beside the trail under a dead tree that looked to be about fifteen feet square. I slowed to a stop. Looked at the boys, all snotty and teary-eyed. Looked at the crescent moon mocking us at the mouth of the canyon up ahead who knows how much farther, and looked back at the patch. “I think we should camp here, boys.”
As badly as they had wanted to stop hiking and pitch camp a minute before, now they were just as upset at the prospect of stopping. “I just want to get somewhere where it’s safe!” Andrew cried. I’m not sure what he was picturing, because whatever site awaited us after another treacherous hour on the trail would not have looked much safer than this patch of ground, though it surely would have been a little flatter, roomier and more open.
* * *
As I unpacked our tent my legs and arms trembled with exhaustion. I would have thought I’d be ravenous but instead was nauseous, like an out-of-shape recruit during the first week of boot camp. I had a peculiar, wretched taste in my mouth. Perhaps it was simply not having eaten anything all afternoon, but I suspected that it was actually that I had achieved the rare-for-me state of ketosis, burning through all my glucose and now starting in on fatty acids. (I had heard this was a symptom.)
As the boys whimpered in the dark, I worked steadily to assemble the tent, occasionally requesting this pole or that sleeve in an attempt to engage them in the improvement of their own situation. Finally the tent was up, barely clearing two different branches. The ground beneath us sloped toward the trail and featured multiple exposed rocks. Huge gray boulders surrounded us on three sides. High above us, between the canyon walls and through the limbs of dead and dormant trees, a sliver of stars hinted at the visual feast that might have been had we made it to the South Rim.
We rolled out our pads, which did mitigate the rocks, opened up our sleeping bags, and the boys crawled in fully dressed. Being way more tired than hungry, they passed on dinner — the final cruel irony of the day. The stove, the carefully selected freeze-dried food, and much of the water, had been lugged all the way up here for nothing.
Lastly, I hung my backpack by some bungee chords from a low branch of a tree as a lame nod to bear safety. I hoped the effort would count for something in the kharmic ledger because it sure didn’t in the worldly plane. Instead of being out of the reach of bear, it now simply hung at mouth level, like one of those elevated dog bowls. Whatever its shortcomings, it did keep ants, skunks, opossums, and other denizens from rummaging through it.
I shimmied down into my sleeping bag, and despite the awkward angle, holes, and protruding rocks, the muscles in my back finally started to relax.
I had never been so tired.
Then, of course, I noticed the tent’s rainfly had come undone at one corner, and while I didn’t expect rain, I did figure it would help hold in our body heat. “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock. Froze! To death! … Froze to death! (add echo effect) … Froze to death! … Caprock! … Caprock!”
I then realized I also had left the mace in my backpack. I saw the sign in my mind’s eye: “WARNING: This is an active mountain lion area. Do not bring small children into this area. Mountain lion area. No children. Caprock.” I pried my aching body off the ground one last time, fixed the rainfly, dug the mace out of my pack and put it in my coat pocket for the night, peed on a boulder, and returned to the tent and sleeping bag, with all their exhausting series of zippers.
Finally still, my mind stewed in our predicament, and this is when darkness truly set in. There was no getting around it — this had been a mistake. A huge mistake. A colossal mistake. I was embarrassed to my core that I had gotten us into this situation, and burned with guilt over the boys’ tears on what should have been a rigorous but happy tromp. It’s hard to sufficiently convey at this remove, but at that moment, I hated Big Bend. I didn’t want a souvenir. Not a hat, not a T shirt.
I blamed the place. Places like this, especially in Texas, are often called “God’s country.” I thought that of all the places that used the “God’s country” convention, none had more of a realistic claim on it than Big Bend, because only God could really live here for any length of time. God and the lizards. Big Bend was a gorgeous bitch, a femme fatale that drew you in from a distance with her beauty and then broke your heart up close in a thousand different ways: jagged rocks, lack of water, cactus needles, snakes, stinging insects.
And in the dark of this particular night, the despair went deeper: I genuinely wanted nothing to do with backcountry ever again. I wondered what I could get for my 90-liter backpack on Craigslist and even formulated the copy there in my half-waking state: “Good-as-new backpack–” no, no — “90-liter backpack, used once….”
