She has been asking about it almost daily for weeks and finally we’re making it happen, a camp out for just Brenna and me. I liked what I saw last week motorcycling around Little Jacks Creek so that’s where we are headed with hot dogs, marshmallows and our best hiking flip-flops.
When her mom and sister’s weekend flight to Cabo was cancelled (mechanical issues) it put the kibosh on mine and Brenna’s coterminous camping plans. Brenna handled it with aplomb.
“Fine! I’m not camping.”
A walk to McDonald’s put her in a more amenable mood. A few days later the rest of the family has departed and Brenna and I are down the road toward Little Jacks Creek, part of the rugged Owyhee Canyonlands.¹
I notice roadside fences fully engulfed in tumbleweeds and think Brenna might be curious to see them up close but some imaginary purpose sends her running instead to the empty horizon as soon as we pull to the side of the highway.
I was enjoying cruise control and NPR along quiet Simco Road until Brenna complained she was feeling sick. “It’s just the talking that hurts my head,” she explained. Pop music made it better.
An ardent anthropomorphizer, Brenna returns, selects a small weed and asks, “Can I bring Tumble with us?” It’s a good name for a tumbleweed.
“Sure.” Why not.
A pair of Mountain Home F-16s circle continuously like raptors above their desert prey but there’s little terrestrial (or telestial) traffic during our mid-day drive. Off the asphalt after an hour, we roll over a dirt swell with some speed.
“That tickled my private place,” Brenna giggles loudly.
“We say it gave us butterflies,” I suggest, smiling.
“Do you want to keep us on track?” I ask Brenna, handing her the GPS. I was here last week¹ and don’t really need it but she might like the responsibility. Besides, at least one other person in the house should learn to read a map.
“Are we on track?” I ask occasionally.
She studies the screen a while longer before observing, “Dad, there’s a big white thing in the road. Is it a boulder?”
I glance over and see a white waypoint dot has scrolled into view on the GPS.
Strong wind gusts make setting up the tent a real challenge. I get one stake in only to have it pivot on that corner before I can leap to the next. It takes a series of heavy rocks and curse words to finally get it fixed in place.
While I loaded the tent with our King Solomon sleeping bag¹ and pillows and aired up the mattresses, Brenna has donned an Elsa (Snow Queen of Disney’s “Frozen” movie, obviously) ice cape and established a fairy princess colony in the lee of the adjacent outcrop.
“Ready to go exploring?” I ask.
“Can I stay here?” she asks in turn, as if I might really leave her here alone in the desert along a cliff for a few hours.
For both of us, these trips are as much about discovery and imagination as relaxation. She’s keen to explore and makes no argument about leaving her dolls for a bit.
Our goal is to get down to the creek so we begin following the gorge downstream expecting its depth might lessen and allow a way in.
Brenna is a bit upset that I said we’d be in a desert. It’s not the sandy expanse she pictured. “What’s so special about this place?” she asks with an air of incredulity as we walk.
“Well, it used to be underwater,” I begin. “And there were volcanoes.” (Volcanoes are always special.) “Then after the lake was gone, water drained out of those mountains,” I say, gesturing south, “and cut through the old lake mud and deep into this rock.”
“How can the water cut?” she asks.
“It takes a really long time.”
Ten minutes from camp we see a place that might let us in. We zig-zag carefully down steep scree to a shelf below a mass of overhanging rock.
Brenna is intrigued by scattered skeletal remains and begs to collect some.
The shelf we’re on is above a twenty foot sheer drop to the water. We’re close but we can’t get there from here. “This was cool to see, though, wasn’t it?” I ask Brenna.
We hike back to camp and drop off the bones before setting out in the opposite direction along the gorge. Brenna wants me to promise we’ll get to the water this way. “I can’t promise, sweetie,” I explain, “but we’ll do our best.” That’s how adventure works.
As we descend a similar area of loose rocks among outcrops, Brenna is finding “friends” and “toys,” left and right. For a while two sticks held in the shape of an “X” is Mr. X. He’s a real jabberbox. “I need Mr. X to be quiet now,” I finally tell her.
Then a couple rocks are deemed blocks, complete with engine noises. Vroom.
Two-thirds of the way down, it still isn’t clear we’ll make it. “Watch carefully where you put your feet,” I remind Brenna. She’s probably tired of hearing me say that but there are plenty of ways to fall around here.
“I’m on a map of America,” Brenna announces after I lower her to a flat rock below. I see what she means. There’s Florida and the outline of Texas in the cracks under her feet.
Hooray! There were a couple more places where I had to lower Brenna but we’ve made it. We’re in the slot canyon of Little Jacks Creek.
Brenna resumes the persona of Queen Elsa as she runs along shouting orders at twigs and rocks.
While Brenna is busy with her imagination, I step into the ice cold creek to see if my own imagination is helped at all by the variable neutral density filter I picked up with the last round of gear acquisition syndrome.
“Look up there,” Brenna instructs, pointing at the cliff wall somewhere above. “Do you see where it goes like this?” she asks, making some motion with her hands.
“Yeah.” I’m lying but expect to figure it out in a moment.
“There’s a monkey face above that!”
I take a second to scan the wall and sure enough, one column of rock is topped with what looks like a monkey face. “Ha! You’re right. That’s funny.”
I don’t know how the pictures will come out but this variable ND is quite the handy tool.
I am alarmed when I hear Brenna scream. “What is it?!” I yell, ready to bolt.
She was playing with one then noticed there are dozens, maybe hundreds, crawling everywhere.
