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!

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The Bigfoot Manifesto

Why I Can’t Get Enough of the Sasquatch Mystery, What It Reveals about the Human Condition, and Why I Believe

* * *

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

                                                         –Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

On September 24, 2011, about 30 minutes until dark, I wheeled into the Double Lake Recreation Area inside Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas. My 9-year-old son and I were about to head out and camp on the Lone Star Hiking Trail when the park host stopped us to explain that there was no camping out on the trail because of the extreme drought and a burn ban that was in effect. Then we heard it.

It sounded like a very loud, whooping howl, echoing across the dry lake bed from a half mile or so to the east. I looked at Andrew and smiled. I didn’t want to lead the park host, so I asked innocently but incredulously, “What’s that?!”

“Probably a coyote,” he responded.

I’ve heard plenty of coyotes, and whatever this was, it wasn’t a coyote, as their typical call is at least an octave higher. Neither was it a wolf, which, if it were, would be just about as notable as a cryptid. Neither do I think it was an owl; one can easily tell the difference between a soft sound made at close range and a very loud sound made at a very great distance, and this was the latter. I didn’t argue with him, but simply looked down at Andrew and raised my eyebrows. Andrew returned a smile, a mix of authentic wonder and amusement. We both knew what the other was thinking.

I can’t say that what we heard that afternoon in the failing light of an East Texas forest was a sasquatch, but I can and do say that it might have been.

Andrew and I were on the same wavelength because we’d spent a fair amount of time over the previous couple of months discussing the sasquatch mystery, prompted by the premier season of a cable series devoted to the subject and my discovery of surprisingly large online collections of alleged photos and videos of the creatures.

I knew from research that, however unlikely it was, this was a place where a sasquatch could be. Unlike our home four hours west in Central Texas, which has no woodlands contiguous with the rest of North America’s forests, we were now in country that was at least sasquatch-plausible. San Jacinto County alone has seven encounters on record since 1996, the latest occurring in this national forest in 2008. Add the sightings from the five surrounding counties (Montgomery, Liberty, Polk, Trinity, and Walker), and the number climbs to an even 50.

In the days afterward, I emailed the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy and the national Bigfoot Field Research Organization asking if they knew of anyone doing research in the area that night, perhaps using a technique known as “call blasting,” playing reputed bigfoot howls over an amplifier in hopes of getting a response. The last thing enthusiasts need is to be reporting each other’s calls like Keystone Cops. I never got an answer, so it remains an intriguing mystery.

I was born in 1967, the very year the sasquatch transitioned from persistent legend to pop-culture phenomenon with the capture on 16-millimeter film of an alleged specimen walking in full view along Bluff Creek in far northwestern California by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. So, along with all other members of my generation, I grew up in tandem with the spread of the legend.

The awareness starts as a familiarity with a campy stock character in commercials, the Six Million Dollar Man’s boulder-heaving nemesis, or the subject of patently ridiculous tabloid headlines. Most dismiss it with a chuckle and a shake of the head, the doings of bored hillbillies or transparent self-promoters, and it ends there. But for me, my curiosity about the fringes of our world has always been stronger than my need to cut the fringes off and throw them away.

In my early 30s, for no particular reason I can remember, the subject bubbled up in my consciousness, and I realized that there were rich themes in this mystery that had never been mined in serious literature. Rushing to fill that void, I wrote a novella called simply Sasquatch. I never published the book, and neither did anyone else. But there was one lasting effect of my having written it, which was that the research I did during the writing made me a solid believer.

Once I began looking into the subject in a sustained way, it quickly became clear that something was going on here that was much more than just pop-culture shtick. What closed the deal for me was a book titled Big Footprints by Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University who was virtually the only academic researcher at the time willing to investigate the mystery. I was deeply moved by the enormous courage Dr. Krantz showed, standing staunch against attacks and ridicule from throughout the academic world and insisting that this was a legitimate field of inquiry.

And I began to realize that the themes pervading the sasquatch mystery cut right to the heart of the human condition and, what’s more, in their own quirky way echoed all the great themes of humanity’s experience with spirituality: faith and nonbelief, evidence versus proof, the ridicule of cynics, hoaxes and frauds, lazy skepticism versus earnest investigation, taboos, and a circle of willful ignorance.

Just as Noah, in following his convictions, made himself an easy target for the laughter and scorn of his neighbors, Krantz — complete with flowing white beard — laid himself open to ridicule of scientific colleagues by asking questions — starting with “What made these footprints?” — and following the answers wherever they led. As I read his work and that of others, it occurred to me that future historians might well regard him as a Galileo of our day. His flinty indifference to fellow academics, caviling against him from the safety of their narrow, well-worn specialties and catered symposia, was inspiring.

For many years, I’ve thought about dusting off the manuscript of Sasquatch and making another run at it. I’m a better writer now, I know more about the subject, and I could spin a more compelling tale. But something has kept me from it, and I think ultimately it is this — that any fictional treatment of this subject at this point in history only serves to feed the perception that the subject itself is fictional.

