Another Memorial Weekend, another desert camping trip with Brenna, this time featuring a venomous antagonist and a Ninja Warrior competition.
It takes a little thinking to come up with a campsite meeting my Memorial Weekend criteria: probably not busy, easy to reach in our tiny car, not under snow (obviously), not a repeat of recent years, and geologically interesting.
Our winner is the North Fork Crossing recreation area in the Idaho Owyhees near Oregon. I’ve only been there by motorbike and that several years ago¹ but it stuck in my mind as a place I’d like to explore.
“That guy was talking to you,” Brenna tells me as I’m crouched inside the tent, inflating our mattresses. I couldn’t hear anything over my own huffing and puffing so had no idea anyone was even out there. “He said there’s a rattlesnake by that tree,” she explains, pointing to where the access road passes our site.
We thus tread warily when we set out for a short survey of the campground. Happily, we don’t see or hear a snake. We exchange greetings with a couple other campers before stopping a minute downstream to take in the sights at the river’s edge.
The quick rattle is almost a buzz. I jerk my head to see the snake coiled in the grass at the edge of the road a few feet ahead. We’re walking back by our campsite, returning from our little tour. We just passed the tree we were warned about.
“Just be still,” I tell Brenna casually. I think we’re well beyond the rattlesnake’s reach but maybe it’s a good teaching moment. It disappears almost immediately into tall grass so we continue (warily again) down the road and over a bridge where I expect to find a path following the river upstream. The road itself turns and climbs away from the river.
Beyond a sagging wire fence only a few paces from the road, we encounter only brush — no trail. We had enough with ticks last spring¹ so aren’t interested in bushwacking. We decide to return to camp and plan something else for our afternoon.
Brenna has decided she doesn’t want to hike anymore. After a little haggling I finally pull out the big guns: “It’s not a choice.” If I wasn’t sure she would actually enjoy it after a few minutes I would be more accommodating. Having an enjoyable time is the goal.
We begin walking up the road toward a rocky knoll above the canyon. As expected, she’s quickly engrossed in a hundred things around us and grumbling is forgotten.
Soon she has taken the lead and is calling me to come see this or that. She walks ahead, out on a small outcrop overlooking the campground below. I pause and watch her stand alone, taking in the quintessential western landscape.
Like Brenna — like all of us, I wager — I often expect future circumstances to affect my happiness more than they actually do. Expectations fill my thoughts. For Brenna, having to walk up this hill was sure to be terrible. We get older and our hills turn into things like relationships and finances — our imagined happiness hinged to a future always looming large with good or ill.
We have lived lifetimes that tell us better, of course. Never has the new thing made us permanently happier or sadder.¹ Even Brenna has had this experience enough to know she usually has fun after she overcomes the negative expectation.
“Our brains sometimes trick us,” I often explain to her, hoping we’re both able to observe and recognize which of our passing thoughts to indulge and which, even though normal expressions of the human condition, should be left to pass out of mind — self-awareness without self-criticism.
Philip Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1978, Vol. 36, No. 8, 917–927: pages.ucsd.edu/…/Class 3 - Brickman 1978
“I like the way it smells,” I say as we leave the road and start climbing among junipers and lupine.
“Yeah,” Brenna answers thoughtfully.
Brenna is now distracted by some new delight every few paces — a butterfly, a bug, a flower, a hole in the ground surely harboring some cute creature. I’m not sure we’ll ever get up this hill.
After much delightful dallying, we hop and climb through a final outcrop to reach the day’s humble summit.
This landscape spread before us is not uncommon in states to the south but in Idaho, it’s unique. It’s the only place you’ll find these stands of junipers and their particular, herbal smells. “Seven pinyon-juniper woodland communities are recognized as occurring exclusively in Idaho; all are ranked most rare.”¹
Some of the gnarled trees, like one we passed on our way up here, are over 500 years old. Others we passed will remain standing long after we’re gone — perhaps after this nation is gone. What will the lives be like of people then brushing past the same branches we’ve touched today, looking out at this same horizon?
