I’ve been a dad for more years than you’d think and with that has come amazement that the number of candles on my birthday cakes made it to double digits.
Sure, everyone my age grew up without seat belts, car seats, and medications without child-proof lids. Many of my contemporaries rode bikes without helmets, ate sandwiches made with white bread and drank drinks made with real sugar.
Personally, I’m more amazed that I and my siblings survived family vacations in the great outdoors.
I can’t figure out if dad was fearless, just wasn’t being smart or placed such importance on exposing his kids to the outdoors that the risks outweighed the rewards. Maybe it was the fact that we didn’t have innumerable television documentaries underscoring man’s inability to win in a one-on-one battle with nature. Whatever the reason, we were lucky.
There are photos that I won’t share here of me in diapers, in the wilds of Yosemite Valley. That might have been where it all began, but the memories are foggy.What I do remember are the multiple summers we spent in Tuolumne Meadows. At 8,600 feet elevation the weather was changeable. This made day hikes, already an adventure thanks to steep elevation gains and decomposing granite, unpredictable.
While there’s debate among my family as to the name of the lake that was the destination on one ill-fated hike, it’s clear that dad had pushed the limits on that cold and overcast day. With the distance of the hike limited by the length of my youngest brother’s legs, I’m guessing the hike in took no more than a couple of hours. Much of the trail wound in and around trees before rising and emerging onto a wide meadow. Crossing the meadow put us on the shore of a lake nestled up against granite peaks. Back then we carried spin fishing gear, and it wasn’t more than a few casts before a trout made one of the most dramatic, leaping strikes to swallow dad’s Mepps Agila. Small as the fish was, dad stumbled back in his surprise at the strike.
Just about then or shortly thereafter (my memory was muddled by the excitement), the gray of the sky gave way to small granules of something best described as light hail or heavy snow. Not being as keen on fishing, my sister and brother were huddle with mom near what little shelter was offered by a wind-stunted tree. “Jerry,” my mom said, “I think it’s time to go.” Nearly 40 years later I can understand that when fishing, time flies by but those same minutes are painfully slow to pass when you’re shivering in the high country and miles from the remotest fingers of civilization. Grudgingly, dad decided it was better to leave the fish for the sake of his children and, perhaps, his marriage.
The first time we pitched a tent at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, where, by the way, there are no public showers; my dad’s solution was to take advantage of what nature had to offer. He proudly explained to us that we’d be using biodegradable soap. (It was a novelty back in the 1970s.) Our water source would be the oh-so convenient Tuolumne River. A river that originates from two forks — the Dana Fork and the Lyell Fork — both of which originate from the huge snowpack in the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. There’s something about bathing in water that only 24 hours ago was in its frozen form. Yet another time we dodged hypothermia.
Then there were the bears. We knew they were there. We saw them occasionally during the day. It’s the times we didn’t see them that still give me chills. There were mornings we’d wake up and dad would show us the bear tracks through our camp; tracks that weren’t there yesterday and must have been made during the night, when I stepped out of the tent for a trip to the bathroom and could have become a tasty midnight snack for one of Yogi’s cousins.Those mornings dad would tempt fate yet again by preparing breakfast on the flattop griddles that years ago were standard equipment in every national and state park campsite. These griddles were nothing more than flat plates of steel welded to a grill, on top of a three-sided steel box, and naturally were exposed to the elements all year long, accumulating sap, rust and the occasional animal or bird dropping. Dad’s ritual involved stoking the wood underneath the grill with the idea of sterilizing it, then throw on bacon to lube it up before tossing on eggs and toast. While it’s entirely possible he did manage to sterilize the griddle, I can help but wonder if some of the “seasoning” entailed small bits of rust and other things.
In that vein, I also remember being so proud of our Sierra cups. My brother and I would loop them under our belts, and like little men, dip them into the clear streams to quench our thirst. Try that nowadays without worrying.
These are only snapshots of my childhood adventures in the wilderness, and there are other, less dangerous memories of other hikes, more fishing and just being a kid in the great outdoors. Those I’ll save for another time.
I was lucky to spend so much time in the great outdoors. All of these adventures never fail to bring a smile to my face.