And yet I’m drawn to write about it all the same, and so I offer these thoughts on the nature of the mystery, the state of the collective investigation, and what it all says about us.

I Know How Crazy It Sounds

Any serious discussion of the existence of the sasquatch has to begin with an acknowledgement of the difficulties, which are chiefly these: how is it possible that modern science has named 400,000 beetles and yet has not recognized and named a species that by all reports is larger than ourselves, sometimes much larger, and that is orders of magnitude closer to humans than anything else on the tree of life? How is it possible that we not only have not captured one, but have not found a body, or part of a body?

As a species, we have utterly dominated the planet, infiltrating every nook and cranny of wilderness, heaven knows to a fault. The odds against us not having obtained proof of such a spectacular creature seem simply too great. It seems too fantastic. Therefore, it must all simply be a matter of hoaxes, misidentifications, and hallucinations. It can’t be, therefore, it isn’t.

The short answer to why science hasn’t discovered and catalogued the sasquatch yet is that science isn’t looking. At the center of the sasquatch mystery, we find a circle of ignorance: Scientists refuse to investigate the phenomenon because it hasn’t been established by science. And it hasn’t been established by science because scientists refuse to investigate it. Imagine if all science proceeded on the premise that scientists only studied things that were already established by their peers.

This self-reinforcing circle of ignorance is quite astonishing when fully appreciated and shows up just how full of human frailty the scientific establishment is. Despite science’s claims of rationality and impartiality, this phenomenon demonstrates how laden it is with selective open-mindedness, cowardice and timidity, careerism and personal ambition, and even intimidation. Far from simply asking bold and earnest questions — What made these footprints? What’s on that piece of film? — with few exceptions, we find satisfaction with burnishing one’s career by tiny increments in impossibly narrow specializations. By refusing to study this subject in any sustained impartial way, indeed, in threatening to revoke the tenure of those who show an interest in it and shunning it as taboo, the scientific establishment has deeply betrayed its own principles and demonstrated all the backward dogma of the Medieval church: “It isn’t because it can’t be.”

Who is “We”?

To the question, “How is it possible that we have not found a body…” it also is necessary to define “we.” There are several accounts of bodies being found. In one case, a creature was reportedly hit on a highway. Local police, not knowing how to report something that is not supposed to exist, cordoned off the area and called a higher authority, the state, who, facing the same dilemma, in turn called the National Guard. The subject was hauled away in an unmarked van, never to be reported or  officially acknowledged.

Another account tells of a live subject who, dazed and injured, wandered out of a Nevada forest fire and, finding himself surrounded by firefighters and EMS, simply “surrendered.” He sat before them and reportedly even allowed himself to be cared for before he was eventually taken away in vehicle without official report.

These accounts are, by definition, hearsay, but they have a ring of plausibility. It doesn’t require a widespread conspiracy theory to imagine that when government officials suddenly face an unprecedented and sure-to-be-sensational situation, they would opt simply to make it quietly go away, “unmarked van” style, rather than risk being swept up in a media circus with which they forever would be associated.

Some tell of bigfoot killings, in which the shooter remained anonymous out of fear of prosecution. Other accounts tell of 8-foot skeletons once discovered in a Kentucky cave, only to disappear into private hands.

Still others tell of lumberjacks being given a gag order by their higher-ups to not discuss what they see or find for fear that confirming the existence of bigfoots would create a nightmare of new forestry regulation for the timber industry (see “spotted owl”).

In defining the “we” in “Why haven’t we found one?” there is much anecdotal evidence that some of us have. And while many people are motivated to find and document them, others are just as motivated to keep their existence apocryphal for a range of reasons — fear of ridicule, fear of career damage, fear of regulation, fear of prosecution, fear of inciting hunting mobs or mob tourism, and the reflexive denial of government officials who assume common citizens couldn’t handle the truth.

The War for Occam’s Razor

Like all mysteries, the debate over the existence of the sasquatch is at its core a battle for Occam’s Razor. Named for Medieval English friar William of Ockham and also known as the law of parsimony, economy, or succinctness, Occam’s Razor is a principle that recommends selecting from among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. (The “razor” is what shaves away unnecessarily complicated parts of a theory or what separates one theory from another.)

Let’s list the competing sets of assumptions quickly …

Assumptions on the side of existence:

1. That humans have not classified/discovered every remarkable animal on earth. This is manifestly true. The point has been made many times that no less a zoological superstar than the mountain gorilla was only “discovered” in 1902. Indeed, more than 20 primates have been discovered since 1990. Even megafauna are discovered on a fairly regular basis.

2. That humans are not presently capable of dominating the vast wilderness areas of the northern hemisphere (they appear to exist in Eurasia as well) so completely as to rule out the existence of a smart, reclusive creature with vastly superior wilderness adaptations.

3. That an animal that was …

  • mostly nocturnal
  • supremely well adapted to forest living
  • possessed highly effective forest camouflage as well as hiding and evasive instincts, and
  • second in intelligence only to ourselves

… could not evade us except for a few dozen instances a year.

