The time has arrived: our first camping trip together off the motorcycle. Brenna and I ride together from Boise on back roads to Prairie then up and over Trinity Mountain.
It may be the roughest part of the whole ride but Brenna seemed to like the rocky trail from Boise to Bonneville Point just fine. It’s hot here in the open, on a parched hill overlooking the river valley, so we’re only pausing a minute to make sure our luggage remains well secured.
“Can I go look?” Brenna asks, nodding toward the gazebo in the fenced area. She’s been here a few times but doesn’t remember it well.
“Of course,” I answer.
As we ride from there up Blacks Creek Road to Prairie, I offer Brenna a running account of past trips with her brother and mom, pointing out distant bits of trail or terrain. She is most interested in the time her mom got hurt, almost exactly ten years ago, so I recount that story in detail.¹
Just past the farm on the bench above the South Fork bridge begins a long procession of ATVs and side-by-sides that doesn’t end until we’re in Prairie. It’s quite a parade of dust.
I heard her counting so I ask, “how many were there?”
The ride isn’t so much about riding as the experiences along the way. And this being Brenna’s first big ride, we’ll take several breaks to keep it comfortable.
We last ate together at the Prairie Y-Stop about one year ago with our French exchange student Alexis.¹ “Do you remember eating here?” I ask after we come to a stop in the dirt lot aside the corrugated blue metal building.
“Yeah,” Brenna answers.
We walk in past store shelves to the restaurant in the back and find the lone proprietor, a grizzled man, tapping away on an old laptop. He hops cheerfully to his feet and hands us menus before disappearing into the kitchen to ready the grill.
“He was singing while you were in the bathroom,” Brenna tells me under her breath when I return to our table from rinsing off ATV dust.
After getting more than our fill of fried food, we continue over House Mountain and up Trinity, past the usual assortment of campers lodged in arid clearings along Fall Creek.
“There’s one!” Brenna exclaims more than once of little chipmunks popping up among wildflowers or darting across the road as we climb switchbacks higher and higher.
We tried five years ago, Brenna and I, to take the Jeep to Trinity Lookout¹ but the road that way is gated to anything bigger than a small ATV. We were turned back. I’m excited to finally show her the view.
The first hundred yards past the gate are loose, softball-sized rocks. It’s a bit tricky. Brenna can feel us bouncing left and right as the motor growls.
“I don’t like this,” she says.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” I assure her. I start pointing out different sights to distract her from worry. She is relieved when finally we reach the top.
I think this is the best view around Boise, grander than most Brenna has seen, but she is brooding, not looking around.
“Are you anxious about the ride down?” I ask, making a guess.
She hesitates before offering an indignant, “yes.”
I feel bad about that. “Oh Brenna,” I say sympathetically, “down is easier; I promise.”
But she’s little inclined to be consoled.
I try to cheer Brenna up with a walk around the lookout deck, peering out across mountains, endless in every direction, and in through the windows at the curious accoutrements of lookout life. (It’s the first time I’ve been here without an attendant on hand.)
“It just goes onto the rocks underneath,” Brenna tells me, a bit mortified, as she emerges from the odd outhouse atop the mountain.
She is still nervous about the ride down so I make up a silly song as we begin bumping over rocks. “Bump-duddy-bump, we go around the rocks.”
I know she has (suffers from?) my analytical bent so I also explain as I navigate. “I’m always looking up ahead to decide which is the smoothest way. It’s like a game. It’s fun.”
“Keep singing,” she insists after I think she’s had enough. Soon she’s chattering, half singing along with the mild euphoria that follows a release of anxiety.
I was expecting we’d camp around Big Trinity Lake, like several times before, but every spot is occupied. We retreat up the road to Little Roaring River Lake and find it also fully occupied. I’m starting to wonder if we’ll have to go back down the mountain to a creekside spot when we find one remaining campsite at Big Roaring River Lake, further up the road.
While I begin setting up our tent, Brenna goes straight to the shore where she finds a small log forming a bridge to a miniature, grass covered island. She crosses then sets to work creating another little bridge to a further island.
“Those are your only shoes,” I call out to remind her. “Don’t get them wet.”
“Dad!” Brenna calls. “Dad! Come see what I found.”
I hustle over as she describes a silvery worm she saw in the mud under a few inches of water. When I get near I notice a fish head in the grass at the shore.
“I think it might have been fish guts,” I suggest. “Probably from someone fishing here.”
She pauses to think and seems to realize that’s probably true. “It was still cool,” she asserts.
“Yeah, I bet it was,” I say sincerely.
“Now what are you going to wear?” I ask when Brenna returns with soaked shoes. The answer, it turns out, is motorcycle boots.