As soon as we arrived home, I was going to just delete my Facebook posting about going to Big Bend so that friends and family wouldn’t ask how it went, and I would be forced to either lie about it or fess up to presiding over this unmitigated disaster. I wanted nothing less than to expunge this one from the record and pretend it never happened. But the boys, they would always remember.
There’s no feeling like the feeling that you’ve failed your children. When we were in a dead zone for cell service the previous day Kirstin had left me a voicemail: “It’s a good thing I trust you so much,” she said in the message. No, I thought. It’s not a good thing. She shouldn’t have, and she probably never will again.
After I had stewed in my own self-loathing for an hour, listening to the boys breathing, ears perked for any sign of critter outside the tent, my mother’s voice came to me again: “Two boys froze to death out on the Caprock.” I woke them both up, one after the other, and asked them if they were warm. I then stuck my hand down into their sleeping bags like a mechanic using a dipstick to check oil. They were roasting. Whatever gerryrigged system I had devised and hauled up here was working. I paused my self-flagelating to throw myself a morsel of credit. This, at least, had gone to plan.
When I finally believed that the boys were not going to freeze to death, Caprock style, my body, which, mind you, had been awake since 3:20 that morning, finally succumbed to my rocky bed, my bedrock, if you will. And we all slept. Until about 2:30, when I popped awake for no particular reason and turned everything over in my mind again and again for another two hours before dozing once more.
I awoke for the last time a few minutes before six and decided to fix breakfast for the boys so we could be hiking as soon as light allowed and before anyone came down the trail and noted our illegal campsite. The fact that our site was against the rules bothered Andrew especially, I could tell, and I took this as a healthy sign that he was becoming a conscientious citizen.
Kneeling on the rocks in the dark, I measured out the water into our aluminum pitcher for breakfast No. 1 — scrambled eggs and bacon for Cameron. I lit the little red backcountry stove and perched the pitcher precariously on its three-pronged burner. When at long last the water boiled, I poured it into the bag, sealed it, and set it on a rock to cook. The final step, ten minutes later, was to pour off the excess water before “serving.” As I drained the steaming bacon- and egg-laced water onto the rocks near our makeshift site, I said a little prayer for the poor bastards who would be passing this way later today; any black bear worth his salt would be all over this newly christened Bacon Rock.
Andrew and I had chosen the stroganof, normally my favorite dish. Alas, this morning reconstituted beef stroganof didn’t agree with me, and a few chewy bites was enough. I chased the taste out of my mouth with half a bottle of 5-Hour Energy. Given how things had gone the previous day, you might think I would have gone for the whole five hours, but I only brought it along for the caffeine. This was enough to ward off a withdrawal headache but not enough to cause me to break out in a niacin rash (a story for another time).
We broke down the tent and tediously rolled, folded, and stuffed every single article back in its appointed place. As a final act of atonement for everything the boys had gone through the previous day, I offered to carry not only Andrew’s sleeping bag and pad down the mountain, but Cameron’s as well; he did not refuse the offer.
My pack was now an even more ridiculous contraption and reminded all of us of the Grinch’s sled fully loaded. At this point and throughout the rest of the morning we worked out a routine wherein I would hoist the pack up to my elbows, then both boys would get under it and lift as hard as they could so that I could, through a series of jostling and bouncing motions, bring the straps up to my shoulders. Of course, the reason hikers put their bedrolls and such up high, above the pack is to keep the center of gravity as much as possible over the hips, which should be bearing most of the weight. As I did not have any of the right gear to achieve this, all of our bedding dangled off the back and below the pack, placing my center of gravity about seven-and-a-half feet behind me, or somewhere between Andrew and Cameron on the trail.
This made it all the more important that the shoulder straps be clipped together in the middle of the chest to distribute the weight. So I grabbed the strap connecting the shoulder straps and gave one last tug to tighten it down. It was the last tug because this strapped now snapped off. There was no getting back on.
