New Book: Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery

It’s impossible to believe it’s been more than two years since I’ve posted on my blog. But there’s a good reason: I’ve been busy. And I’m very happy to announce the release of my ninth book: Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery, published by Anomalist Books.

MonsterHikeFrontCover

From the back cover:

This is the true story of two journeys — one of the mind, one of the body.

The journey of the mind was from curiosity to belief to knowledge of one of the enduring mysteries of our time: the existence of sasquatches. I had read about them for years, but wanted to see for myself. So I undertook a second journey, a 100-mile solo expedition across one of America’s hottest bigfoot sighting areas, Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas.

This personal memoir — at turns frightening, funny, and philosophical — explores the fundamental questions about this persistent mystery: What are these creatures? Why, after thousands of encounters with humans, do they still go unacknowledged by science, government, and mainstream society? And what does all of this tell us about the dangers and the rewards of believing in something mysterious?

Available on Amazon here. The ebook should be available shortly. Here’s my book trailer:

Writing this book and getting it published represents two huge items off my bucket list. It’s also required more courage than just about anything else I’ve ever done, which is the reason I ultimately decided to go forward with it. I will likely write about this phenomenon in the near future.

I plan to build out a page on this blog with photos and possibly sound files to enrich the experience of the book. I hope you’ll give Monster Hike a try, and let me know what you think.

Be safe out there!

Son! (My Journey to Jerry Reed)

 

In 1986, I was a freshman at The University of Texas and had just undergone something akin to a religious awakening after hearing a little-known local guitarist named Eric Johnson. I was ravenously learning dumbed-down versions of every song I could off his debut record Tones and going to hear him in concert at every chance.

My friends and I were listening to him at the Austin Opry House late one night when he switched off the distortion pedal and proceeded to play a magnificent country instrumental that left us all practically in tears of astonished joy. I remember him calling it “Tribute to …” to … to someone or other. I couldn’t quite remember the name because he had said it before the song, but I thought the initials were J.R.

It’s a reminder of how long ago this was that I couldn’t just pull it up on my phone with a Google search that guessed the title before I could finish typing it. Nor could I look it up on the internet when I got home because, of course, said internet did not exist. In those days of yore you got tipped off to great new music by phone calls from buddies, from scanning magazine racks (which is how we discovered Eric), from late-night conversations at Whataburger, from concert reviews printed in these things called newspapers. That is to say, if you didn’t hear a title clearly the first time, you weren’t guaranteed immediate or even eventual clarity.

The 1986 magazine cover that started it all.

Moreover, Eric has always had a practice of playing songs in concert years before he records them. (Never one to rush in, he would not commit this particular composition to a recorded medium for two more decades, when at long last he included it on his 2005 record Bloom.)

During the winter break, I returned from Austin to my hometown of McAllen and erelong found myself at La Plaza Mall sifting the wares of the only music store in the greater metropolitan area, Musicland. There, I made my way back to the cassette wall and thenceforth to the country section, a place I had not visited since my “kicker phase” in junior high school. I located the R’s and began digging for the person to whom Eric had made such a magnificent sonic tribute, for surely his recordings would be life changing. Remembering the initials as J.R., I soon was walking excitedly to the cashier with purchase in hand: The Greatest Hits of … Jim Reeves.

I returned home to my parents’ house and with nervous anticipation tore the cellophane off the box and popped the cassette into my tiny silver jam box, pressed play, and waited. A lush string section swooned into motion and a gentle baritone voice began to croon sentimental lyrics from the mid-century. OK, I thought. Artists can be multifaceted. Patience is the better part of valor. I’ll wait for the guitar solo. It never came. The second song began, more mellow and devoid of guitar riffs than the first. At one point there might have even been a warbling organ solo.

I began using the fast-forward button to scan each track, hoping against ever-receding hope that the very next song would be a shredding guitar instrumental. When the final song, titled “Is It Really Over,” really was over, I conceded defeat. I had opened the package and played the tape; there was no returning it to Musicland. I shook my head. With a deep sigh I chunked the tape into a junk drawer and put my Tones cassette back in. To this day I harbor an irrational, undeserved bitterness toward “Gentleman Jim Reeves.”

I do not remember just when I learned the true object of Eric’s tribute, but it was several years later, and probably after hearing the song two or three more times in concert, listening ever harder to Eric’s introduction of it. Yes, it was clear now. It was “Tribute to … Jerry Reed.”

I knew a Jerry Reed, of course. We all did. But he wasn’t really a guitar player. He was a supporting actor in low-brow comedies. He was “Snow Man” in Smokey and the Bandit. Oh, I knew he was a recording artist, but he was mainly a singer, right? Or more like a proto-rapper, speaking the words to as many songs as he sang. At any event, he had way more in common with Ray Stevens (“Guitarzan,” “The Streak”) than he did with the cerebral and virtuosic Eric Johnson. Reed was a novelty act. Upon discussion, my buddies and I remained firmly convicted that Eric was referencing some other, lesser-known Jerry Reed, probably some picker from the 1940s long forgotten by the mainstream, not this over-the-top hayseed comedian.

The epiphany came about 1992, when I came across an album by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, and there it was, visual confirmation, Jerry Reed, the Snow Man, on the CD cover. These two Jerry Reeds were one and the same person. I’ll be damned. I mildly enjoyed the Chet Atkins collaboration, Sneakin’ Around, but there was not much on this record to commend him as an axe god. It was highly produced easy-listening country, with a lot of “We’re so old now!” banter between the two. I didn’t get it. (It’s more endearing to me now than it was then.)

As the years rolled on, I moved from electric guitar to nearly exclusively playing acoustic, and became enthralled with the solo-acoustic master Tommy Emmanuel. As I read and listened to interviews with Tommy, I learned that his principal influences were Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and … Jerry Reed. He even named one of his songs “Ol’ Brother Hubbard,” after Jerry’s real surname. It was confirmed. All roads led back to Jerry Reed, the one I had grown up knowing only as a clownish redneck, folding up his straw cowboy hat and yelling “WHEN YOU HOT … YOU HOT!!!”

JerryReedScooby

Jerry as featured in Scooby Doo

 

Finally, and with the awesome empowerment of YouTube, I turned my attention squarely upon this late man from Atlanta, he who had figured in popular culture one way and in music history another. What was it about his playing that had such a deep effect on virtually all of my musical heroes?

As I started to explore his catalog I discovered that there were not two Jerry Reeds, but three. The first was the one I had always known, the one who paid the bills with the talking blues and basically a country comedy act: “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft,” “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” “Amos Moses,” and “East Bound and Down.”

The second Jerry Reed, ironically enough, was not far removed at all from Gentleman Jim Reeves. This one, more in evidence on his earlier work, was earnest, had barely any accent at all, and layered his songs with the “Music City” sound fashionable in Nashville in the 60s and early 70s — lush string sections, drowning reverb, warbling female back-up singers, and plenty of extraneous instrumental layers (I need more harpsichord!!!), all courtesy of the producer who discovered him, Chet Atkins. This Jerry’s lyrics spoke earnestly of love and of life, as in “Today Is Mine”:

When the sun came up this morning
I took the time to watch it rise
And when its beauty struck the darkness from the sky
I thought how small and unimportant all my troubles seem to be
And how lucky, another day belongs to me …

Then, there was the third Jerry Reed, the one I had been searching for, off and on, for three decades, and had finally found, present but widely dispersed among the Scooby Doo cameos and Smokey and the Bandit clips. This Jerry was nothing less than a musical savant, and now I heard the source of all the musical references accruing down the years. Now I could hear the influential runs and chord structures curated in Eric’s “Tribute” and in Tommy’s covers. This Jerry Reed had dexterity, yes, but his real gift was a seemingly effortless mastery of and blending of country and funk. To achieve this, he shifted with endless creativity between pentatonic and mixolydian modes. He would relentlessly work and rework double-stop runs, deftly forging the sickest, funkiest breaks in the history of the genre, endlessly massaging the flat-5, flat-7, and minor-to-major 3rd blues notes, ingenious counterpoints that featured simultaneously ascending and descending lines, chromatically and rhythmically building up monuments to funkiness and then harmonically breaking them down piece by piece just as deliciously. The best, most representative works of this Jerry are “Honkin’,” “Jiffy Jam,” “Pickie, Pickie, Pickie,” “Swingin’ ’69,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “The Claw,” and not one but two completely different songs both titled “Struttin’.”

True geniuses usually are not fully aware of their gift, and there’s a telling vignette I love related by Craig Dobbins, author The Guitar Style of Jerry Reed song book: “At the 1990 convention of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society in Nashville, I stood in a small group next to Jerry as we listened intently to French guitarist Jean-Felix Lalanne play an impromptu note-for-note rendition of ‘Funky Junk.’ As we applauded Jean-Felix, Jerry scratched his head in disbelief and said, ‘Son! Did I write that?!’ ”

The truth is, as I’ve grown to love one Jerry, I’ve grown to love all three. He found space in his career and life to express all three sides of himself, and in so doing he’s taught me once again, if from the grave, never to  judge a book by its cover. The mind of a Vivaldi can indeed glow from within a Ray Stevens. The court composer and the court jester can share the very same skin.

Sir, for all of that, I salute you with the exclamation you loved best: Son! 

JerryReed

New book release – Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

Dear Trailhead readers,

I’m happy to announce the release of my latest book, Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

247 pages

 

Here is the back cover blurb:

“In 1829, recent arrivals from Ireland began moving to a patch of wilderness near the Brazos River in Mexican Texas. They came seeking freedom and fortune. What they found was malaria, war, the constant threat of gruesome Indian massacres, wolves, panthers — and an abiding happiness that has kept many descendants there to this day. At Staggers Point, near modern-day Bryan, Texas, they collided and coexisted with four other cultures: Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, and enslaved African Americans. These families bore witness to the greatest political upheavals of nineteenth century America, and their lives spanned the full range of human experience — from scratching out a living on a primitive frontier; to fleeing and fighting bands of Comanches and other American Indians, the Mexican army, and common criminals; to the joys and sorrows of raising children beyond the reach of civilization. Though they were common pioneers, to us their experiences, their feats, and their very survival are staggering.

“Driven by a desire to understand his heritage, essayist Avrel Seale has unearthed nuggets of little-known history from diverse sources and blended them with social commentary to produce a revealing and fast-paced history of nineteenth century Texas.”

This has been a fantastic journey of discovery about what life was like for those living here in Texas in the not-so-distant past. I hope that readers of this book will learn something and enjoy the ride. The book is available in print for $14 at:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/avrel-seale/staggering-life-and-death-on-the-texas-frontier-at-staggers-point/paperback/product-21947330.html

and the Kindle eBook is available for $4 at:

http://www.amazon.com/Staggering-Death-Texas-Frontier-Staggers-ebook/dp/B00QW3ADYM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419002253&sr=8-1&keywords=avrel+seale&pebp=1419002254845

Carl Seale – Eulogy

Carl_Seale

Carl Seale

Eulogy – September 14, 2014

First Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas

 

I’m Avrel, the youngest of Jan and Carl’s three sons, and I want to thank all of you for being here.

Dad enjoyed Bob Newhart, and especially the bit in his show about “Darrell and my other brother Darrell,” so I think he’s especially amused today by “Jessie and my other pastor Jesse.” Thank you, gentlemen, for everything.

Ruth, thank you for that beautiful tribute and all you and Mike have meant to our family through the years.

Dad’s decline was lengthy and difficult. My mother has been nothing less than heroic and inspirational, and I know you all will lift her up as she begins writing the next chapter of her remarkable life.