Assumptions necessary to deny existence:

1. That every single one of the thousands of sightings (some claim 3,000, others 30,000) on record is a case of a. mistaken identity, b. hoax, or c. hallucination.

2. That these hoaxes, hallucinations, and misidentifications have been taking place across the northern hemisphere for hundreds of years.

3. That First Nations people are in on the joke and have been for centuries, or else that they, who culturally are far more experienced in the American wilderness than late-coming white settlers, are not capable of telling the difference between a large primate that walks on two legs and other common animals of the forest.

4. That people in 49 states have concocted hoaxes that include photographs, casted footprints, and video that are sophisticated enough to agree on a large number of subtle physiological and behavioral traits and are sophisticated enough to fabricate DNA and hair samples that are non-human but primate.

Which scenario does Occam’s Razor favor?

For me and for other believers, it favors existence. In short, as hard as it may be to believe, it is easier to believe that there is a large but extremely reclusive primate living on this continent than to believe that, say, 15,000 people from all walks of life, including people like practicing psychologists and active-duty police officers with nothing to gain and everything to lose by reporting such a thing, are either wildly misidentifying bears or recruiting NBA players to travel into incredibly remote areas of North America and parade around in ape costumes through rough terrain.

Hoaxes have occurred, and many misidentifications too. But ultimately, nonbelief impugns too many credible, corroborating witnesses. While there still is no proof, the mass of circumstantial evidence has simply grown too great. Put another way, the simplistic nature of the dismissals is not a match for the sophistication and volume of the evidence.

Seekers, Believers, and Nonbelievers: A Typology

In my experience, believers, agnostics, and nonbelievers come in a variety of flavors, six to be precise: three kinds of believers, two kinds of nonbelievers, and one category I will call the Seeker.

1. The Seeker is at the beginning of her investigation. She is open-minded, which means that she asks sincere questions and, being sufficiently detached from preconceived notions and committed to the truth, is willing to follow the answers to those questions wherever they lead. As she is at the beginning of her journey she is, of course, not yet committed to belief or disbelief. She exercises “healthy skepticism” but is not only willing to be convinced but willing to put effort into her own independent investigation.

2. The Rational Believer has seen or learned enough to be convinced, believes in their existence but continues to honor Occam’s Razor by looking to explain various situations first by ordinary means before resorting to the extraordinary: It’s a bear track until there’s no way it’s a bear track. It’s a coyote until there’s no way it could be a coyote.

3. The Knower is a subset of the Believer category, but he often eschews the term “belief” as insufficient. He does not need belief because he has encountered the creature first-hand in an unambiguous way. Full-time investigator James Fay, who claims having encountered a sasquatch of approximately ten feet, introduces himself by saying, “I’m not a believer; I’m a knower.”

4. In contrast to the Rational Believer, the Runaway Believer becomes so zealous and intoxicated by belief that anything and everything not immediately explained by something else obvious is a bigfoot. The sasquatch is everywhere and responsible for every broken tree limb, every carcass, every ambiguous impression in the mud.

5. The Skeptic simply says “show me.” His chief vice is laziness. The Skeptic, in my typology, prides himself on maintaining a sort of cynical pose and so, unlike the Seeker, he will not raise a finger to investigate a matter sincerely for himself. Rather he leaves the matter of investigation entirely to others, and the Believer must overwhelm him with iron-clad proof before he will be moved. But at least he can be converted if that overwhelming proof is indeed provided.

6. Denialists generally refuse to examine evidence at all. They group it with all other outrageous claims or forms of mythology: “I don’t spend my time investigating the reality of unicorns, the Easter Bunny, or Elvis, either.” When compelling evidence is thrust in front of their faces, they eschew Occam’s Razor and, in order to explain away a phenomenon they cannot make peace with, reach for explanations that are more outrageous than an extraordinary reality. They are the “irrational skeptics.”

For Denialists, no amount of photographic, video, or audio evidence, and no supporting evidence such as footprints, scat, hair, or the like, even in the aggregate, is sufficient proof. They cannot distinguish between the extraordinary and the impossible.

And yet, the telling detail is how this same group accepts, without any critical examination, outlandish explanations designed to dismiss the phenomenon. A costume artist claimed to have been hired to dress up in a suit for the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bluff Creek film. And to the Skeptic, it’s case closed, without any critical look at whether his claim squares with the evidence on screen — whether even a state-of-the-art costume in 1967 could achieve the effect of biologically realistic muscle groups flexing and bulging under the surface of the skin, whether such a costume could achieve the odd limb-to-torso ratio seen in the film, with knees and elbows bending at points impossible for any normal man, and whether the man claiming the hoax in such a costume could achieve the height of the creature, which has been established by multiple methods at well more than seven feet.

Likewise, Ray Wallace claimed to have commissioned some wooden feet and faked prints over a period of a years, and for the Skeptic and Denialist, that’s good enough to explain away all footprints everywhere. “Case closed!” the news anchors proclaimed. Never mind the appearance of the creatures over the entire North American continent since well before European contact. And does it matter to skeptics that the wooden feet don’t match any of the footprints that have been cast or photographed, let alone all of them?

