Every year at d camp we do a hike and swim day.
It’s nice to get out of camp for a day and hang around the Buffalo River, famous for drop dead gorgeous cliffs jutting up out of the snaking river.
That left the eighth grade.
As an eighth grade counselor, I can personally attest to the attitude among our older middle school students that lead our leaders to decide that what the eighth grade really needed was to be challenged.
They needed to be stretched, to have a bonding experience, to come back from their hike just a little bit humbled, but still with having the feeling of accomplishment.
The hiking guide assigned to the eighth grade was my father.
As soon as I found out I was going hiking with my dad, I tried to get mentally prepared.
I was trying to get my mind and body wrapped around this one single certainty,
that the one thing you can absolutely count on with Daddy is that you will never know what to expect.
So I tried to gear up,
how much can one gear up for the unknown?
We loaded up and barreled out of camp in 2 vans and 2 SUVs. I say barreled, because that is what I mean.
We took a dirt road I’d never before been on, even though I’ve spent half my life in Newton County, and I held on for dear life.
I was driving just a little faster than I felt comfortable trying to keep up, when I realized that ahem, I was driving,
and so I slowed a little, just keeping them in my view.
I figured that since he IS my dad, he’d be checking to make sure I was back there.
My friend Carol was driving the car behind me and I partly slowed down for her because I had already tried to warn her about what we were getting ourselves into, but without much success.
How does one explain an entire lifetime of, Well you just had to be there.
We finally pulled into the trailhead for Indian Creek, my cheeks vibrating from the bumpy roads, ate a quick lunch, and headed for the woods.
Daddy gave us a few Arkansas history lessons as we hiked the first quarter mile or so along an overgrown, heavily forested trail.
Daddy is great with folklore, especially since he doesn’t mind making up what he can’t remember. He’s a born storyteller. Bending the story to his purpose is just part of the territory.
So after a while of what felt a little like bushwhacking, we reached Indian Creek, where the trail turned and you hiked along and often right through the creek bed.
It had been very hot so parts of the creek were low and you could maneuver easily from rock to rock, but it was also wet enough in spots that we were a group divided between sloshing through the creek and having wet feet or trying to find trails (and I use the word trails VERY loosely here) around the wetter places.
I mostly opted to go around and now all that effort to keep my feet dry will forever remain downright comical to me because, I, like everyone else, eventually miscalculated a step, slipped and fell all the way down, flat on my chest against wet rock.
I lasted a long time though, especially since I was wearing trail runners instead of sandals, Converse, or dear Lord, help them, Sperry’s.
(Note to Parents: It is a rare middle school student that can be trusted to choose footwear for camp that is more suited for being in the woods than for impressing their friends with their cool factor. Your choice: Make them wear heavy duty tennis shoes or fiercely warn of severe natural consequences.)
Due to equal parts my effort to stay dry, my being grossly out of shape and my wanting to be a good camp counselor, I was bringing up the rear with several other good counselors, including my friend Carol.
We would get to a place where the rest of the group was waiting for us and my dad would be giving a speech about complaining, which would finish up with a look in my direction and a remark like,
You guys in the rear need to keep up! If someone is going too slow, send them to the front!
To which I gave him a look that clearly meant,
Watch it buddy. I ain’t sixteen anymore!
But of course, he would already be off and running, not catching my look.
But if he had he might have reminded me that he is 60, so what’s my excuse?
From the front as he started up a mudslide, he yelled back,
Watch your step. The next 50 feet are slicker than snot!
And the hike continued along that way, Daddy in front, yelling back now and then. Positive attitude, fearless and unfatigued.
Me in the back groaning, trying to encourage the stragglers and lifting kids and adults out of the mud.
I could say this pretty much went on FOR. EVER. But I guess that would be an exaggeration since here I am at home, typing away on my computer.
But really, it felt like it would never. end.
I began to wonder if we would miss dinner.
Finally we reached a place where the cliffs rose up in front of us and on both sides, the creek pooled up at the base. We were all exhausted. Kids and adults alike were covered in dirt, mud, sweat, scratches and bug bites. Carol had twisted her ankle and was limping the last quarter mile or so.