I also want to say a very heartfelt thanks to the two people who, next to Mom, did the most for Dad over many, many years: the local son, Erren, and Fernando. No thanks is enough for all that the two of you have done.

And thanks to all of you for your many kindnesses. Sometimes I think death exists by design to remind us of humanity’s inherent goodness, because that goodness is so on display at times like this.

* * *

Carl Seale was known to many of you for the passion around which he organized his life, music, and the public form that passion took. Straight from Central Casting, the maestro with a silvery mane and professorial beard cut a striking figure as he strode on stage to applause and brought the symphony to attention with his upraised baton.

But to say that he was from Central Casting is not to imply that this was some sort of act or pose. Carl Seale was the genuine article. He was an intellectual heavyweight with a clear and distinctive artistic vision that drove him. He did not chase trends but spoke from a place that was original and timeless. He was from the old school, in which one’s art was forged by years of disciplined study and a mastery of theory and form. And to his students he did not hand out easy A’s. To his family and friends, he was, of course, much more than a stock character.

He descended from English and Scots-Irish pioneers who, audacious and stubborn, had ploughed their way across the South and Midwest for three centuries, finally converging on the East Texas town of Athens. There, in 1936, Carl was born in the bedroom of a tiny wooden house. He was the third of four children born to a refrigerator repairman and a church secretary. He was the first in his family tree to attend college, a fact made more remarkable because he would ultimately earn a doctorate, and made more impressive still by the fact that he was dyslexic, though he made so little of this that I only learned of it two years ago while editing his autobiography.

If he was an intellectual heavyweight, he was also a ham, plain and simple. Show business ran in his blood. His grandfather was an itinerant band leader in Iowa, and while Dad’s mother was a girl, the family toured the Midwest playing the vaudeville circuit as “The Musical Hewetts.” He was fascinated by and envious of his cousins, who were circus acrobats known as the Flying Beehees.

Dad adored circuses. My earliest memories of him are not musical, but acrobatic. In sessions we called simply “Tricks,” he would lie on the floor and, one at a time, balance us above him on his feet — now I’m sitting in a very precarious high chair, now I’m flying like Superman with his feet on my belly and looking down into his grinning face. When we could little afford it, he bought us a trampoline, and it became a central part of our family life for years. I remember Dad lying on the trampoline with us under what were then darker skies, and staring up into the heavens. And as he adored circuses he also loved magicians and performed magic for his four grandsons.

Although he could silence a rowdy 80-person orchestra with an icy stare, he also reveled in abject silliness. He never missed a chance to costume up for a Halloween party or a church carnival. And he delighted in trying to embarrass us in public places by seizing our hands and skipping, or else trying to convince us to walk through a shopping mall or airport terminal in some synchronized goofiness: “Let’s do hand motions!” he’d say, eliciting from us a mortified “Daaaaaad!”

There are lots of other interesting nooks and crannies of his personality I could mention — the yoga and Pilates he took up in later years, his interest in UFOs, how he doted on the tortoises that roamed the backyard — what more perfect pets for one afflicted by slowness.

I think the biggest gift Dad gave me was entirely unintentional but a precious gift all the same — he gave me a model of audacious vision and tireless work. He showed us boys what it is to dream big — “I think I’ll write a ballet based on Toltec mythology, get it sponsored, then recruit a hundred people and partner organizations to help me carry it off.” — or — “Let’s move to the Valley, rent a dilapidated farm house in the middle of a citrus grove, and spend every waking moment getting it into a livable state!” And then, whatever it was, to see that project to completion. Others will have different takeaways from the life of Carl Seale, but that’s mine: Dream big, and do not stop working until that dream has become a reality.

Though he was often absorbed in his next big project, he also nurtured the creative seed in the three of us. When Ansen, was a teenager, Dad mail-ordered a canoe kit, and he and Ansen spent a couple of long weeks in the dining room screwing together its numerous parts and cutting the vinyl that covered it before paddling it down the Rio Grande. Who’s to say that episode and others like it didn’t help Ansen realize that he could build anything he wanted if he set his mind to it, even a digital camera, even his own beautiful works of art?

When Erren was 10, Dad cast him in the lead of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Erren and Ansen shared the role, and both learned the entire opera in English and Spanish. Erren later starred in Dad’s own opera, The Atonement. Who’s to say those experiences didn’t pave the way for his learning Spanish, or his memorization abilities, or for his attention to detail and the aesthetic sense that has been the common thread of his career and his own contributions to this community?

When I, at age 13, finished writing my sequel to The Chronicles of Narnia, Dad drove me to the print shop, ordered seven copies, and had them bound. This encouragement to creativity was lifelong. Just 10 years ago, I mentioned to him that I was thinking of recording a solo guitar album, and before I knew it, Dad had found a sound engineer and paid for the studio time.

Only once do I remember him pushing back on one of our quixotic projects. I was 10, and we had just seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course I immediately commenced planning my own full-scale reproduction of the musical to be staged in the vacant lot at Tamarack and 3rd. As the only person I knew with a beard, Dad was cast in the title role; he did not know this. As I informed him of my plan to suspend him from a cross using Erren’s scoliosis brace, he snapped. “Avrel, if you want to stage a full-blown Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll have to do it without me!” I wonder where I got the audacity for such ideas.

Decades later, about 10 years ago, I did finally make a movie, and he agreed, very readily, to be in it. With his regal bearing, he had always reminded me of a king, and that’s just how I cast him. Nor did I have to twist his arm to get him to write and record the entire soundtrack. He was listening to that music when he left us on Wednesday afternoon.

As I was helping him bathe a few months ago during a visit, he lamented, “All dignity is gone.” For a dignified man, he had to accept a lot of indignities. He greeted his diagnosis with anger, as anyone would, but he soon taught himself to live a productive and satisfying life despite a handicap that grew just a little bit worse every day for nearly 20 years. He met each new milestone with anger, then stoic pragmatism. Toward the end, he wore a bracelet Mom had given him for Christmas inscribed with one of their sayings: “It is what it is.” The only thing I ever really heard him say about his future was, “It’ll be OK … until it isn’t.”

For a public figure, Dad was an extreme introvert and did not open up easily to others. We joked this week that his idea of engaging deeply in conversation was remaining in the room. But his illness softened that hard shell some. This week my brother reminded me of the line from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”: “… And we all lose our charms in the end.” I think, to the contrary, Dad gained some charms in the end — more patience, more openness. I’m reminded of a verse about God’s mysterious ways written in the voice God, Who says: “O Son of Man, My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, an hour after he had died, I stood at the foot of his bed, staring at his feet, and marveling that they had once held my skinny little body up, seemingly halfway to the ceiling, so that I could fly. Dad, you held us up in lots of ways, large and small, and because of that, we’re still flying. Thank you. Thank you for making the world around us a more beautiful and interesting place. We love you. I love you.

 

Photo by Erren Seale

Of Sawdust and Speckled Trout: Remembering my grandfather, Horace Harold Seale

It’s hard to believe my grandfather died more than 30 years ago. I was 18; he was 77. In middle age I have come to realize how quickly the characters of our lives recede from memory if their details aren’t jotted down somewhere. Here is a character I wish to remember, and one I wish for my sons and their children to meet.

Ave_Pop

Pop and me, during a family trip to South Padre Island c. 1977

Some knew him as Horace, others as Harold, some as H.H., and his younger brother, simply as “Brother.” My brothers and cousins and I knew him as “Pop.”

Pop stood an inch or two over six feet. “Rawboned” describes his frame well. He had big hands and feet, boney elbows. I don’t remember him ever wearing anything but size 13 Hush Puppies, and usually a one-piece khaki work outfit, stained with smudges of wood glue or varnish. In many ways — his height, his frame, his round-shouldered posture, his high hairline and straight, silver, combed-back hair, his raspy tenor voice and old-Texas cadence — he resembled the resident of the White House during the year of my birth, Lyndon Johnson, ranch version.

He had light blue eyes that turned down at the outer edges in a way that made his face default to a gentle, friendly expression. I now realize after discovering older family photos that he inherited those blue eyes from his grandmother, whose Irish parents had given them to her. He wore gold-framed aviator glasses when I knew him. Meaty jaws rendered his face oval. He had a thick, proud nose the shape of which I’ve never seen exactly on anyone else, and he had no visible lips, just a short slit below the nose. His forehead looked as if someone had pinged it a half-dozen times with a hammer, dented from some horrible Medieval operation he had had as a boy to remove cysts.

Horace Harold Seale was born farther west than anyone else in my family before him or since — Uvalde, Texas, 1907.  His father, Horace Bradford Seale, was a grocer, and, still susceptible to the pioneers’ wanderlust, had moved out there to try to make a go of it. But he extended credit to too many neighbors who never paid up. He went bust and they retreated back to East Texas, where my grandfather grew up near his mother’s family, the Brownings, in Athens.

HoraceHaroldSeale

In the 1930s

After marrying my grandmother, who had their first three children, including my father, in Athens, he moved the family to the big city — Fort Worth. But a cousin of his had moved down to the Rio Grande Valley to farm in Cameron County, and on visits, Pop had liked what he’d seen. The area’s agriculture was all well and good — endless fields of cabbage and onions and sorghum and cotton and especially citrus. But what really got his attention was the fishing.

When my dad reached high school, Pop bought a few acres near the small town of La Feria, built a modest but comfortable house on it, and moved the family to the border. Part of the reason for the move to this unfamiliar region was, again, the pioneer’s imperative he carried in his blood — to do what his great-grandfather had done in 1835: move to the very edge of the English-speaking world and make his fortune as a farmer.  His father had failed in his push to the west; maybe he could push to the south. He bought a tractor and planted lemon trees. By the time I came along, the tractor was a rusting hulk that sat behind their house, a novelty my brothers and I would climb on. The farming never took off, but the fishing did.

And so he fell back on the trade he had learned in Fort Worth, repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and kept right on fishing the flats of South Padre’s Laguna Madre and the brackish mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. He took me fishing alone on several memorable trips. We stayed up past midnight on the muddy banks of the Arroyo, shouting to each other over the roar of the gas-powered generator that ran the flood lights that lured the specks and catfish in. We waded the sandy flats of the Laguna Madre. His 6’2″ frame never looked bigger than when we stopped so he could pop a nitroglycerin tablet to calm his angina, and I, at perhaps 11, pondered the prospect of dragging him a thousand yards back to shore.

In La Feria he would live out his days, and in that pale green house surrounded by palm trees and bougainvilleas and mesquites, we would visit him and my grandmother, whom we called “Nannah,” in the Southern tradition, one Sunday a month, with them making the drive to McAllen to see us as often. Watching him pull up in our driveway and unpacking his big frame from their red VW Bug was something just short of a circus act. I remember him jangling his keys and change in the deep pockets of his high-waisted pants when he would enter our house, excited to see us but unsure what to do with his big bony hands. As soon as we boys would move in for a hug, he would seize us with those massive claws and tickle us mercilessly, his smiling eyes beaming a pseudo-sadistic ecstasy.

 

Pop_Redfish

Pop displaying the real reason he moved the family to South Texas,
with a red drum and a speckled trout, pipe tucked in shirt pocket.

About those glue-stained coveralls, Pop was a master carpenter, and after retiring from a long career as an air-conditioner and refrigerator repairman, he spent thousands of hours in a cinderblock detached garage that he had built as a shop and that sat on the corner of his property a few feet off the access road of Exp. 83. There he built and refurbished furniture under the name “Sealecraft.” For a long time, I thought that had been his lifelong job, but it was just a sideline and a way to bring in a little spending money in retirement so that he and Nannah could afford long road trips — Nova Scotia, Yosemite — in the Chevy van customized by him for camping.