This willingness to accept lame theories that supposedly explain away a persistent phenomenon (all UFOs are ball lightning or swamp gas) without real examination can only be explained as the result of three forces that are strong in the human condition and reveal themselves when humanity is challenged by either supernatural or preternatural experience: ignorance, arrogance, and fear. The circle of ignorance has already been described. Arrogance is manifested in the general assumption that our knowledge of the world around us is surely complete, that we are so clever and in control of our world that we are no longer capable of being surprised or astonished.

The fear is a subconscious misgiving that that arrogance might be unfounded. It is the fear that we humans are not the only game in town. The fear that if such a thing as the sasquatch were real, it would force a profound reexamination of just who we are in the cosmos, and how we should treat a creature that is not quite us (human) but perhaps not quite them (animal).

Another hallmark of the Denialist is his shifting criteria of proof. The Denialist asks, “Why are there no clear photos of a sasquatch?” Show him a clear photo and he says, “This is obviously a hoax?” Ask him why it is a hoax and he says, “It’s too clear. Only a hoax would be this clear.” Show him something less clear and he says, “Well this could be anything!” Whether consciously or subconsciously, he concocts criteria that can never be satisfied.

Tall, Dark, and Not So Handsome (What Are They?)

It would be easier to dismiss the phenomenon if descriptions of the sasquatch were all over the board. But the consistency of the sighting record on subtle physiological points, and the convergence of evidence from film, video, photos, audio, and tracks supporting those reports paints an ever more consistent picture of what we’re dealing with. It is neither Harry of Hendersons fame, nor the pissed-off monster of the Jack Links beef jerky commercials.

Among sasquatches, as among humans, there appears to be both conformity and individuality, and, we might conclude from the consistent reports of subtypes, some differentiation of breed/ethnicity, if not a differentiation of more than one cryptic species.

For a creature yet to be described by science, we have come to a remarkably comprehensive description based on thousands of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of photo, video, and track evidence. This is the picture that is emerging:

The sasquatch is, of course, a primate, and therefore not surprisingly exhibits classic primate physical and social characteristics. With the exception of their size, they appear to exist midway between ourselves and the great apes on a spectrum, physiologically, mentally, and socially. And the more we learn about their behavior, the more likely it seems that in some regards they resemble a very primitive version of ourselves.

  • A large hominid primate that walks upright but can go on all fours for greater speed. Adult females are 7-8 feet tall. Adult males are 8-10 feet.
  • Their bodies are covered in hair — as opposed to fur — 3 to 4 inches long. This hair comes in all shades of human hair: black to brown (most common), auburn, blond (rare), gray (probable elderly), and white (probable albinism).
  • They are characterized by huge bulk and muscle mass. Their shoulders are wider proportionately than humans’, their limbs are thicker, and their torsos appear as deep as wide. Breasts are apparent in females, external genitalia in males.
  • Their faces are characterized by a heavy brow ridge with hair growing from the brow ridge or just above it all the way up the forehead. The head often appears slightly coned, probably from a combination of the shape of the skull exaggerated by the upward-and-backward growth pattern of the hair, though many report longer hair on the heads of some.
  • The eyes are large, as would be expected of a primarily nocturnal creature, but are set so deeply beneath the brow ridge that they are difficult to see except from eye-shine at night. They appear without visible whites.
  • Their nose is small and flat relative to ours, but like ours is hooded, not upturned like those of the apes. There is speculation that this adaptation allows them to swim, in contrast to other great apes. This feature, perhaps more than any other, probably adds to the perception of their faces as “human-like.”
  • Their faces are are usually described as flat, indicating a nose that is vanishingly small in profile relative to ours, but often broad and with large nostrils.
  • Their upper lip is longer than ours and has no cupid’s bow. The mouth is often described simply as a long, level slit, hard to distinguish unless open. Some report pronounced canine teeth.
  • Their jaw is heavy and set slightly forward but not to the extent of the apes’ prognathism.
  • Their skin is typically gray to black in color, which, for the black-haired ones, creates the effect of uniform color head-to-toe.
  • At a distance the most prominent difference from humans, aside from this uniformity of color, is the length of the arms relative to the rest of the body. Whereas humans’ arms are approximately 40 percent of total height, the arms of the sasquatch are some 60 percent of height, likely both a forest and a quadrupedal adaptation. Arm length is the fastest way to separate a hoax from an authentic sighting. The relative proportions of the limbs and the torso are exceedingly hard to fake, especially on video, as the joints would have to be placed at points nearly impossible for a human in costume to make look convincing.
  • When upright, the creature appears to slouch, holding its round-shouldered body at about a 15-degree angle.
  • Its head often appears quite small in relation to its massive shoulders and torso, and its large trapezius muscles attaching at ear level give the appearance of no neck when viewed from the front or back.
  • Like so many of its other traits, its hands appear to be transitioning from those of the great apes to our own, with a thumb that is only slightly opposable.
  • The sasquatch’s feet, which first betrayed its existence to popular culture, are remarkably human in form, the big toe having migrated fully into alignment with the others as opposed to the opposable big toe of the apes. While the top of the foot is hairy, the sole is covered by a thick gray pad, the better for trampling sticks, gravel, and other rough terrain. These “Ostman’s pads” were first described by Albert Ostman, who reported having a multi-day encounter in 1924.
  • However, the feet differ from humans not only in size but in their apparent internal structure. They do not have a ball and arch, but are flat and apparently have a “mid-tarsal break” that allows the back of the foot to move vertically independent of the front. This break, as well as flat-footedness, is present in other great apes. When walking in mud, this hinge results in a signature “pressure ridge,” a lateral hump across the width of the footprint created by the push-off of the forefoot after the lifting of the heel.
  • Lastly, another oft-reported trait is a strong, overwhelming stench. Theories abound, but it is so universal and so strong that it seems it must be the result of a gland not unlike a skunk’s. Witnesses often smell them before they see them. Anthropologist Jeff Meldrum reports that great apes have glands in their arm pits that can likewise give off strong smells.