And there was no use complaining about it. I just hooked my thumbs inside the straps to occasionally relieve the pressure, and we started back through Boot Canyon the direction we had come the night before. With everything loaded and on the move, and with the scenery growing brighter with each passing minute, our spirits lifted and we joked and sang as we started back on the trail. There no doubt was a question about whether Watto, the Toydarian junk dealer on Tatooine, really had a helium bladder or just used his wings for levitation.
Five minutes down the trail, the boys decided they needed to go to the bathroom — number two. Off came the pack. Out came the tissue paper and the ziplock bag to pack out the soiled remains. When they had both defiled the great outdoors behind a pair of massive boulders, Andrew said, “Dad! Check out that bird!”
“Right in front of you!”
Sure enough, right in front of us, a blue Mexican jay had lighted on a bare branch as if waiting for his photo to be taken. I retrieved my camera and fired off about twenty pictures of him and his buddies. Our mood lifted again. I hadn’t completely made peace with this trip or myself yet, but in the brightening day it was just possible that I no longer hated Big Bend National Park.
We repeated the Lifting of Daddy’s Pack and headed out toward the namesake of Boot Canyon, Boot Rock, a monolith resembling an upside-down boot that stood at the mouth of the canyon. When we reached a scenic overlook about an hour later, we unloaded for a rest, some water, jerky, and a nice view of Boot Rock, the desert floor beyond the basin, and the Sierra del Carmen mountains of Mexico beyond that. Here, determined to use the tripod I had hauled up here at least once during the hike, I mounted the camera on it and used the timer to get a few pictures of all of us with the vista behind us.
We marched on, and soon, in a testament to the resilience of kids and a gesture that made me so happy I wanted to cry, Andrew said out of the blue, “Thanks for bringing us, Dad.” After all this, I thought, he thanks me.
It was about 10 a.m. before we started seeing signs of humanity again, oncoming groups of twos and fours and fives on their way out to the South Rim. Perhaps a little surprisingly, the sight of other people lifted our spirits yet again.
With almost every passing, a little transaction takes place that can last from eight seconds to ten minutes depending on the mutual interest shown by the passing parties. There were other father-son sets, usually pairings. There were fragments of a Scout den. There was a foursome from Boston and Houston that was taking four days to hike around the basin with the help of a guide. (This made me feel better about our failing to have done it in 24 hours and without a guide, but all the more quixotic for having tried.) There was the fiftysomething lesbian couple. And numerous couples in their 20s and 30s with a bounce in their step, fueled by legs both young and fresh.
The first party that asked us how it was going got the entire narrative. But as fatigue began to reclaim my legs and back, the summary got more and more “executive.” The second that asked got a treatment about half that of the first. The next, just a few bullet points: “Pretty good… Tough night… Trapped in Boot Canyon by darkness, exhaustion, improvised camp. Some great views. No bears or lions. Good luck!” The following one, just the station-break headline: “Austin family trapped in Boot Canyon. Movie at eleven.”
As we passed other hikers, I began to note that mine was the largest pack in the Chisos Basin that day by about 50 percent. I could tell by their faces and how they stepped off the trail to make room for me, and how they said, “Woah!” or simply laughed as they passed me and saw the load.
About three hours down the trail, I started to entertain the thought that I might have blown out the double hernia surgery I had had the previous year. Turns out I hadn’t, but it was plausible. Also, there might have been a question about how familiar I was with the Lego version of Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator vehicle.
If yesterday represented going farther and farther out on a limb, today, we were quickly returning to the safety of the trunk. With about two hours left, we began to catch glimpses of the visitor center, far, far below us in the basin. I cautioned the boys that the car was still, several hours away, even though we could almost see it at this high angle.
But step by step, we chipped away at our task, and came closer to the trunk, the car, the much-discussed cheeseburger. As the sun climbed above the rim and bathed the basin in its full light, the boys spotted an eight-point white-tail buck in the woods paralleling us at about forty feet. Around the next bend, a group of three white-tails, with no apparent fear of humans, walked directly toward us, paused for a photo about 15 feet away, and crossed the trail. Even though white-tails were ultra common in Austin, the sight of our first mammal of the trip put a needed spring in our step.