PopCandlesticks         PopsCandlesticksTable

Pop was especially good at turning, and I inherited a few of his pieces that preserve his lathe-smanship — four candlesticks and a nice little three-legged side table that resides in my son’s room

 

I spent many hours with him in that shop, not so much watching him work — or I would have learned more — as working in parallel. When the garage door went up, the smell of saw dust and stain and varnish wafted out to us. Inside, the concrete floor of the shop held a table saw, drill press, table sander, a tall workbench with a heavy vice, a lathe, bench-mounted miter box, and my favorite, the band saw. To this day, I could diagram the entire shop floor placing each tool within a couple of feet of its actual station. In the darkened southwest corner stood an unenclosed toilet that no longer worked.

In the northwest corner of the shop stood a large three-tiered lumber rack, and on the floor beneath it, a cardboard refrigerator box laid on its side with the top cut off to hold scraps. The rule was that I could use anything I found in that box to build with. I still have two pieces, a ship and box that I made to hold my beloved Chronicles of Narnia set. Many times, perhaps every time, I was left to work in the shop on my own, I pushed too hard or twisted the work to quickly and snapped his bandsaw blade. Sheepishly, I’d slink into the house to inform him I’d broken the blade. With straight-faced resignation and admirable self control, he’d rise from his recliner, take his leave from Notre Dame vs. Stanford or Dallas vs. Washington, and walk with me out to the shop to put on a new blade.

NarniaCabinet

Two of my particle board scrap masterpieces that have survived the years

 

Pop watched a lot of football. But he was a reader too. I remember a copy of Michener’s Centennial sitting on the little side-table that held his pipe and ash tray next to his recliner.

He enjoyed telling stories and his cadence and accent make me think that his was the closest to an “old Texas” voice I will ever hear. His exclamations always started with “Why ….” as in, “Why, that dog comes over and starts lickin’ me like he’s known me all my life.” That was another thing — stories were always told in the present tense.

He was born to another time, and that came out now and then, like with the “Why …” or when he called pants “britches” or “trousers.” Other terminology marked the different eras too. Mexican-Americans were “Mexicans” — although in his defense, living only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, often they were in fact Mexicans. African-Americans were cringe-inducing “nigroes.” When I consider that his own grandfather owned slaves, his occasional linguistic shortcuts and shortcomings grow less remarkable, and I appreciate the cultural distance traveled in only two generations. Though I was not a sophisticated observer, I never detected any philosophy in him but live-and-let-live.

Every time we ate at Nannah’s and Pop’s, Pop led grace before we ate, and it was the exact same prayer each and every time. It was heartfelt, but one prayer was identical to the next, both in the text and the inflection. It went:

“Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our hands to Thy service. Pardon our sins and save us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Nannah was the cook of the family, but when Pop was left to his own devices, he was known to get two pieces of bread, spread them with mayonnaise, then get out a brisket or a ham, trim the fat off the meat, and put the fat on the sandwich and the meat back in the fridge.

Like almost everyone in mid-century, he had smoked cigarettes earlier in life, but he had switched to a pipe by the time we came around. The sweet smell of pipe smoke takes me directly back to that time and place. He died of lung cancer in May 1984.

When I think of Pop, I smell sawdust and pipe smoke. I hear keys jingling in deep pockets, the roar of a table saw or of a light plant generator, and Pat Summerall 30 percent too loud. I feel his enormous, gnarled hands mercilessly digging at my ribs. I see his index finger rubbing glue over a dowel and hear him explaining to me that you have to let it get tacky before you put it together with the other piece. I see his size 13 Hush Puppies, and his blue-gray smiling eyes.

Daddyland

“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!”

“Where?”

“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.

“Yes, sir.”

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.

 

Exploded Diagram of Boys' Layered Clothing

Two Lines

(From my memoir-in-progress on fatherhood. Some material in this chapter also appears in The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder.)

Two lines.

She thought she saw two lines, but wasn’t sure. So she brought the plastic stick, still glistening with urine, over to the bed. The second line was faint, but I definitely saw something.

“Put it this way,” I said. “How mad would you be if you didn’t want to be pregnant and you saw that line, even if it was faint?”

She agreed.

The next day, she repeated the whole process, and the second line was darker. Our second anniversary present to each other, was that we would have a baby.

We watched and listened as the baby grew inside of her. The nurse would smear KY jelly all over a microphone-like instrument and rub it around between Kirstin’s navel and pubic bone. The nurse would stare at the wall, as if that helped her to listen, and then, there it would be. Woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh. The heartbeat. She’d freeze in that spot, and Kirstin and I would exchange grins of disbelief.

When it was time for the sonogram, she’d flip on the video monitor, pop in the videotape that we’d bring with us each time, and begin swirling the sensor around on her stomach. The grainy black and white kaleidoscope would swirl and finally come to rest on something that looked like a lima bean. And right in the middle of the bean was a throbbing grain of sand, looking like a pulsar in some far-away galaxy. His, or her, beating heart.

That was him … or her. We didn’t know the sex and chose not to find out. But we hated to just call it “It” over and over. And so we came up with working titles. It started as “Bryo,” then became “Cletus the Fetus,” before settling into “Chou-chou,” (shoo-shoo) which Kirstin, the erstwhile French major, said meant “little cabbage.”

Had we been able to see images before seven weeks — and someday soon surely people will — we might have seen how the baby, or, as nurses universally called him, simply “Baby,” looks in the very beginning. (Nurses say, “Baby’s in this position,” and “Baby’s active today!” For me, it’s “the baby.” “Baby” was the protagonist in Dirty Dancing. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner of a uterus!”)

Pregnant couples learn to mark time in weeks. Forty weeks was the goal, though Baby is considered fully cooked anywhere from two weeks early to two weeks late.

From periodic sonograms, we could see someone growing inside Kirstin, something on its face so miraculous and bizarre that nobody would believe it if it didn’t happen 490,000 times a day all over the world.

The first round showed a bean. The second showed a clear split between the body and the relatively enormous head, as big as the body. After this, we followed along week by week in Kirstin’s old biology textbook. Now the arm buds and leg buds were sprouting out of the torso. The dark spots were eyes. For the first two months, had we been able to monitor it every day, we would have seen something different. Some new, enormously vital and complex body system was taking shape on a daily basis. On Tuesday the baby grew kidneys; Wednesday the lungs were forming; Thursday the digestive tract was differentiating and pulling inside of the rib cage. This week, all of the bones of the hand are formed, in the very same configuration they will remain for the next eighty years.

Knowing all this, we scrutinized Kirstin’s diet and activities. No caffeine. No NutriSweet. No ibuprofen. No antibiotics. No pumping gasoline. Swimming was okay, but not jogging. No mowing. And her longtime goal of skydiving was right out. Nothing was allowed that we even suspected might throw off this amazing unfoldment of life and its layered and interlocking systems.

Throughout its development, there are striking similarities between a human fetus and the fetuses of animals down the evolutionary ladder. For instance, our fetus resembles the fetus of a shark, complete with gills (Shark Week!), then resembles the fetus of a pig, and later resembles the fetus of a monkey and finally an ape, covered in hair called lanugo. This observation by others spawned a theory of gestation known as ontology recapitulating phylogeny.

In the early months, with a clear image, it is hard not to notice the tail. I briefly wondered if I had sired a sea monkey and how this would play out when it came time to start dating. But Chou-Chou soon grew into his or her tail, and my worries were for naught.

In the meantime we attended classes, which struck me as so quaintly human. Dogs and cats did not seem to need hand-outs and instructions on how to have their young. Yet we felt we did. In fact, we went through not one course but two: the Bradley Method, which was for hardcore granola couples who wished to keep things as natural as possible, and the Lamaze classes sponsored and required by the hospital. It was the last day of class and Kirstin had left early to make it to her baby shower on time. I vowed to stay behind and pick up as many more details of child birthing and rearing as I could. “Where’s the justice,” I thought. “She’s at a party unwrapping presents, and I’m here holding a thermometer up a doll’s ass.” In any event, I realized full well, with all the talk of centimeters this and lactation that, that nature had dealt me the easy hand in this partnership.

There were decisions to make. First was the name. This one is fun but also a little nerve-wracking. To think that two people can sit around and just decide what somebody is going to be called for the rest of their lives, like they would decide whether to go for Mexican or seafood on a given night, is bizarre, and, if you let yourself think about it for too long, can be petrifying.

Kirstin and I had decided that we were old fashioned and didn’t want to know the gender of the baby before it was born, as this is one of the true surprises left in life. But that means that you’ve got to pick two names.

I felt the weight of this decision keenly. Kirstin and I suspect a pendulum at work here — one generation assigns a “creative,” that is to say unusual, name to their kids, who suffer the daily grind of a world not set up for creative names: spelling it every time you leave a phone message or transact any business whatsoever, correcting people who mispronounce it or, as I tend to do, simply answering to anything. As Kirstin and I (Avrel) had this in common, we aimed to give the kids names that were 1) self-explanatory 2) without being overly common. Of course, this is a fool’s errand because you’re always fighting the last war when it comes to distinctiveness vs. commonness. We though we were going just a little ways off the beaten path with each one until we showed up for the first day of preschool, and heard “Andrew, come here!” from six different directions, addressing six of Andrew’s classmates. How all parents decide to “zag” at precisely the same moment, rendering the zag a zig and thereby nullifying it, is uncanny.

The next decision, I can honestly say, never occurred to me before she was pregnant: Whether or not to circumcise if it be a boy. Most things of consequence in our marriage and in our family life Kirstin and I consult on. But occasionally there will be something that we just leave completely up to the other. One example was whether or not to try for a third child, which, recognizing that her level of sacrifice both physically and mentally — was higher than mine, I left completely up to her. In her wisdom, Kirstin left this one entirely up to me.

Like virtually all American boys born in the mid-century, I had been circumcised. But there were a lot of things done back in the day that weren’t anymore. Immunization schedules. Birthing methods. Just because something was done for or to me was not a compelling reason. I read everything I could easily find on the subject. There were pros and cons on both sides. The Cut It side offered horror stories of chronic infections in little boys that led to teenage circumcisions.

The Leave It side pointed to the fact that circumcision shortened one’s adult manhood by an average of one inch. Other studies have put the average difference at 8 millimeters, or a quarter inch, but the point remains, as it were. An inch, or even a quarter inch, might not seem like a lot in most areas of life; I don’t think I need to go into detail on why that might not be so in this particular case. The closest equivalent for a girl would be deciding before she was born that she should have a breast reduction as soon as she hit puberty regardless of her bra size. I wasn’t comfortable making a permanent remodel to someone else’s body; it just never seemed like my decision to make.

The American Medical Association was no help: Do whatever you want. Doesn’t hurt to do it; probably won’t hurt not to.

Where I finally came down on the question is that I found it unlikely that, while there might have been excellent reasons for it in ages past, and even today in other parts of the world, when and where human life was far less antiseptic than it is today, to say that all boys should be circumcised is to say that half of the human race is born in immediate need of surgery. This just seemed unlikely to me. So I threw their lot in with nature.

When the fortieth week arrived, a kind of hush fell over our house. A watched cervix never dilates — that is the saying, right? — and we were watching it pretty closely. About this time in a pregnancy, advice about how to get the baby out begins to gush from all quarters. Chief among this advice, at least in Texas, is that Mexican food is the key. And so we ate Mexican, she with extra jalapeños, every night. Nothing.

