In their quest to unearth my son’s Star Wars chess set, my kids discovered a bundle of cards and letters I’d saved–drawings and cards they had given me, cards from my husband, and a letter from my dad. It was twenty-five years old, written during the early days of the summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park.
Graduation was on Saturday afternoon and the party that evening. By midnight we were in the car, not just with what a family needs to travel 1,000 miles across the country, but with everything I thought I needed to live away from home for the summer. I was eighteen, self-absorbed and unaware of the pressure my parents were under to get us packed, loaded, celebrated, on the road, and to the employee processing center.
I was under contract.
We made it. I trained and stayed alone in a cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs. Mom, Dad, and my brother hiked and stayed at the hotel. We all drove to the Old Faithful area. I worked and moved into employee housing. They hiked and stayed at the Inn.
Eventually, they had to go. I worked the mid-day shift and they stayed much later than they usually would have on departure day. They didn’t leave until I went to work. We said good-bye in my dorm parking lot, me wearing my dismal beige TW Services uniform and watching their maroon Oldsmobile station wagon disappear.
That was 1987. Communication was different. There was no television or radio reception in the park. The daily newspapers were yesterday’s news. And when I wanted to talk to my family, I had to wait my turn to use the one payphone in my dorm.
I called home one night not long after my family drove away and couldn’t get through. I called my grandma’s house and found my brother, who informed my parents, who discovered that there was a transformer problem in the neighborhood. My mom cried. Dad wrote me a letter.
He sent it tucked into his trail book and included a list of nine hikes that he thought I might enjoy, along with the page number where I would find the trail listed and why he included it on the list. Of the nine, I have hiked six, some repeatedly, because they’ve become favorites and I’ve been able to share them with my own children.
He ended with some fatherly advice: Please remember to observe all the precautions mentioned in the book–even in the summer, you are in more danger from hypothermia than bears. Be careful and have fun. Love– Dad
I folded the letter and thought about all the times my husband and I have set off unprepared, about all the times we don’t get it right on the trail. Oh, we carry food and water and make bear-deterring noise. We’re usually off the trail by dark and rarely hike alone. Our tendency, though, is to think more about what the weather is doing this minute than what it might do later. In the mountains the weather might do anything, anytime.
I’d read about afternoon mountain thunderstorms but I didn’t understand about the white-cap producing wind which ushers them in under blue skies until one rocked our red canoe on Leigh Lake during a previously tranquil September afternoon. It wasn’t the wind that nearly capsized us; it was my reaction to it. It wasn’t water from the lake that soaked me; it was the rain. It wasn’t how I got cold that mattered, only that I was, and that the remedy was a long way off–in the car.
As I tucked the letter into a new home in my desk I knew that it isn’t only on the trail that I focus on the wrong things. On the trail, it’s bears. In life, it’s the what-ifs and what-thens instead of the right-heres and right-nows. And the tendency to push through obstacles so I can get out there plagues me as badly in my life as it does on the trail. Destination becomes my object at the cost of joy in the journey and compassion for my companions.
Attention to his two-sentence admonition for the trail could take care of all of that. Please remember to observe all the precautions mentioned in the books–even in the summer, you are in more danger from hypothermia than bears: Know what you need to know. Concern yourself with the right things. Don’t blow little things out of proportion and ignore the big ones. Be careful and have fun: Think about what you are doing and pay attention to the journey and your companions.
Two sentences for the trail. Thanks, Dad.