How I Spent Their Summer Vacation
When they are only 5, you wonder if they can keep up along the trail. And when they are 13, you wonder if they haven’t already left you behind.
This summer we went to the beach, of course, and we also went to the mountains. And on our first night in the mountains I had just zipped the tent over my kids’ heads when an owl called. It sounded periodically from deep in the poplar and hemlock forest, rising above a nearby stream and tolling like the voice of loneliness itself.
I hooted back, and the owl answered.
My oldest daughter had seen this routine before, had grown up watching me squawk at every peep and noise from the woods and waters. Owls, ducks, doves, squirrels, elk, turkey … I can mimic them all, and when I’m on I can drive some of them to the point of hysteria.
When my oldest daughter was 5, like her younger sister is now, this delighted her.
But at 13, and with only a precious bit of monkey business left in her, she now just sort of smiles, rolls over in her sleeping bag and humors me. My youngest still thinks I’m Tarzan.
“Call him again!” said Alix. And I did call the owl for her again and again until she had worn out both me and the bird.
I understood that she was excited, this being her first backpacking trip. But, of course, she could not understand that, to me, our little weekend camp-out was more than just a trip. It was, admittedly, a rather self-conscious attempt to make up for all the expeditions and outings that, over the years, can somehow get forgotten just as soon as they are promised. Or maybe it was simply to make amends for the daily absences that can accrue even when father and child are both in the same room, at the same table. I’m not quite sure which it was.
But in any case, my youngest, Alix, was about to start kindergarten in the coming fall, and that is the sort of last-child milestone that wakes you up one morning, makes you gulp hard, and try to hold on tight. My oldest daughter, Colby, starts high school next year, and that is the kind of milestone that makes a father gulp hard and try to learn to let go.
So this summer was my time to grab them both up and say, “Wait, there are things we have not yet done.” It became my mission, of sorts, to take them outside more often, to point to things and say, “Look at this.” Forget about ecology and conservation and all the nervous eco-babble of the great outdoors. Just look at this feather, this leaf, this bug.
And look closely, because the world beyond the sidewalk is important.
So on the last day of middle school this past summer—eager to march them both toward a better appreciation of nature—I waited impatiently among the cars of other impatient parents waiting to pick up their kids, tapping my right thumb in agitation on the dashboard.
I waited for our oldest daughter to wrench herself away from the yearbook signings, the hugs and maudlin good-byes, waited through two hours of hellish traffic and the daggers of insecurity that pass through fathers at unexpected moments, waited for the eight lanes to fall to four, then two, then to white-line blacktop, and eventually to a gravel road that wound into the mountains, where at last we shouldered our packs and walked into the woods along a wilderness river.
At the trailhead, Alix picked up a walking stick, and at first she led our charge down the trail with sneakers clomping and tiny chest puffing. But soon her joyous dash had become a walk, and then the walk a foot-dragging contest, until at last she and her ever-patient mom had fallen hopelessly, happily behind.
When they are only 5, you wonder if they can keep up. But when they are 13, you wonder if they haven’t already left you along the trail.
The next afternoon, I watched my oldest daughter daydreaming on a boulder in the middle of the stream, staring off into the rivulets of adolescence. Watching her on the rock in the river, I could not help but wonder where she really was, wonder if she, too, knows that she is literally being swept from my grasp by the mean currents of nature itself.
Underwater, her brown eyes flutter excitedly behind the dime-store goggles. They are my eyes, looking back at me from 35 years.
I wonder if she sees the water at all. Or the trees, or the mountainside. But I know that she does, or that she will someday see it all as new again because of this trip and many others like it.
I know this because she lived a substantial part of her first year in the back of a pickup truck on an endless summer of park-and-pitch camping through the Rockies. In fact, she uttered her first words from the confines of a car seat as I bounced our old black Ford F-150 through Idaho. A hundred miles into the Clearwater National Forest, my 9-month-old girl looked up at me, wide-eyed and wobble-headed, and said, “Bumpy woad.”
She was raised in the mountains, but it has been so long now that I wonder how much of them she remembers. At times, I wonder how much of it “took,” and at others how much I can still give either of them.
So this summer I also took them to the beach, a surfside bungalow in the Florida Panhandle on the edge of Gulf Islands National Seashore. There the sea is gentle, the gulls are high, and the drip castles are wide.
By day we snorkeled and shelled and fished and slept and looked at everything from porpoises to periwinkles. Recently, Alix has learned to swim, and this year she began to explore the sea with her “gogglers.”
In fact, we had to swim in shifts to keep up with her rapture for water. During one of my watches, I taught her to dive under the waves and to look at the small pompano fluttering at our toes like silver phantoms. And I showed her how two swimmers can drop below the surface and still see each other through foggy glass.
Underwater, her brown eyes flutter excitedly behind the dime-store goggles. They are my eyes, looking back at me from 35 years. And she smiles because, yes, she can see me, too. As I watch her suspended under the breakers, tiny bubbles escape from her nostrils. Her cheeks are puffed up to keep in the air, and her gossamer hair drifts with the current. I can still see her there right now, floating in the breathless joy that only a 5-year-old can experience and only a father can understand.
One evening, I got the bright idea to take my oldest daughter night-snorkeling. I assured her that I have a waterproof flashlight and have done this before, that we would see a whole new world at night. But she was dubious. No longer a child, she knows that I sometimes still can be.
“All right,” I said. “How about I check it out tonight while y’all walk on the beach. If it’s any good, we’ll both go tomorrow night.”
“OK. That sounds fun,” she says.
Thrashing out to sea, I fall forward into the hammering surf. However, rather than the circus of marine life I had hoped for, my feeble circle of light reveals only the barren sands of a Gulf in stasis. The tide is wrong, or the temperature, or something, and despite a few whoops and hollers from the surf, I have not convinced the family that night-diving is something they should be trying. My wife and kids huddle quietly under the stars on a sandy towel, waiting for me to come dry off and walk them down the beach with my light.
Wallowing in the surf, I suddenly feel stupid. And I think they think I am stupid, mainly because at times like this I act stupid, like a father. But still I try, still encourage them to look beyond the sidewalk and dive beneath the sea, and to listen to the frogs and the crickets and the owls.
Sometimes, they even listen to me.
By 10 o’clock on our first night in the mountains, the owl had marked me for a fool. But to my youngest daughter I was a hero. So I closed the tent on myself, too, and listened to the river and the night and the squirming kids. The owl called a few more times, settling us into sleep.
And I would have sworn that the whole world was asleep, until a small voice uttered the final words of the evening. It was the voice of untempered excitement, muffled only by a hand-me-down sleeping bag during her first big trip to the forest.
“This is great!” she whispered, speaking joy and sound sleep to us all. ✦