Walking also is said to bring on labor, and so, every night, I would prod Kirstin out of the house and take her — waddling now in the universal side-to-side motion that comes from the elastin in the pelvis — around our one-mile loop.

When her due date arrived, I stayed close to my phone at work, checking every time I returned to my desk for the stutter-tone that meant I had voicemail. (This was before I had a cell phone, which today seems like saying “This was before I started wearing pants,” but it’s true, kids. There was a time when not everybody carried a phone/computer/TV with them everywhere they went.)

No stutter-tone. No call. That afternoon she copied me on an e-mail she had sent to friends and family: “Today has been a very emotional day for me. Please forgive me if I don’t answer the phone tonight.”

It was like we had been stood up. With her miserable and me miserable by proxy, and the impatient type anyway, we looked for the silver lining. At least he or she wouldn’t be a premie.

One day past due. Two days. Four days. Six days. Knowing from our many classes that most women go into labor in the middle of the night, we greeted each sunrise with disappointment. Another eternal day of fending off questions by well-meaning co-workers and another volley of phone calls from anxious family members. How many times could we say “no news”?

We had tried Mexican food. We had tried dancing. We had walked her until her swollen feet were bursting out of the only pair of shoes that still fit.

I kissed her goodnight and retired down the hall to the study, where I had pitched camp about three weeks earlier, to give her the maximum chance to sleep without being awakened by my tossing, turning, snoring, sneezing. Maybe sex would work; maybe it wouldn’t. We had played our last card. Now, truly, all we could do was wait.

About two hours later, at half past midnight, I was awakened by the creak of the study door. Her ample silhouette eased through the doorway and slipped down beside me in spoons on the futon. She whispered in the dark, as if there were already a baby in the house she was trying not to wake, “I think I may have had a contraction.”

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder – Chapter 1

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul

Chapter 1 – Fishing

“Yeah,” we assure each other. “We’re covering some water.”

It’s slow, but we can mark our progress by the movement of the weedy bottom past the hull. The tiny trolling motor whirs away on its virgin voyage, clamped onto the back of my ten-foot homemade boat. As Jason and I leave the dock and putter quietly west across the Laguna Madre — the wide, shallow bay that separates South Padre Island from the Texas mainland — the handle/throttle of the trolling motor vibrates in my grip, and I check the clamp to make sure it isn’t jiggling loose.

It is eleven on a brilliant autumn morning, the second Saturday of October 1998, and the sky has grown a deep shade of blue as the sun has begun its migration south for the winter.

We’re headed for the gulls, the easiest sign for fishermen to follow. Where there are gulls, there are shrimp and baitfish: piggy perch, finger mullet, croakers. And where there are baitfish, usually, there are gamefish: reds (red drum), specks (speckled sea trout), and flounder. Like everybody else, we’re after these three. And so we head for the gulls, snow-white with gray legs and heads dipped in black like the onion dome tops of Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Large brown pelicans patrol the coastline of the bay in long, motionless passes. Occasionally, they fold their wings and plunge into the water in what to me seems a magnificent and daring maneuver, then surface expressionless with a billful of baitfish. The blank stare reminds me that daring dive-bombing in three feet of water is no more extraordinary or romantic to them than driving through Whataburger is to me.

When we reach the gulls, I throw out the iron anchor, which looks like a tiny black sombrero with a chain out its top, and tie it off on a cleat near the stern. It proves more a weight than an anchor, as it only slows our drift. Knowing how fickle gamefish are, and how soon and utterly completely they can move on to other feeding grounds, we quickly begin chunking our red rubber worms and reeling them in. I’ve never gotten used to the speed at which you should reel in artificial lures like this. It’s so counterintuitive: If you want the fish to bite it, shouldn’t you slow it down and give it a better chance, not try to outrun it? No. Reds, specks, and even the flat, asymmetrical flounder, one of the elite freaks of nature, can swim at astounding speeds. And so you reel quickly, much quicker than you think you should, just slow enough to prevent your wrists from seizing up from fatigue.

We have fished fewer than ten minutes when Jason’s lure is hit. His black bay rod bends into that sweet, familiar parabola, and the tip begins jerking franticly. “All right!” he exclaims. “Dude, we got fish out here,” he laughs. Setting my pole down, I grab the green net, and he leads the silvery trout into it before I lift the fish quickly into the boat. It is the first fish caught in the new boat — a christening of sorts. I produce the disposable cardboard fun cam out of my vest pocket and document the occasion with a few quick clicks before folding the speck into our small ice chest, the only one that will fit on the boat. Jason has fine brown hair and a thin face with eyes that angle down slightly at the edges. His large Adam’s apple produces a low, soft voice, except when he laughs. He moves slowly and methodically, but his speech comes in sudden surges and sentences come with the same cadence of a fish suddenly taking the drag and running off sixty feet of line. He holds the fish underhand with the second knuckle of each finger, allowing his fingertips to extend out past the fish toward the camera and curve slightly downward.

Me — I’m six-two, 175, and at 31 years old, am already going white at the temples, which is accented by the fact that the rest of my hair seems to be getting darker with age. As a kid, it alternated between brown and dirty blond depending on the season. But I guess a desk job and middle age have permanently darkened it. I was bone skinny from childhood until four years ago, when the metabolic and the caloric lines suddenly crossed. Then, my once-angular face began to take on the rounded corners of middle-age comfort, and the waist went from a 30 to a 34. My hair is board straight, and I keep it shorter now that we’re out of the eighties.

The speck flops against the inside of the chest giving the typically eerie Telltale Heart thudding of a life ebbing away, not under the floorboards of a haunted house, but in the same general area.

Energized at the prospect of “wild schooling action,” as we often fantasized would be the case, we both hurry our lures back into the bay at the same approximate spot.

A dejected “Oh, man,” from Jason is the first sign I have that two “fishpigs” are in hot pursuit. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers have an uncanny ability to sniff out irregularities in the bay and home in on them in seconds. And when, through their high-powered binoculars, they see a ten-foot, plywood boat with a trolling motor clamped on the back, they head toward us as instinctively as the speckled trout had headed for Jason’s plastic lure five minutes earlier.

The two rangers pulled up beside us in their flat-bottom boat, perfectly suited for patrolling the shallow bay. One of them kneels on the indoor/outdoor carpeting of their boat’s deck and holds the hull of mine at arm’s length to prevent them from hitting as they bob. The other begins his law-enforcement patter.

“Mornin’, fellas.”

“Morning!” I chirp, inflecting too much cheerfulness.

“This thing registered?” he asks.

“Well, no. I was told I didn’t have to register it because it’s a sailboat under fourteen feet.”

He smiles and exchanges glances with his partner. “Who told you that?”

“The salesman at the sailboat shop where I bought supplies.”

“Well, that’s true for a sailboat, but see, you’ve got a motor on it.”

“This thing?” I ask incredulously. It has never occurred to me that I am piloting a “motor boat,” as our trolling motor will not go more than about five miles per hour in ideal conditions.

“Yes, sir. Any boat with a motor attached has to be registered.”

“But,” I parse his every phrase for a technicality, “… but this isn’t permanently attached. I put it on and take it off constantly. It’s just barely clamped on here!”

“If it’s got a motor, it’s gotta be registered.” By this time he is already writing on his little yellow pad. “Can I get your name please?”

“Avrel. A-V, as in Victor, R-E-L, Seale, S-E-A-L-E.” Our conversation proceeds to other topics like address and phone number, area code first. Still I grope for any shred of mercy. “This is my first time out in this boat, and I honestly didn’t know it had to be registered! Is there any possible way you can give me a warning?”

He chuckles and exchanges glances with his partner, the boatholder, again, as he adjusts his BlueBlockers higher on the bridge of his nose. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that question,” he says. That’s all he says. I hate it when people don’t answer a question — or answer it by not answering it.

The boatholder is starting to throw me off my mission by drawing me into a conversation about the boat: “This is pretty neat.”

“Thanks,” I mumble, taking off my hat and throwing it disgustedly on the little pine seat that holds the back of the boat together. Jason sits in the front seat fingering his reel, wondering if it would be inappropriate to go ahead and cast again while I’m getting written up.

“This is really neat.‘ you build it from a kit or something?”

“No,” I say, resigning to the ticket now. “I just got some plans out of Wooden Boat magazine and built it with lumberyard stock.”

“Perty cool,” the boatholder continues. The ticket-writer now gets in on the act. “Yeah, this is really neat. You just need to get it registered,” he says in an annoying sing-song voice.
“Well, I know that now,” I assure him.

When the State of Texas finishes its dealings with me, and the fishpigs turn us loose, the one in BlueBlockers gives his final directive: “Now, you need to take this straight back to shore and not bring it out again until it’s registered, okay? You can leave the motor on shore and paddle around in it, or use your sail if you want, but you can’t use the motor.”

“All right,” I mutter.

Discouraged and teased by the lone, early speckled trout, Jason and I head back to shore. Now hungry, we take advantage of our land-locked status and drive to Whataburger for the regular: Whataburger-with-cheese-plain-and-dry, large fries, and a Dr Pepper on the drink, times two. After every bite of his French fries Jason flicks the salt off his fingers.

“Man! I can’t believe you got a ticket!”

“Yep.” I say stoically, then take another swig of Dr Pepper. “’ guess we can fish from the dock, or maybe just wade Freedom Channel.” (The nearest wading spot to the house we dubbed “Freedom Channel” because it was just few dozen yards out from a bayside bar with a P.A. system that seemed to be continuously playing the Freedom Rock compilation album, as seen on TV.)

“I wonder,” Jason starts, then starts again. “He said we could take it back out, right?”

“Yeah, just not with the motor.”

“I wonder how that would work.”

“Yeah, I wonder.”

And so we systematically talk each other into braving the Laguna Madre with nothing but a sail, a rudder, and two fishing poles. After a quick nap, 2 o’clock finds Jason easing down off the dock into the middle seat, the front being occupied now by the mast, which slides down through a hole in the seat and into a “step” that holds the base of the mast in place. A cotter pin that fits through a hole in the mast underneath the seat prevents the mast from popping up out of place. The ice chest, which originally occupied the middle seat, is bumped to shore. If we do catch keepers, we’ll simply have to put them on a stringer and trail it behind the boat. This keeps fish fresher, anyway, we rationalize. To hell with those fishing fascists and their $75 tickets and their police state.

We’ll just do it the old-fashioned way. This’ll be great.

When you’re fishing in the bay, there is a curious optical phenomenon. Unless a fish is within about three feet of your boat, you hardly ever can see it. It’s not that the water is dirty; it’s not. It’s the glare of the light on the surface and the relatively low angle at which you’re looking at it. It turns out that if you can somehow build a platform on your boat, then climb up three to six feet and look down, the water comes alive with forms of all kinds swirling around you. It was time to start building my platform. All my life I had been trying to foulhook truth, just hoping that I would snag it by chance.

Now, it was time I started casting to it.

***

“Turn a thing inside out, and see what it is.”1
—Marcus Aurelius

That trip back out into the bay to fish with nothing but a sail and a rudder was very much like something else I did around the same time, which is, I started searching, really systematically searching, for the truth.

I suppose I have always had the thought that the truth is down there just beneath the surface, the truth about us.

