The most widely-read item on this blog was posted July 5, when I ran an excerpt from my unpublished book about going out West with the boys in 2009. That vignette involved setting fire to Nevada. This episode reveals a similar moment of dunderhead dadhood. Despite how bad I look, it's perhaps my favorite scene in the whole book: our first hike—or, rather, attempted hike—in Yellowstone. Trust me, I'm generally not as crappy a parent as I seem here. At least I hope I'm not.
The boys filled their Camelbaks with water, I loaded my backpack with provisions — Clif bars, a big bag of trail mix, cans of Spam; we’d have a Spam feast atop Avalanche Peak. Ross insisted on bringing a hardback book. That seemed unwise to me, and I started to argue with him, then stopped — why not let him suffer the consequences? I’ve always been a consequences parent — Edie will argue every day, all winter long, over whether it’s cold enough to wear a coat. Me, I tell them, do what you like, but if you’re cold, don’t blame me. I think they learn better that way. If Ross wanted to haul a heavy hardback book up Avalanche Peak, that’s his choice.
“I’m not going to carry it for you,” I promised.
Cody, Wyoming is not actually next to Yellowstone National Park. I thought they were adjacent. They look close to each other on the map. An inch or so. But that inch translates out to 52 miles apart, which is a considerable distance.
We finally arrived at the entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the mother park of America, founded in 1872 by John Muir, template for Jellystone, beloved home of Yogi and Boo Boo Bear. We’d made it. I felt like crying. We were really here.
Well, I was really here. The boys were not with me at all. Oh, they were in the van. Physically here. But on a different plane. Arriving at the park didn’t seem to wow them. While I searched for the Avalanche Peak trailhead — it was supposed to be just beyond the East Gate — Ross was focused on his socks. I had brought him a pair of Wigwam thick gray wool socks — hiking socks, since we would be hiking — but he wasn’t about to wear them. Why had I not brought his white Hanes socks? He scolded me. He would not wear socks that weren’t Hanes. The importance of a specific variety of sock was news to me, and not welcome news.
While having this discussion, I realized we had missed the trailhead — I drove past the point where it should have been. Map crumpled between myself and the steering wheel, I threw the van into a three-point turn — worried about somebody zipping around the curve and T-boning us — and tried again.
“There’s got to be a pair in the back,” I was saying, working the wheel, looking hard over my shoulder. “I saw them.”
“I looked and they’re just not here,” Ross was saying, turned around in his seat.
“If you wanted to take white socks you should have taken them,” Kent chimed in.
“I can’t wear boots without socks; I’ll hike in my Crocs,” Ross said. We passed where the trail was supposed to be again.
“Can’t you boys help me?” I shouted. “I’m looking for this goddamn trailhead and you idiots are fighting over socks. Can’t you be grown up for a second, shut your mouths and open your eyes and find this goddamn trail?”
“What did I do wrong?” said Kent, in a small voice.
That put a chill in the air. I calmed down, apologized, and we saw the trailhead — marked by a small sign directly across the road from a parking lot; the lot had drawn my attention so that I missed the sign. We pulled into the lot and parked.
We got our packs out. Ross found a pair of acceptable white gym socks in his luggage — we hadn’t taken it all into the motel. I posed the boys next to the small “AVALANCHE PEAK” sign across the road, for documentary purposes, then we headed up a slope of brown dirt, punctuated by broken chunks of stone and sprays of green grass, and into the pine trees that blanketed the hillside. It was just steep enough to focus our attention. But not arduous. We were still hiking, not climbing.
“The guide books say it’s a challenge, but it leads to the prettiest view in the park,” I announced, by way of encouragement.
Ross surged ahead, disappearing up the trail. Kent ran into trouble almost immediately. His knees hurt. His head hurt. His stomach hurt. I goaded him forward. This was the first hike — an easy two hours to the top. The most spectacular view in the park. He can do it. He took a few steps forward, complaining mightily.
No, he said, he can’t. He can’t do it. Kent stopped, bracing himself against a tree.
“Ross!” I yelled up the trail. “Ross, wait up! We’re having a problem here.”
I looked at Kent. He gave me what I interpreted as an “Is he buying this?” look. I fished a Clif bar out of my pack — Chocolate Brownie, the n’est plus ultra flavor, the star of the Clif bar family of soft chewy trail food.
“Here,” I said, soothingly. “Eat this. Sit down. You’ll feel better.”
Kent sat on a rock and ate the brownie bar. I watched him. Putting him in a fireman’s carry and dragging him up the mountainside was not an option. Ross came clumping back down the trail.
“How do you feel?” I said.
Kent looked at me, his face all squinched up.
“My knees hurt,” he said, massaging them, in my view for dramatic effect. “I have a headache. And I’m nauseous.”
“Rest there a second,” I said.
“He’s faking,” Ross said.
“Ross please,” I said. Ross took off his backpack, dug out his book — Locked Inside by Nancy Werlin — and started to read, sitting on a log at the side of the trail.
“C’mon Kent,” I said. “You don’t want us to leave you here. You want to go to the top with us, don’t you? You don’t want to have to go back to the van.”
“I want to go back to the van,” he said, with conviction.
“We won’t be back for four hours — you want to sit there for four hours?”