It is no wonder that a creature so perfectly poised between the rest of the animal kingdom and humans is unsettling to us. Many have described it as a chimera — half man, half ape, but this is only because we have apes as a reference point. The first explorer to encounter the great apes of Africa might well have described them as “half man, half monkey,” and so forth down the tree of life. It seems to simply fill a gap on that tree between apes and men, and, as such, offers fascinating insights into our own evolution, the transition from arborealism to earthbound bipedalism, communication techniques, and even the beginnings of structures.

Many tracks and sightings occur near crude structures of snapped limbs — ground nests not unlike the gorilla’s, but also lean-to’s that appear to serve as shelters. Other teepee-like stick structures appear to mark territorial boundaries or perhaps act as signposts leading the way home. They appear to use broken sticks and rocks to communicate with each other in clacks and knocks and to hurl at intruders. But they appear to have no real tools nor to use fire. This line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom appears to remain bright. Developmentally, they appear to exist just before the dawn of culture.

Masters of Avoidance

If the sasquatch exists, then it has successfully evolved in parallel to homo sapiens, a species that has either out-competed or killed off all other competitor hominids. Therefore, by definition, its greatest evolutionary adaptation must be elusiveness itself.

The sasquatch seems to achieve this uncanny avoidance of humans in several ways.

  • First and foremost, by living where humans typically don’t: in steep, mountainous terrain or in thick cover, and preferably both. They seem to understand what constitutes natural barriers to humans and put as many of those between us and them as possible while still eeking out a living. While there have been numerous sightings on the fringes of human development — rural and occasionally even suburban — the vast majority of sightings have been deep within wilderness, the classic case being along logging roads, which penetrate the deepest. I have noted that most sightings seem to be within or just outside of national forests, not surprising as they allow for that combination of maximum isolation and maximum cover. Life in the mountains and at northern latitudes would be aided partly by their hair but more so by their gigantism, which accords with established biological laws such as Bergmann’s Rule. This holds that animals, even within a type, are larger at northern latitudes than southern. Larger objects have lower surface-to-volume ratios than smaller objects even of identical shapes. The bigger the body, the better the retention of body heat, a law that surely drove similar gigantism during the Pleistocene. (Perhaps sasquatches are to humans as wooly mammoths are to elephants.)
  • The second pillar of their elusiveness is achieved by hunting, foraging, and moving primarily at night; this distinction alone would be a highly effective segregator of humans and sasquatches. Many humans fancy themselves night owls, but watching late-night TV on a couch is quite different from hiking across rainy mountain passes and ambushing game at 3 a.m.

Simply living where we aren’t and being active when we’re not would account for most of the remarkable fact that our scientific institutions have never obtained a specimen. Aside from these two dominant factors, there are others that apparently veil them from us when we inevitably do cross paths:

  • Camouflage. Researchers have noted how their hair coloring and texture, and even the difficulty of making out a face because of the uniformity of color, all aid in their ability to hide from us in plain sight.
  • Statuism. One of the most effective hiding strategies appears to be their ability to stand, squat or sit motionless at the drop of a hat. It’s been suggested that they evolved symbiotically with trees, and much of their hiding strategy involves blending into trees and even mimicking trees, standing stock-still, their coned heads looking for all the world at fifty feet like the top of a snag. The term “tree peeking” has been coined for a sort of fluid peek-a-boo hiding behavior seen on video and in thermal night images, and several have been filmed waving fronds in front of their faces in an apparent attempt to draw the eye to the frond instead of what’s waving it.
  • Arborealism. Juveniles apparently live in trees (see New York state baby video), above our normal field of vision, where their long strong arms, obvious forest adaptations, allow them the life of a gibbon. Naturally the great size for which they’re destined prevents them from staying up there past adolescence, so it’s easy to imagine a period of training whereby they’re taught the ways of effective hiding before the they reach a size that keeps them earthbound. However, adults have been reported coming down out of trees that are up for the task of supporting 600-900 pounds.
  • Aquaticism. While great apes cannot swim, it’s been suggested that the sasquatch’s hooded nose, like ours, allows it to. This would open up a world of mobility not available to other great apes. They could not only traverse streams and rivers but could swim through swamps and across lakes, perhaps between islands. This ability would open up vast wild areas of Canada, for instance, where the chances for contact with humans would be vanishingly small.

