This story about my daddy was previously published as guest post on Sarabeth Jones’ beautiful storytelling site, The Dramatic.
A Story about My Daddy
Some people take trips to the beach for their family vacations.
Others go to Disneyworld.
But me. In exchange for the beach or for Disney, I got mountains.
And even though the mountains sometimes mean misery, I wouldn’t trade a whole childhood full of beach trips for even one of my mountain adventures with Daddy.
My daddy started taking me with him to the mountains before I was even old enough to appreciate them. Not just the hills we have in Arkansas, though he took me to those too, but the big mountains.
The Colorado Rockies.
Skiing in the winter.
Camping in the summer.
He has been leading backpacking trips in the summertime in Colorado for many, many years. He took a group out to Colorado for the first time when he was in his twenties. They went as part of a guided wilderness tour.
To say that Daddy struggles with not being the one in charge is a bit of an understatement. But he would tell you that he only takes charge to fill the vacuum of idiocy around him. This was the case on this wilderness tour.
When Daddy discovered that the leader was lost, he took the map away and told him to start heading west.
“How do you know which way is west?” the leader asked.
“Well, for as long as I’ve been alive, the sun has been setting in the west.”
He has a bit of a smart mouth, my dad.
After that week, Daddy lead all his own trips to Colorado.
I vividly remember the first time he took our whole family backpacking. I was about 9, which would have made my siblings 8 and 4. He and my mom invited another family with three kids similar in ages to us to come along.
My mom, my sister, brother and I drove out with the other family in a van. Let’s call them the Johnsons. We were to meet up with my dad in Aspen as he was already in the area and had just finished leading a trip for students.
“Where in Aspen is he going to meet us?” Mr. Johnson wanted to know.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry, Mr. Johnson,” my sister replied, though he was not speaking to her, “Daddy will find us.”
From the outset, it was clear to me even at the age of 9 that our family was different from the Johnsons. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were very organized, predictable people. For starters, when we stopped at McDonald’s on the way out, Mr. Johnson made us all tell him what we wanted to eat before we ever got out of the van. Then he proceeded to give the blessing for the meal, again, before we ever left the van.
How this poor man ever got hooked up with my father is baffling to me. Lord, help him, I thought as he penned my cheeseburger and fries on his pad of paper. Meanwhile my sister, Anna, who is always up for a power struggle, demanded to actually VIEW THE MENU.
We pulled into Aspen after driving all night, and we had not been out of the van for long before I heard my daddy’s whistle. Anna and I both turned our heads to see our dad’s week-in-the-woods unshaven face coming toward us across a grassy park. We took off running.
“How did you find us?” Mr and Mrs. Johnson wanted to know.
Daddy smirked, “You’re not exactly inconspicuous. A group with a mess of kids this loud is hard to miss!”
We jumped back into the van, this time with Daddy at the wheel, and he drove us to base camp.
Now Anna and I had both been on shorter backpacking trips with Daddy, but this was to be our first real Colorado Rocky Mountain Trip. We were going to carry stuff on our backs for a week, even our food! And we were going to climb a for real mountain, a fourteener!
We went through the agonizing process of loading our packs, determining who was going to carry what. And what was being left behind. Each child had a pack full of our clothes, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad, so the adults had to carry everything else.
My dad looked like a pack animal. It was insane. It was gear piled on top of gear, layers and layers of junk roped together. On the very back of the huge pile of stuff was a large cooking pot he called the Mega Pot. You had to be careful on the trail next to Daddy because his pack was so deep that he could easily whack you unknowingly with the Mega Pot when he turned sideways.
The first day on the trail is always a rough one. A combination of the long drive to Colorado and the adjustment to the altitude generally equals a lot of whining. We all began to complain about the hike and our heavy packs.
“What! What is that whining? You have to hike an hour with a good attitude to get the surprise!” called Daddy’s voice from the back of the group. (Daddy almost always puts the slowest person in the front and brings up the rear when hiking.)
“What surprise!?!” six voices yelled in unison.
“Well, if I told ya, it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it?”
