Into the Wild, pt. 2
Riley and I left early in the morning for our first backpacking trip. I had to wake him up, but instead of the usual groggy grouch I face on school mornings he woke up with an excited grin. “Is it camping day?!” I nodded yes, while shushing him a bit so as to not wake Hailey. Everything was already loaded into the car... we just had to get in and go.
The first couple of hours were tense. We both held tight to the other’s mistakes of recent weeks. The time he told me he wished Biff was his only dad. The time I told him he couldn’t have screen time because he pushed Hailey (I found out later that she lied about the pushing thing but was so mad about their bickering I said no screen time anyway). We listened to music in silence, Riley occasionally asking tentative questions about the trip. “Where are we going again?” “Did you remember my swimsuit?” “What if I twist my ankle?” I gave him the map and traced our journey over and over again. As the miles passed our mutual anger dissipated and I remembered he was just a kid and he remembered I was just a person and we started to sing along to the music and make plans for counting stars.
There were lots of cars in the Opal Creek Wilderness parking lot when we arrived, but we got a spot. My cell service was long since gone and I felt the familiar panic of disconnection. If anything happened to Biff or Hailey or Leo while I was gone... I would have no idea until the next day. It was paralyzing until I reminded myself that nothing ever happens and they will be fine and so will I. We loaded ourselves down with our ginormous packs, lovingly loaned to us by friends, and began our trek.
It was three miles to Opal Creek Pool, an easy walk on a wide, well-maintained path. I felt Riley getting bored so I pointed out anything I thought might be kind of cool. A fallen tree with hundreds of rings, abandoned mining equipment to climb on, a tiny snake I pretended might be poisonous. We stopped for snacks (I packed his favorites). Our steps fell into sync. Then before we knew it we could see the pools and my breath caught in my throat.
There was a stunning iridescence about the water that I can’t exactly describe— the name Opal Creek does the job for me. We stripped down to our swing trunks and jumped in. The water was ice cold, and Riley shook so much from the shock of it that I had to pull him up onto the little island in the middle of the pool. He was miserable but exhilarated... just like me. Then I pointed out the natural water slide.
I had been saving this as a special surprise. I mean... what could be more exciting than a water slide cut into rock over the millennia?! I expected a grin, a hug, hours of going down the slide over and over again... and years worth of “yay dad!” stories. But he saw it and his face fell.
“Is the water cold?” “Are there fish in the water?” “Is it deep at the bottom?” “Will it hurt my butt going down?” “What if I get stuck going down or get trapped in a cave and die?”
His fears overtook him. I explained to him the difference between scary and dangerous… but to no avail. He took his shirt off and went up to the top and then changed his mind. He bawled in front of everyone, wanting so badly to go down but unable to. I told him he didn’t have to go, that he could go next time, that it wasn’t a big deal… I changed tactics and offered to go down with him, to hold his hand, to have him do only half of it (it was only about 6 feet tall) but nothing worked.
We finally got our clothes back on and our packs loaded up. He kept trying to dwell on the water slide, but I distracted him with silly things and we made it up to the second pool area. Water cascaded over rocks and a beautiful bridge took us over the creek and toward the camp sites where we settled in and ate the most disgusting “risotto” either of us had ever had. It didn’t matter… we were hungry! Riley helped me set up the tent and I blew up our mattress pads. It was around 7:30 by then and Riley asked if I had anything on my phone we could watch. It was dusk, and we didn’t want to be around too much in the dark. So we cuddled in the sleeping bags and watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race I had on my phone.
Next thing I knew, it was morning. I had fallen asleep at 8pm! Riley stayed up reading for a bit and went to sleep as well. The next morning we made hot chocolate, packed up, and headed back to the car. There was an unfortunate and embarrassing incident involved me kicking a wasps nest and getting stung half a dozen times, but that’s a story for another day.
The car was just where we left it. Our legs were sore (our shoulders too!), but we were more connected to each other and the world around us than ever before. It was the best weekend of the summer… for me, at least. I hope he remembers how much fun we had, and not his tears at the waterslide or the wasp stings he got or the stinky compost toilet or the hilariously gross dinner. Although those things were fun in their own way too. And they will make for amazing stories as we head back to the real world and try to keep that feeling of being unplugged and tuned into each other for as long as we possibly can.