In town the sky is grotesquely cloudless, the sun shimmering like a pool of heat you could drown in. We spend the morning consulting the camping checklist circa 2009 (which lists stuffed animals now obsolete and beer, twice). We rattle up through the dusty pine-oak belt, through the aspens reflecting sunlight like a thousand fractured mirrors, and into the cool, spruce-fir zone, which only Southwesterners could appreciate as green and lush. And we do.
We’ve been here before, every year to be precise. And when Rose hears of our destination she pumps her fist in the air as if she’s just won something, something like a weekend with her family in the mountains.
By afternoon camp is set up, and we’re like caricatures of our own predictable selves: the tarp’s tied to the usual trees, tents occupy familiar ground, spotting scope is set in time-tested elk-viewing location, beers are cracked and Dan sings about how the elk, who’ve just meandered out into the open slopes—the very slopes we’ve been watching them on for two decades—are “so traditional.”
The ultimate elk-viewing scenario.The elk have recently calved and their troop of spotted children frolic and nurse and slip on snow patches. Watching them makes us all feel like nostalgic grandmothers.
We too, are so traditional. Being here is like being inside my own deja vu, while also watching it from a thousand different incarnations that have already come and gone. (In fact, I’m certain I’ve written this very post before. Oy. Apologies.). Rose emerges from her tent in new aerobics instructor outfits while Col looks like an escapee from Woodstock. Col and Rose argue over camp chair placement and then he begs her to accompany him on a spruce sap-finding mission. I want to start a hundred conversations with Dan, but we circle around the same topic for three days. “I’m so happy to be here,” I say. “I know,” he answers. “Can you believe this place?”
Rose goes off on a 5.3 minute solo hike and comes back to report breathlessly on all the wildflowers she ate. “Bluebells and red columbines and the yellow banana ones.”
We take a hike, Dan-style, trail-less and ascending the steepest path to avoid disturbing the elk (who’ve conveniently bedded down in the gentler path). It’s time, Dan announces, to discover where that waterfall we gaze at from camp—the vertical one—starts.
Rose’s journal: “It was the hardest hike I dune.” But, we did have “turke raps” at the top.
We return to camp and install ourselves under the shade tarp. We play scrabble, guzzle icy spring water, read a billion chapters of the Lightning Thief, pass around two bags of chips and stick limbs out into the sun to test its strength. That feeling that I have so often, that time is breathing menacingly down my neck, evaporates. Instead, the hours stretch and pool luxuriously around us.
The solstice sun sinks into the western trees. The kids are at the fire, Col tending flaming sap in a sawed-off beer can and Rose chattering cheerfully, as if she’s a new English language speaker, thrilled just to practice. Whatever agenda I may hold for this time together doesn’t matter. Something bigger and out of my control is happening.
This place is imprinting on the kids.
By evening, swarms of insects are backlit by the falling sun. One second later, swallows are deployed to nab dinner on the wing. A thousand robins wake us each morning, no doubt descendants of the robins who’ve woken us every year before. That waterfall, ever-visible from camp, is now on our mental map, the absurdity and the triumph of having scaled it an eternal family footnote. Col puts down his book to watch a goshawk turn breathtaking circles over the forest.
I can’t quantify this knowledge, these experiences, the enthusiasm with which Rose greets a red columbine, eager to suck the nectar from an elegant, red spur. There will be no “local bird identification” section on the SAT; no colleges looking for students who can scrap together a salad from the forest.
But this education, this spending time in nature feels foundational. It’s a force, an entity, a benefactor shaping our lives, offering us a roadmap to what’s valuable. It’s imprinting truths on all of us: there is enough time, paths may be trail-less, there is value in being traditional, trust the questions, drink the spring water, your sibling can be your best friend, the earth overflows with miracles that require only our attention.