Put together, all of these factors — isolation through terrain, cover, elevation, latitude, nocturnal activity, camouflage, statuism, arborealism, and aquaticism — begin to shed light on how it might be possible for a highly intelligent and very versatile creature, whose very evolution has been driven by the need to avoid detection by men, to have escaped scientific cataloguing for two centuries.

Biggest Misconceptions

In struggling to understand how all this could be, it’s instructive to consider the biggest misconceptions about this subject.

1. That there is one creature. In 2012, a Fox News morning show hosted Cliff Barackman of the Animal Planet program Finding Bigfoot, and the jumping off point for the interview, was “Researchers believe there is more than one Bigfoot,” as if that were some startling new revelation.

It should go without saying that if a creature is real, then it is a member of a species with a breeding population — with males, females, and juveniles of all sizes. Belief in the sasquatch does not require belief in anything supernatural. New agers who have tried to co-opt the sasquatch by suggesting it’s related to UFO phenomena or inter-dimensional travel have done massive harm to the cause of what is a purely scientific, zoological subject, albeit a spectacular one. Its remarkable size and elusiveness notwithstanding, the sasquatch is a flesh-and-blood animal, which means that in the end it conforms strictly to biological laws. Moreover, it is by definition a primate, by which we can assume it conforms to numerous laws of primate behavior and physiology, such as that it lives in family groups, cares for and carries its young in certain ways, and so on. And, like us, it is by zoological definition a great ape, by which we can infer even more specific things about its probable diet, communication techniques, territoriality, and so on.

Ironically, bigfoot enthusiasts themselves are to blame for much of this misconception by their continual use of the singular form. “Bigfeet” doesn’t sound quite right as a plural, but “bigfoots” sounds even less correct. The terms bigfoot and sasquatch seem to have established themselves in our linguistic consciousness as singular entities, just as many people will refer to any and all policemen as “Johnny Law” or to any chauffeur as “James.” This is reinforced by capitalization, so that it becomes parallel to other singular legendary creatures, like Babe the Big Blue Ox, or Nessie (who, if real also stands for any member of a breeding population, whose various members have been sighted alone over centuries and therefore taken on a singular identity, “Nessie,” instead of “the nessies”).

On the back cover of Dr. Jeff Meldrum’s excellent book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, we find the headline: “Does sasquatch exist?” Note the singular formulation, even from one of the greatest minds on the subject (or at least from his publisher). We wouldn’t ask, “Does horse exist?” or “Does dog exist?” For this reason, I try to use either the plural “sasquatches,” in which case it would be “Do sasquatches exist?” or when discussing the species “the sasquatch,” while also lowercasing it. (You can always test usage by substituting “horse.”)

This widespread misconception that bigfoot is a single creature may be most to blame for people dismissing it out of hand.

2. That they are limited to the Pacific Northwest. While the Northwest has been the site of the most famous encounters, most people are surprised to learn that there have been sasquatch reports in 49 states and throughout Canada. (If they put a premium on solitude, then Canada almost certainly supports more of them.) Sighting maps show concentrated activity from the lower Rockies and Sierras up through the Cascades and all the way into Alaska, throughout Canada, from Minnesota and down through the forested Midwest, across the Great Lakes to Maine all the way down the Appalachians and into Florida, where it has been known for generations as “the skunk ape,” and west as far as East Texas, reports largely ceasing wherever annual rainfall drops below 40 inches. Forestation, not necessarily mountains, seems to be the common denominator of its habitat. Indeed, if the sighting record is to be believed, millions of Americans and Canadians are within a two-hour drive of a small family group at this moment.

Moreover, there is compelling video evidence of their existence in Poland and Russia, and of course, the numerous reports of the Asian yeti, which in the mid-20th century first stirred Americans’ popular interest in the subject of a living non-human biped.

3. That it is a solitary animal. Many assume that because most reports describe a single individual that they are essentially solitary animals. Experts believe, and primatology would predict, that they move in small family groups, and that for every animal that is seen, there are probably several others hiding nearby. The growing sighting and video record bears this out. Living in small groups as opposed to large ones would be one clear evolutionary adaptation allowing easier avoidance of humans. One intriguing area of research would be what the upper limit of groups would be. In 2008, researchers uncovered a colony of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a Congo swamp, immediately doubling the number of these gorillas thought to exist. There is not enough remote cover to support anything on this order for the sasquatch, but it is intriguing to consider a group of even a few dozen of them living in a virtually unreachable hanging valley or high basin in Alaska or northern Canada.