But we had made it. We were here.
Wait. We’re not here. There’s…more. On one side the cliff was more like an insanely steep staircase with ropes hanging down from past hikers. I listened as Daddy explained that you put one foot here and one foot here and then grab the rope and then this tree stump over here and so on and so on until you climb up to this very exciting rock amphitheater.
Then he proceeded to climb up first and one by one kids followed him. He turned around and pulled every single one of them up the last part of the steep rock. Almost 50 people he pulled up, without even breaking a sweat.
After the kids got past him they would continue scrambling up the only slightly less steep rocks (as in still steep but you don’t have to have a rope to get up them) and disappeared from my view.
As I watched kids going up a small voice inside of me said that maybe I should just stay where I was. They were going to have to come back down anyway. And also I was suffering from a little problem called Fear of Heights.
But I didn’t want to be a quitter, and I already felt a little guilty for all the complaining I’d done earlier, so when it was my turn, up I went.
After I passed him, I kind of bear crawled the rest of the way up, grabbing brush along the way to pull myself up. I was shaky and tired, and a little scared.
On reaching the amphitheater, I found a place to sit in the outcropping of rocks and tried to just breathe for a minute. I was already dreading the descent. Not to mention the long, hot hike back to the vans. I closed my eyes because 50 kids on the semi-circle of rock ledge, many of them as fearless as Daddy, were making me nervous.
Daddy was the last one up to us since he was helping others up.
Isn’t this cool? he says to me, a look of sheer joy in his eyes. This is his way of handing me the moon.
Then he began to explain to the group that we were going to skirt around the far left end of the edge of the amphitheater through what was called the Eye of the Needle to see…
Well, I don’t really remember what it was we were going to see.
I don’t remember because I never made it there.
It’s not as scary as it looks from over there.
Daddy went first. He walked the ledge to the end of the rock outcropping, ducked down and disappeared through the wall. At least that is what it seemed like from my view.
I watched all the kids go through as I had watched them climb the rope. By this point, I felt like I was running on fumes, and again, I am very afraid of heights, so I was kind of wondering if I could just wait on everyone to come back through and maybe no one would ever even notice that I had never moved from my semi-safe spot on the rocks.
But then Carol started to make her way over and so I was just beginning to think I should start moving when when her foot slipped from the narrow ledge and she fell. In seemingly slow motion, she banged first into the rock ledge she had just swung down from and then slammed chest down below me on the steep cliff we’d just come up, sliding down with the momentum from hitting the earth and grasping at the gravel with her hands.
I managed to get up and get down to her in time to grab her hands before she realized what was happening. I really think she about had herself stopped from falling further, but the gravity of what had just happened was hitting her quickly and it was beginning to show in her eyes…panic.
I held her until another stronger leader (Thank you, Chris Shelton) could get over to us and actually lift her back up to where she could collapse onto the ground.
Then we just held onto each other and cried.
The handful of kids and counselors that had not yet gone through the Eye of the Needle sat stunned around us.
Chris said a prayer of thanksgiving for protection from greater harm.
After a while, Carol and I were both shaking still, so I prayed that God would give us strength to make it back to our cars. Then I looked at her and said that maybe she and I ought to start making our way back down before all the other kids came back.
I felt like we could use the head start.
So, very slowly, we began to slide on our rear ends down the gravel. Neither of of us really trusted our own legs, so we slid all the way to the rope and then slowly, carefully, shimmied down.
Once we were actually off the cliff, we both stopped clenching our jaws and let relief just kind of wash over us in its own way.
You know how when something scary happens, your body kind of takes over and carries you until you get to some kind of safe haven and it’s only after you are on that solid ground that you can begin to process what has just happened.
Well, that is definitely what happened to Carol. Once she was off the cliff, she began to see her life flashing before her eyes.
And I knew that as tired as I was, when I tried to go to sleep that night, I would close my eyes and watch Carol fall over and over again, catching my breath each time.
