When my oldest son, Cole, was six years old I took him into the wilderness for the first time. We traveled to what I consider my home town of Westcliffe, Colorado. His little snoopy pack was loaded up with his clothes, toilet paper, and the salt and pepper. Everyone has to carry their share in the Chambers family.
We drove up the rough old mining road of South Colony to the Rainbow Trail and started our hike from there. Like its namesake, Rainbow Trail arcs through the Sangre de Cristo mountain range for about a hundred miles. We headed for North Colony across the base of Humboldt Peak. North Colony beaver ponds were a favorite camp area of my family when we moved to Colorado from Texas.
It was dark on the Rainbow Trail and the trees seemed to close in around us as it got darker. After about half a mile of hiking Cole began to lag behind. He could barely keep up enough to walk in the opaque splash of light from my flashlight. If I slowed down he did too, so he was always in the dark tripping over little rocks and roots. I grabbed a little stick for him to hold on to one end and I held the other. I chose one that would fit his little hand, was not too heavy for his spindly arms, one that fit just right— then we started to sing a song to distract us from the darkness and improve our pace.
Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them
And so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord
Time flew as we sang, laughed and marched in the dark along that trail. Before we knew it we arrived at Lone Tree Meadow where we planned to camp and fish in the beaver ponds. I had Cole hold the flashlight as I set up the tent and started our supper.
“I have to pee,” he said.
I wanted him away from camp and yet where I could see him so that he wouldn’t be lost in the darkness. About twenty feet from our camp was the stump of a dead sapling that had been rubbed down by a rutting bull elk. I took him there and said, “Any time you need to pee, just come to this stump and have at it.” We called it our “pee stick” over the next few days. He thought that was funny.
We crawled into our sleeping bags and my little guy fell fast asleep. I listened to the gurgling stream only a few feet away. Laying a hand on my son’s poly-filled bag, I felt his body rise up and down with his breathing and remembered being in the same meadow with my family two decades before.
Nature called and so as he lay sleeping I went to visit the pee stick. I left the flashlight on in the tent so he would be less afraid if he woke up and didn’t see me than if it was pitch dark. The Milky Way stretched across the blackness of the summer night sky. I glanced back to see the tent move and the light flicker as he rolled over in his bag. It reminded me of the first time I went with my father into the wild many years ago. It was dark then, too.
I was about five years old and we lived in Texas where he finished his undergraduate work. We were camping on the shores of Lake Brownwood. He and a friend had set out trotlines earlier in the day. Those lines must be checked from time to time and the best time to do that is at night. We had no boat, so as I remember it, they lashed some car inner tubes together to make a raft. With paddles or long poles we pushed off from the shore into the night. The only thing darker than the sky was the water. I was afraid I would fall off the raft and slip into the wet darkness, so I clung to the cut poles and lashing as if my life depended on it. We sloshed and splashed for what seemed like hours. Up ahead, in the beam of a flashlight carried by one of the men, a plastic jug floated in the water. It was tied to an overhanging willow limb and bobbed up and down.
“Might be a good one on that line!” my dad said.
Sure enough, up from the depths came a gray-green catfish that looked as big as me. My dad put it on a line of nylon cord and handed the end of it to me saying, “Watch out that you don’t let the catfish get against the tube there, son. He has very sharp spines in those fins and it might puncture your tube.”
I felt the weight of responsibility fall heavy on my thin shoulders. The catfish thrashed in the water and pulled at my arm. Then it flopped over onto the tube and suddenly you could hear the hiss and gurgle of air blowing through water. Surely I would be the cause of all of us drowning that night. I got scared and looked for our camp. The campfire on shore seemed miles away.
Dad stretched his leg out to my tube and put his big toe on the leak. With his arm around me he said, “Don’t be afraid, son. That’s why we have your tube lashed to mine.” We rowed and splashed our way back to shore with my dad’s big toe over the hole and him laughing all the way.
“Dad!” The words jolted me back to Colorado.
“Out here at the pee stick, son,” I shouted in his direction.
“You peed on that stick so long I think it is going to start growing again, Dad,” he giggled.
As I zipped up the tent door, turned out the flashlight and got comfortable in my sleeping bag, I breathed a deep sigh of gratitude for being in the wild for the first time with my first child.
Thank you, Lord, for putting the love of the wild into my father’s heart.
Thank you for keeping it safe in mine.
May it grow in this son at my side.
For I am one of them
And so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.