I have had the thought as I read a theory here and an idea there, that if all the bits of truth were brought under a single roof, I might be able to see myself, see humanity, in something close to a true light, or at least a truer light. My underlying assumption had been that the key to lasting happiness was knowing 1) who we were, and 2) what we were doing here, or supposed to be doing, if anything. Ultimately, like so many before me and so many to come, I sought the meaning of life. A tall order, sure. But what else did I have to do? How many consecutive hours of “reality” television can a person really watch?

In my mind’s eye I saw gallery of scoffing skeptics, postmodern intellectuals who whiled away their lives at smoky sidewalk cafes and in tweedy, rarefied faculty lounges, tsk-ing and hrumph-ing. They said that a fishing expedition for the truth was hopelessly audacious, wastefully naïve, that humans had attempted to get at their essential nature for eons and still we struggled in our own obscurity. Their version of knowledge said: The human — and the universe, for that matter — is too complex to be knowable at all. We are not equipped with sophisticated enough machinery to comprehend ourselves. Let’s call the whole thing off.

There was in modern thinking this growing agnostic streak with regard to, not just God, but everything. It went beyond simple intellectual humility, to claim that we can never really know our nature. I suspected that, if you scratched hard enough, underneath this view you would find fear, a fear that if we look closely enough at ourselves and our history, we may not like what we discover, that we may just be held to account for the messes we make after all.

Steven Pinker concluded his massive tome How the Mind Works by saying that perhaps humans were not designed in a way to be capable of understanding the meaning of life. “Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth.”2 After 600 pages of dissecting the workings of the brain, when he got to the ultimate meaning of life, he threw up his hands, shrugged, and walked away.

Was this ignorance, willful ignorance, really bliss?

One of the world’s most powerful exponents of the idea that we can never know our nature was the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who spent his whole professional life promoting the idea that it was impossible for man really to know anything. (I’ve never understood people who are passionate about nihilism. If nothing makes sense and nothing matters, why waste energy writing and talking about it?) At last, his nihilism having hobbled his intellect, Hume became despondent:

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me and heated my brain that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning and can look upon no opinion even as more probable than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence and to what condition shall I return? …

I am confounded by all these questions and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed in the deepest darkness and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty?3

Intellectual agnosticism — the belief that it is impossible to know anything — was nowadays equated with intellectual humility, subtlety, and sophistication, when in fact it seemed to me the height of anti-intellectualism. It was an affront to the spirit of human achievement.
In short, it was for quitters.

Maybe the naysayers in the peanut gallery were right, but I had to see for myself. Maybe they were wrong. After all, a lot of people had found valid answers to the question of who we were. A bit of truth here, a morsel there, sometimes a whole chunk at once. I simply started to wonder, what might be the good in picking those pieces up, those boulders, clods, and pebbles, and pressing them into a single form — a comprehensive theory of the human?

As I began to work with these components or dimensions, I began to wonder just how concrete I could make them. Could the interior contours of the human be represented with charts and graphs? Could the soul itself be, in some crude way, mapped?

Did I want to demystify the human experience? Certainly the human was more complex than we could ever know in absolute detail, I thought, in this and probably any generation. But the goal of demystification was a noble one, not to explain away, but to explain. Not to disenchant the human being, but to know ourselves more deeply, to uncover knowledge that would enchant us with our world more than ever before. Two of the noblest and wisest words ever written had been inscribed near the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece: “Know thyself.” I wanted to take another stab at this, one of the oldest injunctions in our history.

So, back at home in my study, also known as the extra bedroom, I got out my easel, a whiteboard and black marker, and started to draw lines. The lines became geometric planes, which then became fields. The graphs got more and more complex as I kept thinking of things that I knew had to plug in somewhere. I wanted to expand into three dimensions, but it became too hard to draw. So I drove to Toys R Us one Saturday morning and bought six tubs of Play-doh and a large tub of Tinker Toys — staples of my childhood, then went to work pressing those components together, spinning the object around to look at it from every side, top and bottom. Thinking, thinking. What was I leaving out? How did this one impulse intersect with that other?

I felt like humans of our age had been given an enormous head-start by all the speculation and discovery that had come before. But we’d also been given a handicap, and that was that to get to the truth, we had to wade through an inordinate amount of nonsense — absurd proclamations from intellectual and spiritual midgets who were held up right alongside those of the giants on whose shoulders Newton famously stood. Now I had to separate out a few years of wheat from centuries of chaff — extract a ream of sense diluted by tenfold reams of arrogant or superstitious nonsense.

Then there was the sheer volume of information, which had done a curious thing to us. There was more information extant than ever in the history of our civilization, and yet, were we wiser for it? The libraries of the world overflowed with millions of books on every conceivable topic. Electronic media now brought those books to us instantly. But this fact only gave me a feeling of intellectual inadequacy — the impression that there was so much out there that I couldn’t even make a dent in it in a lifetime of ravenous study. It was spitting in the ocean to run over here and learn to play violin, then scurry over there and learn irregular Spanish verbs, and scamper off in a third direction to learn 8th century British history. I was blessed by so much information, and yet cursed by that same quantity. What was the big picture?! What huge, crucial element of life was I missing from being distracted by the flotsam of this modern information ocean?

The discovery of the process of evolution had conditioned us to think that, in all matters, later was better. I also sensed an arrogance in modernity that seemed to stem from our technological progress, as if to say that because we now had perfected the inside-the-shell egg scrambler, our philosophers must be closer to truth than those who lived in times before the inside-the-shell egg scrambler.

I had the notion that much of the best stuff in philosophy, the purest truth, was stated very early on, and since those days, much of philosophy had been an exercise in muddying up the waters, or sophomorically claiming that it is foolish, even wrong, to even ask the Great Questions in the first place. Why were so many of the purest truths stated so early on? Because early philosophers were working on the most basic questions and were starting with all they had, common sense, intuition. Common sense and curiosity will get a person a long way; if he or she is patient, it will get them most of the way.

I concluded that the true task of our age was to sort the worthy ideas and beautiful achievements from the trivial and base.

When I looked at the human, I saw a mass of seeming contradictions, wondrous phenomena, and mystery. Surely we were hopelessly complex creatures. Emotions, reflexes, instincts, ethics, habits, bodies, minds, sensations, trances, perceptions, consciences, dreams, personalities, visions, archetypes, appetites, addictions, and perhaps even souls. On and on the list of descriptions and phenomena went, seemingly without end, and so often without apparent reason.

We were complex creatures, indeed the most complex creatures we knew of. And yet, did it necessarily follow that we were unknowable? The earth was a complex place, and yet we had come to know it, and at an impressively high level — to identify its continents and oceans, and on those continents, its forests and mountains and desserts. And in those forests, the plants and animals. And in those animals, their organs, and biochemicals, and the molecules of the chemicals, and atoms of the molecules, and the quarks of the atoms.

Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman naturalist, wrote, “Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been actually effected?” That was it — the chest-out, stomach-in, no-whining spirit I had to adopt at the outset if I was to stand any chance of crossing this ocean of information, letting the trivia and minutiae of life float harmlessly to either side of the bow, and landing on that beachhead of edifying knowledge, of Truth.

The first step was getting organized. I pictured myself walking into a new job and being ushered to my office. When my new boss opened the door, the room was heaped with dozens of seemingly random stacks of paper. “Good luck,” he said, as he turned and coolly walked back to his corner office with adjoining executive washroom.

What would be my first step? I would start through the piles of paper and sort them into a manageable number of categories. Once I had sorted the characteristics into stacks, then I could throw out the duplicates, spot the gaps, and start to see how the rest of it fit together.

—-

Thanks for reading! The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul is available here.
Table of Contents

1 Fishing ………………………….. 1
2 Sailing ………………………… 13
3 Building the Hull ………………….. 31
4 Raising the Sail ……………………. 41
5 Sail Problems …………………….. 55
6 The Rudder and the Night…………….63
7 Primordial Urges…………………..81
8 Things in the Shallows, Things in the Deep….95
9 The Spiral………………………115
10 Losing the Rudder………………….123
11 Decision Time……………………133
12 The Light……………………….147
13 And the Lighthouse…………………163
14 Facing the Deep……………………183
15 The Harbor Master…………………197
16 How Things Ended…………………205

Afterword…………………………….211
References…………………………….215
Index………………………………..221

Back Cover:
“Avrel Seale’s book is a thoughtful and compelling consideration of what it means to be both human and spiritual. Sailing — and a real, nearly fatal sailing fiasco — is the metaphor for a gentle yet intelligent search for the meaning of life in the modern world. How the author measures his life at the beginning of this search is quite different from how he describes it at the end. The wonder of this book is the extraordinary journey in between.”

—James Kunetka, Author of Oppenheimer and Warday

***

On October 11, 1998, Avrel Seale climbed into his homemade sailboat with a friend to go fishing in the Laguna Madre, the wide bay between South Padre Island and Port Isabel, Texas. Through the peril and the beauty of the next 15 hours, he would live out an allegory of his life, both his past and his future. And through the metaphor of sailing, he would discover the three irreducible dimensions of human existence — the hull, the sail, and the rudder.

With a mixture of storytelling, theory, humor, and spiritual exploration, The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder builds on the work of thinkers from ancient to modern times in an audacious quest for a unified theory of human life. Seale’s destination, it turns out, is as close as the boat he’s sitting in. Through the workings of the hull, the sail, and the rudder, he learns that our bodies, minds, and souls can be defined by the different functions they perform as well as by their differing internal structures, and that the unique way those three fields intersect in every person creates our identities.

Seale supports his theory with vignettes from his own life — from a quirky childhood, to a partying and protracted adolescence, to the birth of his first child and his embarkment on a life of true responsibility and deeper meaning.

Yellowstone

Rocky Mountain

I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”

I hit the playback button and quickly scrolled back through the last three days for a shot I could do without. That fifth photo of the backside of a mule deer that I took in Rocky Mountain National Park would do nicely. I deleted it and snapped my final photo of the trip. Kirstin and the boys had already begun the long journey home and were back at the minivan in the nearby parking lot.

I capped the lens, breathed deeply the mountain air, drank in the view one last time, and set off to join them. No sooner had I turned toward the lot than about 65 Japanese tourists swarmed down toward me and completely overtook the fenced landing known as Artist’s Point. A few of them howled like wolves, and everyone cackled with laughter at the running joke and splintered off into sixes and tens to have their presence there in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone documented. Such a jarring contrast to my solitary, Thoreau moment seconds before might have been a buzzkill, but their exuberance was catching. I smiled at the notion of them so happy, and marveled at how many of them, how very many, had traveled halfway around the world to see the natural wonders of the United States of America. Our country was, indeed, pretty badass.

Our own journey here had begun nearly a year earlier, morphing this way and that in the planning stages until finally congealing about six weeks before our June 1 departure. We would fly from Austin to Denver, saving ourselves two days of driving each direction. Then we’d rent a car, and after a good visit with Kirstin’s brother and sister-in-law in Denver, we would blitz three national parks in about six days: Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.

I had always been vaguely aware of our national parks, but was not a devotee as the nearest one to my home was 10 hours driving. But I had gotten religion about them from watching Ken Burns’ 12-hour documentary. And ever since we committed to this park system hat-trick, I had scarcely been able to think of anything else. After doing the calculus and deciding that flying was the only sensible way, we had bought our plane tickets six months out.

Yellowstone in particular was such a piece of Americana that I hesitated to admit to friends I had never been. We watched specials and read and learned more about it in an attempt to get the boys primed. The Ken Burns box set came to me as a gift, enabling multiple wistful viewings on hot Texas afternoons. Nova soon aired its phenomenal “Christmas in Yellowstone” episode. Then the Yogi Bear movie came out, set in “Jellystone Park.” This was meant to be.