If you’ve read much of our travels, you know I love little landscapes underfoot as much as broad vistas. My experience of them is connected in some way to memories of lying on my side as a boy, head resting on one arm as I push little cars with the other, watching their wheels turn over ground enlarged within imagined stories of good and evil.
Red Owyhee rocks make vivid tableaus of their diverse flora. When I pause to consider the inscrutable details of moss and lichen, an adorning symbiosis, it’s like looking up at stars arrayed across a black sky, a mystery both visible and beyond seeing.
Climbing over rocks unchanged in a thousand generations always helps restore some perspective on modern lives divided carefully into minutes and seconds, each space in the grid accounted for and offering to remind us with a beep or buzz.
Like her parents, Brenna enjoys putting hands and feet to use scrambling around rock faces. I watch with only mild concern as she moves near high drops.
“Let’s leave that for other people to enjoy,” I usually suggest when Brenna is curious to see what will result if a branch is broken or stones shattered. But sometimes science does demand we push a few rocks over a ledge.
“Are you ready to walk back?,” I ask Brenna. “We’ll start the fire for dinner.”
She might like to play here longer but is content to depart, apparently, if we make a slow moving gymnastics show of it.
I delight to watch Brenna reveling in her abilities and imaginings.
After every rock and tree has been surmounted, we’re able to proceed back to the road and down to our campsite. “I didn’t think it would be fun,” Brenna announces, “but it was.”
Of course it was.
As I’m preparing the fire ring for dinner roasting, Brenna is building an elaborate estate of twigs and flowers for her Littlest Pet Shops. I hear her voicing their ideas and disagreements, and behind that, the constant chatter of birds, the buzz of an occasional bee, and light wind causing all the grasses to dance and sway, then hold still — nature’s game of Simon Says.
“Come see!” she finally calls.
A twig house with thatched roof stands perhaps five inches tall at the end of a lane lined with flowers propped up with other twigs.
“That’s really cool,” I say admiringly. “You created a lot of detail.”
When we passed the high bank where the road leaves the river to switch back-and-forth out of the canyon, Brenna made me promise we’d come back so she could climb it. We make it our last little excursion before dinner.
“Like American Ninja Warrior,” Brenna calls as she leaps from one spot to the next, clutching somewhat dramatically to some bit of exposed root to avoid sliding down.
“This mud feels so smooth,” she informs me, having grabbed handfuls from the roadside ditch after a first failed attempt to scale the high bank.
After a short break, she clambers again for the top.
Time ebbs and weaves, sometimes forming an eddy, a threatening vortex. It can feel like we’re going nowhere, that we’re stuck or even moving backwards. The wisdom of nature is to remind us that the currents we feel around us are only small ripples at the edge of a vast river flowing long before and long after us.
Climbing a dirt bank requires some clean-up.
Done with excursions, we sit side-by-side in folding chairs around our small fire, slowly eating hot dogs as daylight slips away.
Brenna asks me to listen to her read from the book she brought. I’m only too happy to oblige. I didn’t remember there being a second Chocolate Factory book so it’s kind of interesting to hear of Charlie’s ongoing, fantastical (outer-space!) adventures.
“Hopefully next time we go camping we’ll be able to ride the motorcycle,” I say, thinking she’ll be excited for that idea. We’re just waiting on some luggage to arrive to make it feasible.
Brenna is improvising notes on her recorder. She happens upon a sequence that has a kind of snake charming, Middle Eastern sound. She pauses to write the notes on a piece of paper so she won’t forget then resumes playing.
“Are you okay? What happened?” I ask when I hear a shuffle and turn to see Brenna lying on the ground, having risen to walk just a few steps to the car.
“I think an ant pushed me over,” she dead-pans.
I love it.
“Look dad, I wrote our names,” Brenna shows me in the morning. I’ve been up a while, having coffee and jotting down notes for a possible write-up. She’s always been able to sleep well in the tent so I try to let her be as long as possible.
“Why do you keep throwing it by the snake!?” I ask with mock exasperation. Brenna answers by laughing hysterically.
We are having a little Frisbee toss before we trek home. She’s thrown it repeatedly into tall grass not far from the snake who we’ve dubbed “Rattle-Butt.”
So ends another wonderful if small adventure with Brenna the kid.