4. That it is a dangerous monster. Whether the sasquatch constitutes a monster is subjective. As to whether they are dangerous we have a significant amount of data to go on. When humans encounter sasquatches there are several common reactions by the creatures:

Retreating. Usually, they simply walk away nonplussed and within a few moments are too far into cover to be seen anymore.

Hiding. If they believe they have not been seen yet, they exhibit hiding behavior, usually standing behind trees and peeking periodically or squatting in brush or behind logs or boulders.

Intimidating. In accordance with great ape behavior, when they feel their territory or young are being threatened they will harass and intimidate intruders. This often includes throwing rocks from a hidden position, paralleling hikers to “escort” them out of an area, screaming, grunting, oofing, and tree snapping.

Spying. Despite their elusiveness, they seem to have the primate’s signature curiosity, and there is ample video evidence of them spying on human activities such as campfires, sledding, or shooting ranges from what they believe are hidden vantage points.

What is certain is that if they wanted to harm humans, they easily could do so. Their overwhelming size, strength, and speed would make short work of us small, spindly, smooth types. It must be assumed that part of their survival instinct includes avoiding not only contact with humans but conflict as well. I am not aware of any report of a sasquatch killing a human or even attacking one except at a distance with rocks, while there are several reports of sasquatches being shot accidentally by hunters or under the pretense of self defense, an unfortunate but understandable reaction during a moment of extreme shock and fear.

Though physically intimidating in the extreme, fortunately for us it is clear that they are far less dangerous than a common bear. This is far from saying they are not scary. Overwhelming fear is a nearly universal human reaction to an encounter, one so basic that it often commandeers the reaction of even the most curious and adventurous personalities. One witness, who had pulled over in the wee hours of the morning on a road near Lake Conroe north of Houston when he encountered one, reported shaking for two straight days. In this video shot in Colorado, you can hear genuine fear in the voice of a woman watching something she is trying to process. (We cannot know if the subject of this video is authentic, but the reaction certainly seems to be.) Even dogs, renowned for their aggression, run and cower uncharacteristically; this instinct appears to be richly justified in dogs as some have turned up dead in proximity to sasquatch sightings. With apologies to Orwell, the sasquatch rule of thumb appears to be “Two legs bad, four legs food.”

With the exception of its occasional curiosity, it seems the sasquatch’s highest aspiration is to be left alone.

5. That they’re a recent discovery. There is much evidence that humans have had a very long, uneasy relationship with these, our country cousins. Indeed, the cataloguing of the sasquatch may constitute the most protracted “discovery” in our history. No less venerable a document than the Book of Genesis mentions “giants in the earth” (the Nephilim). One of the main characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, is a hirsute wild man. The oldest classic of the English language, Beowulf, places an outsized bipedal monster, “Grendel,” in Denmark. And on it goes, all the way through to the wookie of Star Wars.

Some are fond of ascribing these mythic literary recurrences to Jungian archetypes, ancient mental forms projected into literature from our collective subconscious. But who is to say the kernels of archetypes themselves are not real memories trickling down to us from eons-old run-ins with these creatures? Whatever the case, it seems likely that this is not our first rodeo with the bigfoot.

Why do I care?

I admit that the sasquatch is an unusual topic to occupy the thoughts and the time of a grown man and a city-dwelling white-collar professional. Any enthusiast of a preternatural topic admits it at some risk to his own reputation, and at the very least lays himself open to ribbing by some and eye-rolling or gossip by others. But the volume of literature and TV shows on paranormal topics betrays a huge, if closeted, audience interested in such things.

In a world brimming with pressing issues — starvation and disease, political chaos, international economic crises, climate change, and energy decline — what does this really matter?

For me, the sasquatch mystery is endlessly fascinating for three reasons: First is pure curiosity and wonder. I’m grateful we live in a world where there are still a few mysteries left, and frankly I don’t understand anyone who is not fascinated by this. I’ve wondered whether, in some divine scheme, mysteries like this aren’t meted out to act as intellectual catnip for humanity, teasing our intellect along one maddening question at a time in order to stimulate our own development.

We’re accustomed to going through our days with our thoughts occupied by the pettiness of political races, celebrity hookups and divorces, what the Dow did since noon, weight-loss plans.

Then, one discovers that ten-foot hairy monsters actually exist, and suddenly the rest of it just doesn’t seem that interesting anymore. I often chuckle at myself during the day, riding the bus to work, sitting alone at lunch, head bowed during a worship service, or listening to an erudite lecture, and there it comes, a bigfoot walking along in a Homer Simpson thought bubble. It is never far. Eventually, even obsessions have their ebb and flow, but once you’ve internalized this reality, once you really believe, what passes for “general interest” in the flow of daily life has an increasingly hard time competing.

A corollary to this pure fascination is a natural hunger for discovery. Ours is a world in which every dent and bulge of the globe has been mapped to a fare-thee-well. Every continent has been not only charted, but much of it sold and fenced off. True discovery seems as though it has been pushed either out to deep space or down to the esoteric realm of quantum physics — either way, to places inaccessible to the average Joe.