Everything is a game to Daddy. I remember when Anna and one of the Johnson boys both got down on their knees to drink from a creek, he said, “There’s a legend in Colorado that if a boy and a girl drink from this creek at the same time, they will fall in love and get married one day.”
Of course, I teased Anna mercilessly about that drink all week. “Hey Anna! Your boyfriend is kinda lagging behind! Maybe you should offer to carry some of his stuff.”
Even with treats and games and promises up his sleeves, Daddy had trouble coaxing us all up the mountain. We finally stopped and set up camp and all the Johnsons fell into their tent and went to sleep in broad daylight.
Daddy made dinner and woke Mr. and Mrs. Johnson up to eat. He told them they had to get their kids up to eat or they were going to get altitude sickness, but they refused. I can hardly blame them. No one wants to wake up sleeping children. But then, of course, they were up later in the night, throwing up from altitude sickness.
With the Johnsons still not feeling great, it took us a while to get moving the next morning, but that did not stop Daddy from pressing us forward, “If you start hiking, you’ll warm up and feel better.”
We didn’t hike up as far as he had hoped on Day 1, which would set us back significantly, and then on Day 2, it began to rain.
Now it’s not unusual for a mountain storm to blow up out of nowhere in Colorado, especially in the afternoon. These days my husband is quick to get us off of peaks and passes by noon because of the dangers of being exposed up high in wind and lightning. But those storms usually roll by quickly. They are wild and crazy, but over in a flash.
But this rain we had on Day 2 of our hike was no fast and furious mountain storm.
This rain was settled in to stay for a while. It was mud-making, bone-drenching rain. We hiked for a while in it before everyone’s misery won out and Daddy covered us like a pile of shivering, wet puppies with a tarp while he set up the tents. In the rain.
Then we all piled into our tents and he made us sweet skillet biscuits and hot chocolate. In the rain.
It tasted like heaven.
We gobbled it all down while Daddy cleaned everything up. In the rain.
The next day we woke up to more rain, and while the Johnsons were saying that perhaps we had hiked quite enough, Daddy started moving parts of camp further up the trail on his own. Quietly making several trips back and forth, he would slowly move us along. He didn’t really communicate his intentions. We would emerge from our tent to see that the rest of camp had moved and so we would have to move with it.
I really have no idea how many days this went on before he announced to us that tomorrow was the big day.
The Peak Climb.
It was the day we would climb to the top of the mountain. We could leave our packs at camp, so no packing up in the morning. We could just get up and hike. He would carry lunch and all the water we would need.
He was going to have to wake us up fairly early though, because it was going to be a long hike.
I wish I could have overheard the conversation that was happening in the Johnsons’ tent that night. I remember thinking of them as sort of lightweights, but honestly, the fact that Mr. Johnson had not taken a tent stake to my father’s head at this point shows an amazing amount of restraint.
Every morning before we hiked we would pray for the day and Mr. Johnson would try hard to smile and he would say, “Let’s pray that it won’t rain today, ok kids?”
And then Daddy, God bless him, he would say,
“Actually, why don’t we pray that the good Lord will help us to have a good attitude no matter what the weather is today.”
On the day of our Peak Climb, we got up while it was still dark and started hiking to get warm. Daddy fed us bites of breakfast and gave us treats from his bottomless pockets.
And we tried. We really did. But the rain came and drenched us again. And we were all so very tired.
Never one to admit defeat, Daddy seized the opportunity to point out some Really Great Rocks. He had us all come over and sit down on the rocks. He made a speech about how we had made it all the way to THIS ROCK!
“I’m so proud of you all! Here are your prizes.”
More treats from his pockets.
“And I’m especially proud of what great attitudes you’ve all had today!”
“You know what, I think we can probably get all the way back to the van today if I make a couple of trips with all the stuff. What do you think? Should we head for home?”
Relief like you’ve never seen in your life washed over the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. My mother smiled.
On the way home, when we stopped at McDonald’s for dinner, we all just went in willy nilly and ordered our happy meals.
We never did go anywhere again with the Johnsons. They went to Disneyworld for their next family vacation.