Four days before we left, the Destroyer of Worlds had sprawled on his bedroom floor in a fit of despair and sobbed, “I want to go to Yellowstone! I WANT TO GO TO YELLOWSTONE!!!” Never mind that he didn’t have the vaguest notion of what Yellowstone even was. He just knew we had been talking about it for a year and that he wanted to go, already.

With the boys at 9, 7, and 4, this nine-day, three-park blitz would be an epic undertaking. I’m not exactly sure what girding one’s loins looks like, but I’m pretty sure Kirstin and I were engaged in this activity during the countdown. Two full days in advance I set up folding tables in the living room so that we could see what we were packing for each of the three boys and for ourselves. Judging by our living room, we were honoring these national parks by transporting to them everything we owned.

We awoke at 3:45 in the morning for our 6 a.m. flight. Ian surely thought he was being kidnapped.

As we made our way to Southwest’s check-in counter, we must have looked like an American middle class version of a refugee family, wheeling and carrying all our earthly belongings to a new life: an enormous suitcase, the biggest duffel bag we owned, rolling suitcases for all three children, backpacks bearing one change of clothes and activity books to keep them occupied on the flight, and three car seats — two boosters and a full five-point harness. I figured I myself was moving in excess of 125 pounds worth of luggage toward Southwest Flight 1325.

We arrived in Denver, claimed our many bags, boarded a train to the main terminal, then boarded a shuttle bus to the rental car station. There I stood in line for 20 minutes as the sole associate slowly made his way through the infinite variety of coverages the fellow before me in line or I could buy for just $15, $29, or $49 more per day.

When I had finally broken his will to live, he surrendered the keys to our minivan, which curiously were not keys at all but just elaborate fobs, the nubby end of which started the engine when inserted into the ignition. Outside we were greeted by a sea of Chrysler Town and Countries, and after checking to make sure their storage areas would accept our enormous rolling suitcase, the size of the chests people would have moved all their belongings in during transatlantic voyages of the 18th century, we let the boys pick our van, based purely on color. The one Chrysler calls “clearwater blue” got the nod.

And now I began what I thought would be the fairly straightforward process of unlocking and opening the van. The key fob more closely resembled our intimidating TV/DVR remote than anything I had ever seen for an automobile. I punched the button with the broken padlock icon. Nothing. Then twice and it opened. There were other buttons on the remote that opened the automatic sliding side doors and still others that popped the hatchback. It was a miracle of wireless communication, really. But as appreciative as I was of the technology, I never was able to crack the code of which button did what and after how many pressings. Sometimes once worked, other times twice, two and a hold, three punchy ones. It was like you had to spell out “Chrysler” in Morse Code with dits and dahs. Worse, there were two identical key fobs, and I didn’t have the common sense to separate them and simply use one. So while one might have gotten the car locked with one, when we returned I would inevitably guess wrong and grab the other, which either wouldn’t work or worked differently. For nine full days, every time we approached the van, I simply started pushing the ten buttons on the two fobs until doors started opening.

We were in, and we were off, our four cylinders furiously pushing us north by northwest toward Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National.

We were about 15 minutes outside the airport when Ian, from the middle row of seats, first said, “I wanna go home.” Kirstin and I exchanged knowing looks, both immediately thinking of how inconsolable he had been in his desire to go to Yellowstone 48 hours earlier. We smiled the longsuffering smile of veteran parents, and ignored him.

As we approached the town of Estes Park, I almost wrecked the van in excitement over our first wildlife spotting–two cow elk standing around on the front lawn of a building. Oh, it’s like this? I thought. Elk are to Estes Park as whitetail deer are to west Austin. They’re simply everywhere, with no fear of humans, and probably, to those who live there, simply pests that eat your flowers and crap all over your lawn.

In five minutes we had reached the park proper and wheeled into the first of innumerable visitor centers. Here is the temple of national parks cult, where high priests in flat-brimmed hats spread maps out on countertops and reveal mysteries to excited believers like where the bighorn sheep have been seen most recently. One of the first pieces of information the ranger imparted to me was that roughly two-thirds of the park was still closed to cars because of snow. No matter; there was still way more park open than we could see in our paltry half-day visit.

As this was the first of what we hoped were many trips to national parks, we went all in on the “passports,” the activity books, the field guides, and, of course, the Junior Ranger curriculum.

As little boys will demonstrate, there’s nothing worth doing that can’t be rewarded with a badge. And with two of our three close in age, there’s no badge-winning activity that can’t be turned into a de facto competition. Things might have gotten ugly and cutthroat between the two big boys if their requirements hadn’t been differentiated by age.

Throughout the rest of the trip, we had homework: checking off five of the nine animals pictured above, finding these fifteen words hidden in the puzzle below, finding an igneous rock in the visitor center and describing its texture, identifying why it was difficult for Americans to settle Jackson Hole, attending a Ranger program. And on and on. If we had taken a week at each park, completing the Junior Ranger requirements would have been a leisurely stroll. But we essentially squeezed three week’s worth of scavenger hunts and paperwork into six days. For all the madness of it, we actually gave great credit to the program for keeping the boys focused and engaged.

Our final purchase in our first visitor center was the musical soundtrack to the Ken Burns series. With its fiddles, mandolins, and guitars spinning in our CD player for the next week, we had truly checked the last box. We were Americana incarnate (emphasis on “car”).

Five minutes driving in the park and we had pulled over again, joining the wildlife paparazzi. An elk herd lounged on one of the flats near the highway. We turned out into a small lot overlooking the flats, the camera came out, the boys unbuckled, and we felt like at long last we were doing what we’d set out to do nearly a year earlier.

In twenty minutes we had concluded that elk were pretty much like cattle, only taller, in that they mainly just stood around and ate grass. We decided to move on, and in another five minutes were pulled in at a trail-head where folks were looking through binoculars at the hoped-for bighorn sheep.

Here we decided to try our first “hike,” which consisted of about one-tenth of a mile out and back. As we were still tethered by the short legs of a four year old, seldom did our “hikes” ever even take us out of view of the van. We fantasized that in the years ahead, we would return as hard-core mountaineers, checking in at all these back-country offices we saw, and packing our food and shelter into barely charted terrain. But it was clear those years were far enough away that Kirstin and I would be bent with age before the boys were hardy enough, and in the meantime “hiking” would remain in quotes.

Within another half hour I was putting the minivan through its paces, pushing our way to higher and higher altitude toward something the Park Ranger, or, as Ian called them, Parking Rangers, had circled on our map called Rainbow Curve.

As we rounded every corner and climbed every new rise the scenery was more and more spectacular, vistas stretching down and away from us into steep gorges and valleys, huge cliffs rising up, and now we were seeing snow up close for the first time, pines and aspens growing on impossibly steep mountainsides. I looked over at Kirstin to see her reaction. Fast asleep, and so were the boys. No worries, I thought, they’d see it all on the way down.

I slowed every few minutes to carefully pass a cyclist, some of them obviously in for the long-haul with heavy-looking panniers anchored to their front and rear axles. I figured these panniers were necessary to transport all the performance enhancing drugs that these climbs would certainly require. I’d be dead in the first quarter mile, a grizzly and a pack of coyotes playing tug-of-war with my Spandex-clad corpse.

At last we reached a turnout with sixty parked cars. We figured this for Rainbow Curve. We pulled on our fleecies and hoodies and windbreakers, grabbed up the camera, and headed out to see what the big deal was.

And a big deal it was indeed, a breathtaking view of what was probably the entire northeast quadrant of the park and beyond. Snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks across an alpine valley were only slightly higher than we were. The week before, I had introduced Andrew to the Lord of the Rings movies, and here we started a curious bonding over which scene from the trilogy the landscape resembled most. Rainbow Curve, with its stone wall and miles-long overlook, we decided was actually Helms Deep, near the Gap of Rohan, and we defended the fortress against encroaching Uruk-hai, he as Legolas, I as Gimli.

Back in the minivan, I rode the brake down the mountain and we stopped at Bear Lake. The winding drive had cold-cocked Andrew, and Kirstin stayed with him while he slept in his seat in the van. I led Cameron and the Destroyer of Worlds to the frozen lake’s edge, both of them slipping and falling multiple times on the snowed-under and then iced-over trail.

Our last stop of the day was Sprague Lake, a gorgeous former resort that had been donated to the park. After a picnic lunch, we set out for another “hike,” this one a full half mile around the lake. We had made it over the first patch of snow, when the Destroyer of Worlds got a funny look on his face and began to whimper. Then Ian cried out, “I got to throwed up! I got to throwed up!” We took one step off the trail, and Ian projectile vomited for what seemed like about 60 seconds into the strip of snow and pine needles between us and the sky-blue lake. Best we could tell, it was just one of those random childhood hurlings that can strike at any time and for any reason. Might have been the altitude. Might have been the curvy roads we had just come off of. Might have been those hundred and fifty nacho cheese flavored Doritos … or some combination of the three. Regardless, when he was empty, he felt all better. And in the ultimate leap of faith, I put him on my shoulders and we proceeded around the lake.

If Ian’s vomiting on the banks of Sprague Lake represented the low point of the trip thus far, perhaps the high point was just five minutes later, when we walked up on a group of park goers giddy at the sight of a bull moose just thirty or so yards away. Perhaps the Dorito vomit had drawn him in, sort of like a chum trail — I admit this is unlikely.

When we returned to the parking lot, we found two fresh-faced park rangers who quizzed the big boys on what they had seen that day and administered their first Junior Ranger oaths.

With our loop complete, and our boys sworn to protect our world and everything in it, it was time to say goodbye to Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have nothing but admiration for the rangers we encountered throughout our trip, with the singular exception of the one who, at the beginning of this day, hovering over a map, told me that there was an alternate, more scenic drive back to Denver that we should consider taking, a route that was just “slightly” longer than the way we came in. WRONG!!! Way longer, Dudley Do-Right! Way longer! By the time, we were back to Denver, Kirstin was one raw nerve from the switchbacks and the drop-offs, yes, but mainly, just from not knowing how much longer the drive was going to last. That extra hour-and-a-half forever cured her of wanting to live in the mountains. And I wasn’t feeling my oats either, both of us eating ibuprofen like it was Tic Tacs to combat the altitude headaches.

Back in Denver, we moved into the boys’ Uncle Greg and Aunt Esther’s 800-square foot house, the favorite attraction of which was the doggy door cut into the back door. Ian crawled through that door at least sixty times, and there is no doubt that this is what he’ll remember most, not just from Greg and Esther’s, but from the entire trip. We’ve noticed this is true for all the boys — that the best part of any vacation is not what you’ve set out to see and do, but wherever you’re spending the night. They’d much rather explore the closets of a new hotel room or have a pillow fight on its king-size bed than traipse along a mountain range or ride a roller coaster or just about anything else. It’s about the room.

On the next day’s agenda was river rafting with Uncle Greg, who, conveniently enough, owns a river rafting company and had agreed to find a very flat, beginner stretch of the river west of Denver for us to float down. In Idaho Springs we found the Wide Open Adventure office and outfitting station. There, we spent the better part of an hour trying to find and get all five of us into suitable gear. As far as we know, the Destroyer of Worlds was the smallest human to have run this stretch of the river. His coat swallowed him like Medieval tunic, and we had plenty of misgivings about the stage of the water and whether any of this was a good idea given the record snow runoff that was pushing the river higher every day. But Uncle Greg was a consummate pro, and we trusted he wasn’t going to set us up for the coldest swim of our lives.

