Please Don’t Tell the Ranger

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Dear Will:

“WARNING!,” the notice read. “EXTREME ALPINE CONDITIONS. The following MINIMUM equipment, experience, procedures and skills strongly recommended by the US Forest Service and County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue Teams.” The list included winter mountaineering training, map, ice axes, helmets, alpine boots, and crampons.

We had none of that. But when you agree to go hiking with Bryn, that sort of lack of preparation does not register even as a minor annoyance. “It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Let’s do it.”

I suppose this is what I unwittingly signed up for 21 years ago when she was born, but it would have been nice in that moment to have come prepared with a suitably exotic Plan B that might have dissuaded her from her purpose. But here’s the thing: Her original intention was to climb Mt. San Gorgonio—alone—at night—so that she could be on the summit at sunrise. That we were intending to climb Mt. San Bernardino in the daytime was Plan B.

How often have we read about people who disregard expert advice and common sense and venture off where they do not belong, only to be airlifted to the hospital to have their frostbitten toes surgically removed? That was about to be us. Or to be more specific: me. Bryn is a fit and fearless dancer and world traveler. I spend my days building PowerPoint decks and hiking to the Men’s Room.

We weren’t even a third of the way to the 10,700-foot summit when the trail became mostly covered in icy snow. We had to rely on the footsteps of previous hikers to mark the way—footsteps gouged with the unmistakable stab-marks of crampons, I might add. It was about that time that we came upon another hiker—decked out in the sort of regalia that would have filled the Ranger with a frisson of joy—who had turned back, she said, because of faulty footwear. It was like one of those allegories you hear in Sunday School about the angel who comes along to warn the unsuspecting of imminent disaster.

(You saw this coming): Nevertheless, we hiked on. On one particularly treacherous side-slope I remember thinking that if I slipped I could very well end up luging all the way to Yucaipa—unless, that is,  I could MacGyver a handbrake out of my ChapStick and a protein bar. Fortunately for me (and my ChapStick) it never came to that. The first time I took a spill was while trying to cross a bunch of manzanita, so rather than becoming a human toboggan I merely sustained a puncture wound to the shoulder and several other bloody scrapes along my left side. That I could handle.

Eventually we lost the trail altogether. We made an earnest attempt to connect up with a different set of footprints in an adjacent gully, but the hiking there proved to be the most taxing of the entire adventure. When we could no longer confidently identify the peak we were supposedly climbing, the following words of Robert Frost passed through my mind:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And they never found my body.

Actually, I’m not sure about that closing line, but I guarantee you my friends would have paid a lot more attention in English class if Frost had written it that way. As it was, I knew that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached my limit. I begged Bryn for mercy.

Reluctantly, she relented. We had fallen 1000 feet short of our goal, just as (apparently) others had before us. Now the only trick was to retrace our steps. I will skip the humiliating story of the spill I took on the way down that turned my sunglasses into safety goggles and my nose and forehead into hamburger. And on one other detail I will be appropriately brief: We spent most of the day hiking in sunshine across bright, white snow. We carried sunscreen every step of the way. We forgot to use it.

In all we covered over 16 miles of mountain on a difficult yet glorious day. And while my sunburned face seems to be decomposing like something out of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I have it on good authority that the damage is not likely to be permanent. Except maybe for that gash on the bridge of my nose.

So what’s my point? I suppose that, in the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you might select from any of these familiar aphorisms:

  1. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the near-death experiences along the journey.
  2. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—unless you forget the sunscreen.
  3. A journey of 1000 miles begins with the proper equipment.
  4. Nothing ventured, nothing broken.
  5. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.

To which I would add one other: It’s pretty great to be a dad.

PW

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I Can’t Find My Egg

Dear Will:

It’s done.

On Saturday I drove my firstborn up to UCLA and deposited him in the dorms. I suspect that he had that day marked on his calendar for a couple of years, so anxious was he to get out from under the oppressive rule of his dictatorial parents. We stood there awkwardly near the 4th floor stairwell of Hedrick Hall, the dad wanting to give the boy a hug, the boy hoping desperately that the dad wouldn’t give into the temptation. The dad walked away unsatisfied.

When evening rolled around I was already feeling left out and disconnected. I was hoping he would call and tell me all about it—even though I knew there couldn’t possibly be anything to tell. What does one do in the first few hours of dorm life? You haggle with your roommates over storage space. You wander around and get the lay of the land. You eat your first meal in the dorm cafeteria. What’s to tell?