I recognized that tone in his voice. He had dug in. He really wanted to go back down. He meant it. He was bailing out. I looked at my watch. Not 10 minutes. We hadn’t made it 10 minutes up the trail. Why had I not anticipated this? We looked at each other.
“Okay fine,” I said, digging the keys out of my belt pack. “Go back to the car, wait there for us.”
He looked at me dubiously. I shook the keys at him.
“Go on,” I said. “You don’t feel well, okay fine, go back to the car, rest and we’ll be there in four hours.” I was angry.
“I can’t do it,” he said.
“Sure you can. Just follow the trail back. Look both ways crossing the road.”
“Come with me,” he implored. “I don’t want to go by myself.” The boy had a point. I looked at Ross, sitting on the trail, lost in his book, not paying attention.
“You wait right here,” I said. “Do not move from this spot for any reason. Got it?”
“See,” he said, not looking up. “You told me I wouldn’t need this book, and now I do.”
“Just don’t go anywhere. I’m taking Kent to the car, and I’m coming right back.”
We headed down the trail. I thought my immediate suggestion that he go back would shock him, spur him forward, but it hadn’t. I meant going back to the van as a threat, not as an option. We plodded forward in silence. The trail cut to the left and right. At places we lost it — it was crossed by small streams, bringing melt-off down from the mountain, and we’d mistakenly follow the path of the water, or follow an open section of woods when the trail was actually under the water.
“Is this what you want to be? A quitter?" I asked, as we clomped downhill. "You know what this is about. You can’t whine and quit your way through life. Quitting is not a success strategy. You can’t quit your way to the top.”
“I … don’t … feel … well,” he said. We pushed through branches — the trail was gone. We doubled back but couldn’t find it. At time the woods got so thick we couldn’t proceed forward, and had to shift direction, claw our way sideways, perpendicular to the slope, until we found a narrow path so we could push toward the next clearing. I kept hoping we’d cut back across the trail, but we didn’t.
“That’s okay,” I said. “All we have to do is go downhill and we’ll end up back at the road eventually.” We crashed through the trees. I led, trying not to let the branches snap back into Kent’s face. Lower branches scoured us as we tried to navigate through to the open spaces.
“We could still go back,” I said. “You could hike with Ross and me.”
“This is what we came for — we drove 1,500 miles. We’re in Yellowstone National Park. What about the other hikes?”
He didn’t reply.
It was slow going — I jammed my boot between two tree roots, but luckily didn’t twist it. Kent uttered a cry — he cut his leg on a branch.
This was taking longer than it should have. We hadn’t hiked up 10 minutes and we had already taken longer hiking down. Unbelievable — not a half hour after setting foot in Yellowstone and we were already lost, off the trail, separated from each other and blundering down a steep, densely-wooded hillside. Just lovely. What if we didn’t come out on the road? What if we had somehow gotten turned around and never hit the road? What if Ross decided to push on without us? This was teetering on the brink of being something, not merely inconvenient, but menacing — not just a screw-up or a problem, but a crisis. I could feel the vague contours of Something Bad forming in the back of my mind.
At least I hadn’t sent Kent back down the trail alone. As we struggled to get back to the parking lot, it dawned on me what a truly stupid impulse that had been. It frightened me, to realize that I was capable of such folly, that I had even momentarily been ready to send my 12-year-old son off into the vastness of Yellowstone National Park by himself. As bad as our being lost was, at least we were lost together; he wasn’t lost without me.
“You know how this would end if this were a story?” I huffed. “This would end by you getting to the car and deciding to go back up the hill with me.”
He stopped, and fixed me a look and said, “Sometimes the story doesn’t end the way you want it to.”
We came out at the road — at last! —100 feet from where we had entered. We walked back to the parking lot. There were picnic tables and a small lake to the left. This is a bad idea, I thought. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and looked at it, weighing it in the palm of my hand, wondering whether I should call Edie and … what? Tell her I was facing a parenting dilemma — one boy wanting to go up, one boy wanting to go back — and didn’t know what to do. Help me Edie help me. Should we all get back into the van, go to the hotel and … what? Watch “SpongeBob?”
I folded the phone and tucked in into my pocket. Figure it out, dad. I sat Kent down by the open door of the van, got the First Aid kid out of the backpack.
“That doesn’t look too bad,” I said, dabbing his cut with an antiseptic pad while he cringed and twisted away.
“Hold still,” I said. “Geez, I’m just cleaning it off. Don’t be a baby.”
I put a bandage on his leg.
“There — you wanna come back up with me and hike with us. Come back up. C’mon!”
“You’re going to sit here for four hours?”
“I don’t want you just eating Clif bars.”
“Here’s the keys, so you can listen to the radio,” I said. “You can sit and read at that picnic table if you want.”
“I’m not going to.”
“Just lock the car if you leave. And keep it locked, while you’re in it.”
“But don’t start it up. Not for any reason.”
I looked at him through the tinted glass. He’d be safe there. You have to pay a hefty entrance fee to get into a national park, which must cut down significantly on the drifter/lunatic population. I started back up the hillside, passing the “AVALANCHE PEAK” sign that we all had posed so bravely beside, a half hour earlier. Just before entering the trees I paused, looked back at the van for a moment, then headed up the mountainside.