At this point, I think I had enough adrenalin to keep us in the lead for a while. We hiked, slipped and crawled down the creek bed, crying some, laughing some and just being quiet.
Eventually the group caught up with us, for which I was grateful, because I had begun to be afraid I had missed the spot where we turned away from the creek into the bush.
I was dragging big time by the time we caught site of the vans, but I was also overjoyed. Carol’s ankle had held up the whole way, and the internal bruising from her fall had not yet taken over (as it would in the coming weeks).
Now who’s ready to swim!
Daddy asked the tired crowd, energy still in his voice.
Most everyone just wanted to crawl back to camp and shower. I stayed back with my girls who wanted to stay, which was good, because I did not think I could get in the car yet and drive without falling asleep.
Carol and the other drivers went on back. I said a little prayer as she drove away, hoping she would have energy to make it back to camp.
Then the handful of us that were left headed down to the river, and the river felt amazing.
It was cool and quiet. We decompressed as we floated on our backs and let the river just wash it all away.
Several of the kids used their renewed energy to climb cliffs along the river and jump off, which would have made me more nervous if I’d had any energy left to spare for worry.
I vaguely remember a prayer of thanks that one of our senior counselors that was with us was a lifeguard.
That was some hike, Daddy.
I said when he got down to where I was in the river. He was last because he had been looking for a cave he remembered that was nearby.
He just smiled.
Trying to explain to him how scary Carol’s fall had been was reminiscent of many times I’ve tried to let Daddy know the weight of my feelings about something. How frustrated I was when my car broke down every other day at school, how my heart was in my throat riding switchbacks in the back of a random farmer’s truck in Colorado, how steep the rocks were on the place I had to climb to get to where he told me to meet him, how cold I was, how much my body ached, how…you fill in the blank.
How many times have I been grasping for words to ignite the sympathetic bone in his body, the heart that breaks for the poor, the oppressed, the broken. I know it’s in there somewhere, but he just keeps looking at me with that look in his eyes that is saying,
But man, what a ride!
Don’t get me wrong. He grimaced at me and said, I’m real sorry, honey.
And he was.
Daddy loves life. He lives it to the very fullest. His enthusiasm and optimism made my entire childhood an adventure. Also, he has a will of iron to match his quest for the next natural high, so he was undaunted by frequently having to drag his less than enthusiastic wife and kids along for the ride. And came we did. Despite whining and complaining, I don’t think any one of us regret the wild ride that life with Daddy turned out to be.
And because he is completely unafraid of a hiccup now and then, even though we often found ourselves in what would sometimes feel like a hopeless situation (broken down van, no money, lost in the dark, etc.), he would always take care of us.
He would handle it. Whatever IT was. Often Daddy’s solutions would come in the most unexpected way possible and always with unflinching faith that God would provide a way. But until He did, we might as well enjoy being together.
I stop to say all of that because Daddy and I definitely have enough friendly banter going on between us that you might mistake my tone for dislike, or at the very least, disapproval.
But you would be wrong.
I only realized that I falsely give this impression when we finally reached camp that night and I was telling crazy Daddy stories at dinner. Someone said to me, There’s not a lot of love lost between you and your dad right now, is there?
I was a little dumbfounded. And I’m not sure how I responded. I probably just laughed nervously.
But what is unseen is that I actually chose to go with Daddy. I have enough pull with the youth pastor that in truth, I could have gone on any of the hikes I had wanted to that day.
I knew where I wanted to be, and where I needed to be.
I have enough shared history with Daddy that I would follow him to the moon and back. I send my children off with him because I know they will grow up and pull those experiences from their hearts like trophies.
If you’ve ever been somewhere with Daddy, maybe you can relate to this sentiment,
You may emerge from the experience hopping mad at him for the hell he put you through, but honestly, you wouldn’t trade the memory of that same experience for anything, because deep down inside you, you know that somehow, you are the richer for having lived through it.
That pretty much sums up my entire childhood.
Happy Birthday Daddy!
In the words of Maya Angelou,
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.