Still, I wanted desperately to know. When he failed to call the next day I was really feeling it. Why doesn’t he call? I texted him a couple of times, giving him the electronic equivalent of a poke in the ribs. Nothing. I coaxed his sister into giving him a call. He didn’t pick up. I knew very well that he was making the conscious choice not to call home right away—and I understood that choice—but for selfish reasons I still wanted to hear from him. In a similar position, who wouldn’t?

My wife, for one. She had also marked that day on her calendar way back when. She has known for some time that Luke and she would both be better off once he moved out of the home. There is no doubt that he has outgrown the nest, and mama bird was eager for him to go root around for his own worms. She will miss him, I’m sure—but not yet.

And certainly not like I do. I think that feeling of loss is exacerbated by the fact that Luke is going to UCLA, just like his old man. He’s living in Hedrick Hall, just like his old man. I spent six of the happiest years of my life on that campus, earning two degrees along the way. That place isn’t merely home to me. It’s the Motherland. I am connected to UCLA on such a deep level that if I were a penguin I’d probably travel to Westwood every year to lay my egg.

Maybe what I’m saying is that I’m a different sort of bird than my wife. At any rate, these last few days I’ve felt very much like a penguin: waddling around, flapping my flightless wings, cold. And worse: I can’t find my egg anywhere.

When Luke finally called home, it was only because his kid sister implored him via text message: “Dad is freaking out. Please call so we don’t have to put up with him anymore.” (Or something like that.) His report was brief, devoid of meaningful depth or detail, just like his reports have always been. It was unsatisfying, to be sure, but it was a start. Or at any rate, it was a sign that he hadn’t just dropped us altogether. Nevertheless, the dropping has begun—of that I have no doubt.

There may be lessons in all of this. Malachi certainly taught of the cross-generational ties that should bind us (“the hearts of the fathers will turn to the children, and the hearts of the children will turn to the fathers”).  But I take no comfort from such prophecies. Instead I keep hearing the words of the apostle Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Paul was writing to the Corinthians about spiritual maturity, of course, but I still take it personally.

Luke has begun putting away his childish things. And it turns out I’m one of them.

PW

No Matter What

Dear Will:

My son is mad at me. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, but he’s finally old enough (nearly 18) that he is confident in wielding his agency against me. And I’m not enjoying it.

I’ll spare you the gory details. But the essence of the disagreement that provoked his anger went something like this:

Luke: “I’m going to Australia with my girlfriend and her family. It will cost $2,000 or so. I will raise that money myself between now and July and it won’t cost you a dime. I just need your consent.”

Me: “No.”

Luke: “This should be my decision, not yours. When are you going to let me make decisions for myself?”

Me: “When you move out and pay your own way. Until then, you’re not spending $2000 you don’t have to vacation with your girlfriend.”

At this point you can assume that we continued to repeat these same thoughts over and over for several days and that he grew angrier and angrier the more intransigent I became. Finally he presented the following bit of desperate extortion: “If you don’t let me go, I will cease all activity with the Church. Immediately. Starting right now.”

And he has made good on that threat.

As you might imagine, I watch Luke’s rebellion with a mixture of sadness and bemusement. For instance, I wonder how this plays itself out. Does Luke put on a show for a few weeks and then come inching back into the fold, or does he dig in his heals, never to return? Will he retain a semblance of faith, expressed elsewhere and/or in different ways? Or will he drift into a state of agnosticism or indifference? And in all of this, what role, if any, should I take? And what’s my next move?

Now as one who for whatever reason has also chosen to disassociate yourself with the Church, perhaps you recognize a little of yourself in all of this. Or perhaps you merely see Luke as the rational one in the family. On the other hand, maybe you see him making a familiar mistake that’s hard to reverse. (In fact, I would be very interested in knowing your honest perspective on all of this. If you’re willing, drop me a note and let me know.)

Meanwhile, I take little comfort in the fact that throughout the scriptures there are stories of faithful men whose sons for one reason or another rebelled. However, I do take especial interest in the story of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, Jesus tells of a young man who asks his wealthy father for an early inheritance. Flush with cash, the youth “[wastes] his substance with riotous living.” Before long, he finds himself working for a pig farmer and coveting the pig’s food.

When he finally hits bottom, the young man decides to return to his father, beg his forgiveness, and ask to become one of his servants. The surprise (to him) comes during the journey home. Jesus says: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Note that the son didn’t have to come all the way back. He merely had to head back in the right direction and his father came running to meet him.

So I guess that’s my task: Not to wait for Luke to come back to me, but rather to watch for signs that he is beginning to turn around. When he does, I must show him an outpouring of love. Whether he returns to church is almost immaterial. The important thing is letting him know that, no matter what, I will and do always love him. Now the question is: Can I pull it off?

PW