“How come mom never comes camping with us?” Brenna wonders as we’re finishing our nutritious hot dog and marshmallow dinner.
I try to stall with a non-answer — “I’m not sure” — which is actually true in many ways.
“Let’s go exploring,” I propose.
I count on these natural experiences to transcend the day-to-day, to reveal how ephemeral our concerns are next to surrounding stone titans, lifted from the dawn of time toward the dark dome of lights that have burned a billion years.
But to Brenna, the mountains and sky are but a small part of a world lately upended; all she has ever known seems cast asunder.
My heart aches to hear Brenna’s questions about why her mom isn’t with us, here or at home. My eyes well with tears as I struggle to be completely honest, to answer each of her questions with care not to give her cause for blame. But blame is exactly what she wants and everything else seems like evasion.
“It’s okay to be mad or sad,” is all I can think to say. I see in Brenna my own tendency to be embarrassed about losing composure so I turn to face her, to let her see my sadness. “I have tears when I feel sad.”
She falls quiet. It’s a lot for a young mind to process.
Our exploratory walk has led us up to a rocky knoll overlooking the lake. We are surrounded by wildflowers and horizons aglow with the setting sun.
Oh, and a vicious bunch of mosquitoes that have hounded us the whole way. But we can allow that fact to slip from memory.
“You have to go this time,” I say when Brenna complains about going to gymnastics practice, “but we can talk later about quitting if that’s what you want.”
I think childhood should be carefree and fun as much as possible. I wouldn’t force her to continue something unpleasant. But it’s hard not to notice she’s continually proud to exhibit her gymnastics skills on every available platform even if practice is sometimes disagreeable.
“Oops, I didn’t focus right,” I have to acknowledge a few times. The little camera isn’t the best with low-light action. But Brenna is always happy to repeat her skills until I can get it right.
Brenna plucks samples of the many wildflowers as we carefully make our way down the steep slope. “Is there something we can put these in?” she wonders as we arrive at our campsite, her hands bursting with shapes and color.
“I can’t think of anything,” I answer after making a mental review of our supplies.
“That’s okay,” she concludes. “I’ll just set them here.”
Bright light is streaming through the tent’s one little window as we settle into our sleeping bags for the night. Maybe someone’s headlights are pointing our way.
Brenna is still sitting up so I ask, “can you see out the window what that light is?”
“It’s the moon, dad,” she answers sardonically.
We choose a lullaby to sing together, as we have every night since she was a baby, then drift side-by-side to the land of dreams.
Morning finds Brenna still sleepy-eyed, driving a train of My Little Ponies across our picnic table. She got rid of her substantial MLP collection last year, presumably having outgrown them. But lately she’s plead for Fred Meyer trips to re-acquire each pony.
I think it’s great to play with toys, to imagine stories, at any age. I’m always delighted to watch her build their worlds and voice their interactions.
At the same time, I’m sensitive now to behaviors that might be coping mechanisms. Last week she voluntarily spent two days cleaning and arranging the house and I wondered if it was an effort to put things right, back where they belong.
“Can I use the saw?” Brenna asks.
While I’m packing up camp, she is cutting branches to build a fort.
Brenna decorates her fort’s walls with last night’s bouquet and red twine she found along the shore.
We say goodbye to the fort and little grass island and begin down the mountain.
“We’re on a harder level now,” Brenna says as we start into a rockier stretch. It takes me a second to realize she’s expanding the game metaphor I suggested yesterday, picking a line ahead to dodge the biggest bumps.
“Yeah,” I acknowledge, “we sure are.” She doesn’t seem much worried about bumps today.
Since she saw the sign at the Y-Stop saying they could make snow cones “on request,” Brenna has been angling to go back. Getting snow cones at a stand near home has been one of our summer traditions.
But I think we’ll save that for another trip and stop for a change at the Prairie Store Restaurant on our way back to Boise. I’ve actually never been here.
“What year have we travelled back to?” she asks slyly when we first see the place.
We order the usual for these parts — burger and fries — and settle into a game of Boggle then Connect 4 (our family classics) as we wait.
“I beat you, I beat you!” she chides when she wins a round.
She is getting into a silly mood, playing out of turn, so I sit back to write a little.
“I’m writing down what you say,” I warn her.
“Are you really?” She knows the answer, of course. It’s nothing new.
She asks to see what I’ve written then takes my pen to write something of her own.
“Brenna won every game on the phone. She was so awesome she used her magical powers! She is the best!”
I guess she is. I’m happy circumstances haven’t curbed her vim and vigor. Maybe the mountains helped us more than I realized.