I squeezed myself into the wet suit, pulled on the booties, pulled the windbreaker-like coat over my top, strapped on my helmet and finally donned the life jacket. And, with Kirstin, did same for all three boys. I hadn’t had this 19th century chastity contraption on for more than 30 seconds before I realized I needed a bathroom. As the office did not have one, we had to walk to a Subway sandwich shop next door. There, I stripped off my jacket and beheld for the first time, in the enormous bathroom mirror, the specter of my body in a neoprene wetsuit. The shock has now passed, but I’m still not sure I’m over the depression. Imagine a shirtless middle-aged man in a pair of skin-tight overalls, black, of course, to accentuate his paleness. I looked like a professional wrestler from the ‘50s, before gyms, chest waxing, and tanning booths became the norm. The black suit pressed and squeezed against my pasty, hairy, pear-shaped torso like a full-body set of Spanx for men, rendering the most unforgiving, unflattering profile shot of myself I’ve ever allowed to penetrate my consciousness. The picture in the mirror looked like a seal trying to eat a polar bear feet first.

I quickly unsnapped the shoulder straps, peeled myself like a banana, emptied my bladder, re-snapped, and hurried the loose-fitting jacket back on before anyone else could be likewise traumatized by the sight.

After a slightly unnerving ten minutes of sitting in the raft on shore and watching the roiling and inadequately named Clear Creek roar past us, we were ready to face the music and we pushed off. We floated past abandoned gold and silver mines, ducked under bridges, passed a water mill, and hooted and generally made like we were on Class Four rapids even though it was not even Class One. And the boys went gamely along until at one point I looked over my shoulder to see that Andrew was gray and his eyes were slits.

“Buddy? What’s going on, buddy? Greg– can we pull over?”

Greg made some sort of signal to the guide in the lead boat, grabbed a rope, lept out of the boat onto a gravel bar and dragged us onto the island. Andrew left the boat and stumbled around for a minute; we were certain he would repeat Ian’s hurling of the previous day, but he pulled it together like a little soldier and within a few minutes we had finished the float.

With our whitewater adventure behind us, we drove the rest of the afternoon through the beautiful borderlands between Colorado and Wyoming. This was the one night for which we hadn’t reserved a room, and it reminded me of driving vacations when I was a boy, where we rarely if ever had reservations, taking things an hour at a time. In Rawlins, Wyoming, we found a Best Western, and the boys proceeded to our room and thrilled at everything they found there. After a fried dinner under a taxidermied elk mount, a good night’s sleep, and a gray breakfast in the same restaurant, we excitedly made away from Rawlins and at long last were almost to the Mecca of our pilgrimage, the national park duplex of Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

Central Wyoming is beautiful but ever so empty. Vistas spill away from you for fifty miles in every direction. We’re used to this sort of emptiness in Texas, especially West and South Texas. We long ago adopted the Mad Max term “The Nuthin’” to describe these places where you could go twenty minutes without seeing another car and an hour between city limits. After days of driving in the mountains, constantly riding the brake down to twenty miles an hour for each switchback, it was nice to let it out a little bit and make up some time. Besides, being able to see for fifty miles in every direction made an accident as unlikely as it had ever been.

So imagine my surprise when we rounded that bend and saw the state trooper parked in the oncoming shoulder with his radar gun pointed directly at me. I knew in an instant I was toast. The patrol car slowly made a U-turn in my rearview mirror, and on came the Christmas lights.

“Okay, boys,” I sighed. “Daddy’s getting a ticket.”

“What?!” they asked excitedly from the third row.

“This policeman is pulling me over.”

“Are you going to jail?” the boys asked in unison. My mind immediately went to whether that would fulfill a Cub Scout elective, like the field trips to a bank or the state capitol. I pictured the sentence “Go see a jail” with a colorful illustration next to it in the Wolf Handbook.

“I don’t think so, Cam. Just a ticket, but I need you guys to be quiet for a minute, okay?”

“Okay. (a beat) How fast were you going—”

“You need to be quiet!” Kirstin breaks in.

The trooper approaches the car.

It was a fairly standard stop, including the part where he sat in his car behind me for ten to fifteen minutes working a Sudoku puzzle, texting his girlfriend, or doing Lord knows what else. I think troopers must be duty bound to make the stop last so long that it negates whatever good time you were making by speeding.

When I got back to Austin and read the fine print on the back of the citation, I learned I had been charged with an “offense against the peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming.” That seemed a little overwrought, and I suspected somebody at the Wyoming DPS had been reading the Federalist Papers for their night class. It was a cruel irony — after all, experiencing the “peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming” was the very reason Kirstin and I were bleeding our bank account dry and dragging our kids clear across the American West in planes, trains, and automobiles. Ozzy Osbourne taking a leak on the Alamo was an offense against the dignity of a state. Going 82 in a 65 — when we hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes — is merely an attempt to maximize our time in Grand Teton. To not get there as soon as possible would have been the greater offense. Alas, not a view shared in Lander, Wyoming.

After we had idled on the shoulder long enough for him to have watched Gone with the Wind on his dashboard monitor, he released us on our own recognizance, and we pushed northwest at precisely 65 miles per hour.

Soon the landscape changed from tan and sage to red canyons and fantastic geological rainbows of purple and gray and beige and rust. Then, quite suddenly, we climbed, and everything began to change rapidly. Gorgeous charcoal mountains accented with brilliant snow rose up on all sides of us, and soon, as if we had just passed through the Wardrobe, we were driving through fresh-looking snow and pines.

We had not even reached the boundary of the park when I saw a red fox scamper across the road and sit on the snow off to our left. To the amateur wildlife photographer, it was too good to be true. He just sat there as if to say he was ready for his closeup, Mr. DeMille. There was no turnout, but I deemed the shoulder wide enough for a safe stop and so hit the brakes and wheeled over. Kirstin grabbed the camera and put the long lens on for me while the boys watched from the back of the van.

I got out and crossed the road in a crouching position. Whom I thought I was fooling with this hunter’s stalk I have no idea because I certainly wasn’t fooling the fox, who looked at me as if I were insulting his intelligence. His thought bubble read: “What’s this dipshit think he’s doing? I’m a fox.” Regardless, I fired off three fine photos and with the zoom function on the camera’s playback, I even learned that night that he had blue eyes.

At last we reached Jackson Hole, the name for the massive basin of which Grand Teton is only a part. Up here it was Jackson everything. Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson Hole, Jackson Lake, Jackson Lake Lodge. Ever since we started researching this vacation I had assumed it was all named for Andrew. In fact it was named for David Jackson, a trapper who was one of the first whities in the area.

Five minutes inside the park, we encountered twenty cars pulled onto the shoulder and a mass of tourists with binoculars, tripod-mounted scopes, and cameras ranging from disposables to those the size of bazookas. This was our first real experience with the flash mob of wildlife paparazzi. If you’re driving in the national parks (and you are typically driving) and you see a mob, there’s something good out there, so you better check your snobbery, drop whatever fantasy you’ve been harboring about spotting wildlife yourself, and just pull over. Here at this pond directly across the road from one of the park’s biggest visitor centers and lodges, a mother moose and her calf had taken up pretty much permanent residence. Every time we passed this way, there they were, as if kept their by shock collars and an invisible fence. It was an easy win for us beginners.

When the boys’ curiosity had been sated — and this never took long — we were on to find our cabin. Time had gotten away from us as we meandered through the mountains and the crew was transitioning from hungry to cranky. Determined to not eat out at every single meal, we stopped at the park grocery store and loaded a basket with sixty dollars worth of fruit, sandwich meat, bread, peanut butter and jelly, paper plates, cups, and plasticware.

The little grocery was our first exposure to a whole class of people we would continue to encounter throughout the national parks: the working retired. They were cashiers and stockers at the gift shops, information desk workers, laundromat attendants, all sweet people who had the good idea of getting away to the mountains for a nice long break to make a little cash before retirement started in earnest, and as far as I could tell, have the adventure of operating a cash register for the very first time. I’m sure that working in Grand Teton or Yellowstone sounded ever so much better to that IBM team manager before he was assigned to work the counter at the laundromat, trying to figure out how to run my credit card for a $1.99 Wilcoxson’s ice cream sandwich. He surely would have to go all the way back to high school to find a job so menial on his résumé — but you can’t argue the scenery, and that’s the point.

We didn’t come out that far ahead for all of our provisioning at the grocery, but we felt virtuous and took comfort in knowing we’d survive if we didn’t make it to a restaurant before closing time. But the grocery shopping had made us even hungrier.

As soon as we pulled up to our quaint 1930s log cabin, I took off jogging around the grounds to find a picnic table. Alas, my running form was not everything it might have been, and when I caught my toe on the raised lip of a sidewalk, I went down hard. In addition to being hungry, my hands now stung with the full force of 190 pounds falling five feet onto asphalt. It was over before I knew it, but if seen in slow motion it would have been a spectacular NFL dive for the end zone, my gangly frame lurching forward head-first, then the limbic realization and a look of terror on my face as my hands instinctively thrust out in front of my body, a hard horizontal landing followed by two full rolls to slow the momentum.

I was immediately overcome with the realization that all of this — all the planning, all the money, all the vacation time expended, all the days and months of anticipation — could go up in smoke from one bad step. This vessel of so many hopes and dreams was fragile. I was okay, but if I had broken my elbow, or if any of us broke anything, the world’s greatest family vacation would be for all intents and purposes over.

After all that, with apologies to Yogi Bear, there were no “pickanic” tables. We opened our dark little cottage and built sandwiches of ham and turkey and Goober Grape for the boys using one of the beds as a work surface.

The cabin was truly great in every respect but one: 10 seconds after we flushed the toilet, the plumbing reacted with a low, ominous foghorn-like groan that resonated through the entire structure. The edict came down right then that no one was to flush the potty overnight. But it provided a lot of good laughs until then. “Pardon me.” … “Excuse you!” … “Ian!”

That afternoon we set out to see some more animals. We whipped and spurred the minivan up Signal Mountain, where we soaked in most of the southern reaches of Jackson Hole and the Snake River. At the summit, we came face to face with a chicken-sized bird we later identified as a blue grouse, hopping along a low branch.

That was plenty interesting, but on the descent, things got more so. I pulled over behind a ranger truck and got out with the camera to investigate. A black bear was crawling through the tall brush about forty yards off the road, and I sidled up to a young couple who pointed him out to me, while Kirstin, following a superior set of instincts, took the boys across the road and up a hill to watch. When the show was over and we were back in the car, I handed her the camera to view the results. “You got an excellent shot of a bear’s back,” she said. It wasn’t sarcasm, it was simply the best she could say about it. He had ducked his head just as I pushed the button.

It wasn’t until the next day, when we had reached Yellowstone, that I saw a very prominent sign in the men’s room reading, “Always keep one hundred yards between yourself and a bear or wolf (twenty-five yards for all other animals).”

* * *

At last — or perhaps I should say already — we were headlong into our ultimate destination, the world’s first national park, land of geothermal wonders and free-roaming bison and wolves — Yellowstone.

We were no more than forty-five minutes inside the park when we spotted our first group of geothermal features. Geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, steam thingies, sulphur-majiggers, and day-glow bacteria ponds. (Our labels, not sanctioned by the park service.) We traversed the long, snaking boardwalk along the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, puzzling mightily over a wide variety geothermal thing-a-mabobs, all groundwater set to “simmer” over a rocky crust just three miles thick. Mother Nature’s freak show.