But here, suddenly, we find a spectacular mystery, nothing subtle about it, something crying out for exploration that certainly doesn’t require a graduate degree to appreciate. Geographic discoveries having been exhausted, adventure has migrated to the zoological frontier. And if part of it attracts the soul of the explorer, another part calls to the soul of the prospector. Any person in the right place at the right time can make a substantial contribution to our body of knowledge, if not land the mother lode — a body itself. Moreover, this frontier is a highly democratic one. No need for wealthy benefactors to fly you to the Himalayas or Africa. It is neither a rich man’s game nor one requiring substantial travel; most Americans regardless of means are right now within a few hours drive of a mind-blowing, society-shaking discovery. All of this swirls to strengthen the allure.

Second, I think the sooner we arrive at a shared understanding of what these creatures are and where they fit into the tree of life, the better chance that they will survive what is surely the greatest test of their existence, the encroachment of humans into their final refuges. With the widespread establishment of large national forests and a burgeoning ethos of conservationism, there’s reason to hope that they might have already weathered our worst.

The third reason I care is the most abstract but perhaps most important. This fascinates me because of the light it sheds on the process of belief and disbelief, extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence. Whether the subject is preternatural, as with bigfoots and UFOs, or supernatural, as with belief in God and spirit, the process of seeking truth is much the same. Our response to a sudden challenge of our view of the world and our place in it is both fascinating and instructive.

In this and all matters that test our frame of reference, I believe …

  1. We should keep an open mind. This does not mean believing everything we hear, or blindly believing anything we hear. Rather this means asking questions in a methodical way and following the answers wherever they may lead.
  2. We should be slow to accuse people of lying, and, especially when they have lived their lives in a way that gives us no reason to suspect them, give them the benefit of the doubt. When these people number in the hundreds, or in the thousands, and hail from all walks of life, this too should be weighed. Likewise we should be slow to dismiss the historical memory of indigenous people. For American Indians, America was not discovered by Christopher Columbus; it was discovered by them when they traversed the Bering land bridge some 15-20,000 years earlier. Likewise, for First Nations people in general, the sasquatch is not in need of being “discovered.” Many are Knowers. They know it to exist and do not need the validation of the scientific arm of Western civilization to certify it into reality. Not that we should give scientific credence to any and all beliefs around the world, no matter how mythological. But the mounting evidence, including the eye-witness testimony of modern Native Americans that accords with their own ancestral traditions, should give us pause.
  3. We should be modest about our knowledge of the world and recognize the astounding discoveries being made every day.
  4. We should be modest about our dominion over that world. We’ve done our worst to pave every inch of it, but it’s still wilder and bigger than we think.

There’s every reason to believe that sightings will not only continue apace but will grow in number and frequency as our own numbers grow, and that the quality of evidence will improve with the march of technology.

And when at long last the debate suffocates under the weight of evidence, and we transition from the age of evidence to the age of proof, we should approach the subject with respect and with awe. As one retired Oklahoma forester Charles Branson put it, “We’ve studied them for a lot of years and know their habits pretty well. … If you see one, just admire it. They’re part of the good Lord’s creation.”

* * *

Exhibits

Below are links to what I consider the most interesting examples of video and photographic evidence. One might wave these off at first glance as hoaxes. The sasquatch’s very proximity to the human form makes this a tempting claim. But closer examination and viewing these alongside known hoaxes helps distinguish them as likely specimens:

We start with the gold standard, the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, what is surely one of the most analyzed pieces of footage in natural history. Though several parties have made competing claims of having hoaxed this footage, it appears that the only hoaxes are the claims of hoaxes. The size of the creature has been confirmed independently multiple times, incorporating landmarks and reenactments using the trackway left by the subject, as over seven feet tall. A digital reconstruction and animation of the subject’s skeleton shows that the limb-to-torso ratios are non-human. Numerous painstaking analyses argue for the film’s authenticity, but the layman can easily see the muscle groups rippling under the hair, including a hernia apparent in the right thigh. The preponderance of evidence gleaned from numerous independent studies argues overwhelmingly in favor of this film’s authenticity. This is a real and uncatalogued animal, and as such, this film represents one of the most important natural history artifacts of all time:

Patterson-Gimlin Film

This segment from a TV show features a 1994 video shot by Paul Freeman in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington:

Freeman Footage

This is high-quality video from 2008 of an unknown ape-like creature high in a tree in a Maine forest. If this is a sasquatch, it is a juvenile. Some dismiss it as a porcupine:

Maine Tree Creature

Game camera trap, Greenbrier, West Virginia. 2011

Greenbrier Subject

Jacobs camera trap subject. Likely juvenile. Pennsylvania, 2008.

Jacobs Subject

A huge curated collection of photos and videos with analysis can be found at the Facebook group “Find Bigfoot.” (Not associated with the TV show Finding Bigfoot. https://www.facebook.com/FindBigfoot

Finally, just for fun, here is poster collage I made using the many plausible photographs of the creatures.

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