“Yeah, that’s creepy,” I acknowledge. “Want me to carry you a bit?”
I set her on a shelf by the water which I’m first made to inspect for caterpillars. “Want to play some games on my phone?” I ask. “I’m going to take a few pictures here.”
“Okay,” she answers. I figure it will get her mind off the caterpillars.
“I’m cold, dad,” Brenna says with a whimper. The wind has been continuous since we arrived and now the temperature is starting to drop.
“Okay, we’ll head back in a second. You’ll warm up when we start climbing out.”
If there’s a place well suited to the practice of magic, Disney or otherwise, it might be here in these slot canyons hidden hundreds of feet below a barren surface, invisible until you’re upon them. Inside, as if by a supernatural act, is another world.
“Look at that Brenna!” I exclaim while carrying her back through the creek.
“Right there,” I point. “It’s like a little crab.”
“I see it!” she says with excitement.
“It’s called a crawdad,” I explain.
“Will it pinch you?” she wonders.
“I guess it could,” I answer.
We are quite hungry by the time we get back to camp. Continuing gusty winds won’t let us make a fire in the ring I made earlier so we set up another in the lee of the outcrop that doubles as fairyville.
“I’m going to take a nap to warm up,” Brenna says. (I think she just likes hanging out in the little tent.) “Can you tell me when the fire is ready?”
Relentless quips and questions from the tent make me think she might not be napping. I let her know coals are ready and she comes out to cook her hot dog.
After a minute working out chair footing around the relocated fire pit, I sit and relax against my backrest only to begin an immediate, inexorable tip backwards. It’s downhill. There’s nothing to grab. I brace for impact.
“Are you okay, dad?” Brenna sounds a little concerned. She hasn’t seen me laid flat on my back like this.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” The real tragedy is the beer I see dumping out of the cup holder.
After I’m back up and obviously alright, Brenna confesses, “it was kind of funny.”
“It was funny,” I admit.
“Write your name with your flashlight,” I suggest.
“What do you mean?”
I forgot she hasn’t done this before. “Draw the letters in the air,” I explain. Her light painting comes out pretty well for a first effort.
Then I write mine. She’s pretty impressed even though my “s” is backwards (or forwards considering you have to write backwards for the photo).
She is excited after we take another long exposure of her twirling with her pink princess flashlight by the tent. “You can’t even see me!” she says as we review the picture.
We sleep pretty well. The tent flaps in the wind through the night but Brenna falls right to sleep and I eventually get used to it.
We have a deluxe breakfast of hash browns, bacon and a muffin — much nicer than the granola bar or instant oatmeal I have when camping off the motorcycle.
I am getting the impression Brenna will never say she’s ready to leave so I begin slowly packing up.
“I was still going to take a nap!” she protests.
I continue removing the rain fly as she hurries to crawl in the tent.
“This is so cool,” she says through the exposed netting.
I guess I’ll mosey around and look at stuff while Brenna is having her “nap.” As I get nearer the cliffs I hear a yell that could almost be coming from her mom: “Be careful, dad!”
While I’m still poking around, Brenna has started building her own little fire. I’ve noticed five or six old cow pies around so I grab one for her fire. It will make good coals (probably learned that from Louis L’Amour).
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Cow poop,” I answer. She looks at me skeptically. “No, really.”
Soon we’re both scrounging around for poop. She puts some under her chair. “I’m going to keep some poop under here,” she explains. Works for me.
She is still upset to break camp but making her own fire seemed to help.
“We’ll stop and explore some more,” I promise her.
Down the dirt road some ways my eye is caught by white outcrops some fifty yards off the track. We stop to check it out.
To all with eyes to see, the columns of white sediment are Queen Elsa’s ice castle. Brenna hastens to put her royal affairs in order (campout theme).
I feel joy watching Brenna absorbed in play, casting vigorous ice spells with million-year-old ash on a landscape that looks empty but to her is a wonderland.
It is fascinating to see the variations of color and density in these ancient lakebed layers understanding that each represents some geological event that would have been awesome to behold.
I am captivated by one small area where intricate fluid forms shaped by forces active longer than the lives of everyone who’s existed are nonetheless so delicate they would crumble if touched. “Don’t step there,” I caution Brenna when she comes near. It’s hallowed ground.
“Smoke Ahead” a sign warns as we’re returning along Simco Road. Finally we see why: BLM trucks spraying fire on those mounds of tumbleweeds we saw yesterday.
“It’s a good thing we rescued Tumble yesterday,” I tell Brenna.
“It’s so sad,” she laments. “Why are they doing that?”
While Brenna was exerting her ice influence across the Owyhee Desert, I was poking around, noticing bits on the ground that might be fossils to a trained eye. One piece looked like a fish vertebrae. The piece I was sure of was a mollusc shell locked in rock.
Back home we’re having a look at it and a couple other pieces under the microscope. Frankly, we’re too ignorant to make much of it but it’s interesting to see under the microscope some of the shine still on the shell. It’s more to teach Brenna to be inquisitive to the end.
Reading the news now that we’re home, I see the Owyhees in the short couple days we were gone have held up their reputation as a place that can be unforgiving. Two children were injured and one Sara Bronson lost her life out there this morning, not far from us.¹ A John Martineau was lost or stuck overnight not far from us.² And in the western Owyhees, Tarah Colwell was trapped in a ravine in her crashed car.³
That is why I so often make you hold my hand, Brenna — to keep you safe. Now let’s go get some ice cream.