Four hours and forty minutes into that morning’s hike, we were now within a thousand yards of the parking lot. A lifetime of experience and something deep inside told me that one of us was about to get hurt. It’s just the way things go. It’s as if there’s price that has to be paid, a mandatory sacrifice to a cruel god of family outtings, and if you’re lucky, you pay it at the end instead of the middle. Within sixty seconds of having this thought, I looked up the trail in front of me and saw Andrew down. He had turned his ankle. Luckily he was up and moving soon and by the time we reached the parking lot, he was dancing and jogging.
Throwing caution to the wind, we jumped a low wall and traced a well-worn path into the visitor complex rather than stay on the trail to the bitter end. Seeing my pack, with its daisy chain of sleeping bags dangling down to my calves, and seeing the company I was keeping, no one held the shortcut against us. We were back to civilization.
While I stood by the open car, I changed my shirt, reapplied deodorant, and changed out of the wool socks that had just started a few blisters. In the restaurant above the parking lot, I finished a chicken fried steak platter in about six minutes, then waited as the boys finish their hamburgers. I stared out at the basin in a slack-jawed daze, my legs, hips and shoulders buzzing with exhaustion.
Lessons learned, I thought: Next time, twice the daylight, half the stuff. Take water, nuts, raisins, and energy bars. No expensive freeze-dried food means no stove, no water pitcher, no cups, no clean up; camera and tripod, yes, but no tent, ultra-light zero-rated sleeping bag, no pad. Nothing else. Oh, and no checkbook.
We decided we’d submit our Junior Ranger paperwork by mail instead of in person, and headed north, out of the park. Roughly 10 miles north of the park boundary sits an immigration checkpoint. As the only northbound road into the checkpoint comes directly out of the national park, it is surely one of the least needed facilities in the INS, but I suppose they have to have one. Having grown up in South Texas, way, way downstream from here, border checkpoints were a common sight, and I knew the drill. I slowed to a stop, rolled down my window, and chirped “ ‘afternoon.”
“U.S. citizen?” the officer asked.
He was about to wave me on, when his eyes wandered to the backseat and his face took on a quizzical look. “Do you have a boy and … a girl back there?”
That’s a strange question, I thought. “Two boys,” I said. I then turned around to see Andrew and Cameron both completely shrouded in blankets, a technique they used to keep the glare off the tiny video screens they were holding in their laps that, yes, were playing Episode 2: Attack of the Clones.
“Okay,” he laughed, “thanks.” He motioned me on. As I accelerated away, I wondered if two human-shaped figures in the back seat with blankets all the way over them like dead Aunt Edna in Vacation were not enough to warrant a gentle search of a vehicle, what would be?
On the long drive home, I reassessed the trip in the more forgiving light of day. Had we created some memories? Indeed. Had I expanded their horizons? Check. Had we been hungry and without food? Thirsty and without water? Cold and without warmth? No, no, and no. Just more tired than normal, and for two of us, a little afraid of the dark. I adjusted my grade from an F to a C+. By the time we were home, it was a B-.
Before the trip, we had remained mum about our upcoming adventure around little Ian, who we knew would not be joining us. We didn’t want to rub it in that he, who was probably the most enthusiastic if not the most intrepid camper of my sons, would not be making the trip. We had bought him a little stuffed bear in the gift shop of the lodge, and when we gave him his prize, he said in his most adorable and halting way, “Did … you … all … have fun … in Daddyland?”
And wasn’t that just it? Yes, that was Big Bend National Park, and yes it was the Chisos Basin, but it was, at day’s end, Daddyland. Daddyland is a place where love and the desire to teach and experience do constant battle with common sense and, occasionally, safety. A place where bonding comes through hardship. Daddyland is a beautiful but wild place. Daddyland is fiercer than Mommyland, and more adventuresome than Grandmaville or Neighborworld. Daddyland is its own psycho-spiritual landscape — its own dimension that children who have daddies drop into and out of on the quixotic whim that is both our blessing and our curse.
I thought about the question for a moment, then answered with a truth that stopped short of comprehensiveness. “Yes, buddy, we did have fun in Daddyland.” Just ask Padme, Count Dooku, or anyone in the Galactic Republic’s trade delegation.