My favorite story on the topic was of the early fishermen who caught their dinner in the lake and, in one fluid motion, flung the still-hooked catch into natural mini-volcanoes of boiling water — the so-called hook-n-cook method.

And soon we came upon the bison. Noble beasts, so primeval with their enormous humps, dark horns and shaggy coats. They inspire awe as they move across the flats. They are a wonder of the natural world, a national symbol, and one of our most important environmental success stories.

They also crap a lot. They crap everywhere. Some call them buffaloes. I call them crappaloes. On the side of the road. On the road. On the path to the cafeteria. In the two-square-foot area right outside the front door of our lodge. I now understand why the Plains Indians burned buffalo chips. It wasn’t because they were a rich fuel source needed for heat and cooking in a land of carbon scarcity. It was simply the fastest method of getting it the hell out of the way so they wouldn’t constantly be scraping it off their moccasins. Sheesh! And I had to constantly remind myself that all of this was from a relatively small population, still recovering from near extinction. I learned from one of the interpretive museum exhibits within the park that bison once ranged pretty much over the entire lower 48 states. Imagine the output from those numbers! Our fair nation was, from sea to shining sea, well nigh built on a thick foundation of bison patties. Purple mountains majesty, indeed.

By our second day in Yellowstone it was high time to see the most iconic feature of our most iconic national park, Old Faithful. If something were to happen, like the jogging wipe-out I had two days before at Grand Teton, and we were not able to see it, it would have felt like the entire epic enterprise had been a Wally World-like failure. As we were staying at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — which sounds like it was once sued for trademark infringement by the Grand Canyon and so had to add the qualifier — we were about an hour from the famous geyser following the enormous, lazy loop that facilitates travel throughout most of the massive park.

Following the signs to Old Faithful, we turned off the main highway and immediately came to a stop behind a line of cars. Hmm, we thought. Maybe it’s another paparazzi mob. Trouble was, no one was out of his car. Perhaps it was a horrible traffic accident, someone’s RV overturned in the Gibbons River, Memaw and Pappaw being swept toward the falls. We crept ahead at about two miles per hour. Soon enough, we understood what was happening. We were a part of that pageant that is a rite of passage for all Yellowstone visitors if they stay long enough or return often enough — the Yellowstone Bison Traffic Jam. The way we deduced this was, of course, the verdant mounds crap all along the road over which we were slowly rolling.

For a full two hours, TWO HOURS, we crept along at bison speed, a line of cars a hundred long. It wasn’t entirely the bison’s fault, as they were simply walking on the only safe path between a rushing river on their right and a steep hillside on their left. Kirstin and I nervously ran the numbers in our heads. At what point do you bow out and turn back? Thirty minutes? Forty-five minutes feels like a huge investment on a day as precious to our family as this one. By turning back we would have wasted those forty-five minutes. On the other hand, if no one is passing the bison, then this could literally go on for the rest of the day. The boys’ vacation journal entries for Day 2 would chronicle only what the back of the camper shell directly in front of us looked like. So bad was it I even started to question our decision to not bring the portable car DVD player for the boys.

Although it didn’t really matter how far back we were (since no one was passing the plodding beasts) still, I couldn’t stand not knowing the details: how many? and where were they in relation to the Seale-mobile? I gave the wheel to Kirstin, got out, and joined the parade of parents and kids walking along the shoulder.

At last, just as I had reached the bison on foot, the road veered a little ways away from the river, and the bison lumbered down to the freezing water for a well-deserved drink. Our afternoon was saved, most of it. I leapt up and down on the shoulder and pumped my fists in the air, rejoicing with passing drivers and watching for the minivan to pick me up.

Within minutes we had reached Old Faithful, and a parking lot that resembled that of a mid-sized mall. Through the large wall of windows in the visitor’s center, we saw the geyser steaming and in front of it, a large sign in the foyer reading “1:47” — the forecast time for the next show. We took our lunchables to a shady spot where the boys could listen to a park ranger’s talk and so get credit toward their Junior Ranger badges. As go-time approached, visitors by the hundred congregated on a huge semicircular boardwalk about seventy-five yards from Old Faithful.

There are two things I’ll never forget about Old Faithful. The first is the geyser itself — how it steamed nonstop so that everyone would know where to look, how it belched and cleared its throat before going off, and how it finally blew, right on time, high into the clear blue Wyoming sky.

The second thing that impressed me was this: This is one of the true wonders of the natural world, not only a giant geyser but one that goes off like clockwork every ninety minutes, as if created just for the convenience of tourists. It spouts for about three minutes. And yet, people to my left and right were wandering off before it had completed its three-minute eruption. Part of me wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they had been here all day long and this was their sixth viewing. But another part of me judged them harshly: You mean to tell me that you’re standing before one of the natural world’s most impressive sights, and your attention span won’t allow you to just hang for three-minutes?! Go! Go back to the suburbs, you ingrates! Back to your shallow, media-saturated, sugar-addled lives of idiotic reality television and fast food and compulsive shopping! Nah, they had probably just been there all day.

Yellowstone marked our third hotel room of the trip, and here we would put down roots: three glorious nights without unpacking and repacking. With five of us in one room, I couldn’t help but ponder what a far cry this was from Kirstin’s and my earliest experiences in hotel rooms. With this many people within four walls, I couldn’t so much as gaze lovingly into her eyes.

The practice that allowed us to wedge five people into a room with two beds was a concept that will be familiar to any parent of three or more children, a concept Kirstin, in a stroke of genius, had coined “Ian’s Special Bed.” For more than a year whenever we were traveling, the big boys would share the second bed and Ian would get his “special bed.” This usually consisted of a blanket on the floor. When you’re 35 pounds, the difference between a Serta Perfect Sleeper and a beach towel on the floor is negligible. In this case, it was a chair that, when combined with its ottoman, served perfectly as “Ian’s Special Bed.”

I noticed Kirstin had brought up several times since we reached Yellowstone how badly we needed to do laundry. As the boys and I were accustomed to camping, and we figured all this for something akin to a glorified camp-out, doing laundry was not something that was at the top of our lists. But as a consolation to the fact that she as a female is always outnumbered, and in recognition that she is always right about everything, I decided not to resist her suggestion that we spend tonight, our twelfth wedding anniversary, in a laundromat. It wasn’t going to be a traditional anniversary date in any event.

We were changing our three loads from the washers to the driers when we paused three seconds to toast our union, her with an ice cream sandwich, me with a chocolate shake out of the chest freezer. It was an iconic moment that summed up this stage of our lives as neatly as any could. To everything there is a season; a time for every purpose under the sun. And I wouldn’t have traded this season, this night — listening to the whir of driers and watching our three blond monkeys climb around on countertops in a national park laundromat — for a week in Paris or anything else. We called our wedding anniversary “our family’s birthday.” And while there are a thousand fine ways to commemorate it, there weren’t any better than this.

Kirstin and I fancy ourselves reasonably frugal relative to the modern, materialistic American family. We only buy used cars. She cuts coupons and watches for sales; I ride the bus, eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch more days than not, and shop at Goodwill. But there’s something about vacations that prompts us to both spend money and ingest calories like the world is ending the following week. And it was a good thing we were now in this new mode, because while the dining situation in Yellowstone is varied, it is never cheap. Our grocery run in Grand Teton was still paying dividends, not least to the carpet of the minivan, which was now so encrusted with chips and goldfish around the boys’ seats that I was starting to wonder if even the most toxic of industrial solvents could free it.

But I was still unprepared for the total for our first cafeteria meal in Yellowstone, a cool $50. No wonder they can keep the entry fees so low. It’s like anywhere else you go; they get you on the drink. Having lived and learned, we trimmed that total by nearly $15 on our next trip to the cafeteria just by foregoing the $2.50 soft drinks.

But vacation-eating rules, marked by the very absence of rules, were still in effect: while we normally insist on wheat bread, organic peanut butter, and something fresh at every meal, we now watched serenely as the boys poured chocolate milk on their Fruit Loops.

Before we had left Austin, I had resolved to take some really good pictures on this trip. We had borrowed a friend’s camera, and I had planned to go on photo mini-safaris every day at sunrise and sunset to try to get good wildlife portraits and “golden hour” landscapes.

What I didn’t plan on was the fact that Ian was the first one awake every morning, and in order to keep the other boys and Kirstin asleep, I would have to take him with me. This was ever so perfect. During the one time of day when I might have been able to stalk an elk for an extreme close up, his tawny eyelashes highlighted by the rising sun, or frame up that single drop of dew just about to fall from a pine cone, I had the Destroyer of Worlds riding shotgun, singing the Wonder Pets theme song at the top of his lungs and continuously asking for “a dwink.” But to be fair, he wasn’t a total handicap. In fact, he proved a pretty good spotter on a couple of occasions, and we bonded happily as we drove the winding roads to the National Parks soundtrack.

On Day Three, we came upon a roadside mob with cameras and binoculars trained on something across a snowy field. I zipped up my windbreaker, grabbed the camera and sprinted across the road to fall in formation. After asking around for what and where it was and verifying it with my own binoculars, I jogged back to the van. This was the top prize for wildlife watchers in Yellowstone.

“Boys! It’s a grizzly! C’mon! Who wants to see?!”

“We’ll just stay here and work on our Junior Ranger stuff,” said Andrew. “Yeah, it’s sort of raining,” Cameron added. Wow, I thought, so jaded after merely three days that they refuse to even get out of the minivan to glimpse the top predator of the New World. Rangers indeed.

But we’re all prone to cynicism at some point. I saw it in myself. On our last day, we still hadn’t seen any wolves, which are notoriously reclusive, but I had heard there were some patrolling Hayden Valley, where we were passing through. A car was pulled over, and not at a turnout, which usually signaled something juicy. I slowed and rolled the passenger window down.

“‘Morning. Whatcha got?” I asked.

“An elk,” said the young lady with the binoculars. I smiled and waited for some other descriptor like, “… being torn apart by a pack of wolves.” But none came. Just “an elk.”

“Nice,” I said before accelerating away. As we gained speed and I powered the window up, I realized I might as well have said, “You stopped for that? First ten minutes in the park, huh? Adorable…” then peeled out leaving her in a cloud of blue smoke.

In just days we all had become jaded. The wildlife paparazzi culture had imbued in us a subconscious but crass rating system in which God’s magnificent creation was reduced to an index of four combined criteria: size, rarity, familiarity, and predator/prey status. Moose beats elk for size and rarity. A bird could be of the rarest species in the world but get passed over for black bear, beaten on size and familiarity. Wolf vs. grizzly is a draw: both rank high on familiarity and predator status, grizzly wins on size but wolf wins on rarity. Even though an elk beats a fox on size, the fox is more elusive and also has that predator swagger. And so on. A chipmunk is cute but after the first photo you don’t break your stride for that. For a wolf sighting, I would have put the Town and Country into a Starsky and Hutch-inspired 180-degree skid.

* * *

It was over, we had checked out of the Cascade Lodge, and were on our way south, but I had one last stop stop to make — a place that rendered the most famous vista in the park but one I had yet to visit, Artist’s Point.

I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”

My soul was too. But I wondered. What would I remember in twenty years? Would we really ever be back here as we promised each other we would? Would the boys remember any of this cathedral of nature, or merely the details of the minivan’s backseat and the way the hotel bed felt when they belly-flopped on it?

In the end, those questions mattered little. All that really mattered was that we had spent nine days together, away from our daily life, a moving island unto ourselves. That is the sacred essence of the family vacation.

That and buffalo chips.