K. Mennem 7:17 p.m., June 17
Ours was an on-again, off-again affair that had been discussed for months. It finally took place on Christmas, the only time my sons and I—all three of us—were off on the same two days. We went on an overnight camping trip, my idea of a family reunion. They probably would have settled for a movie threesome, which we did often since their lives had become enmeshed with work and girlfriends and the other preoccupations of young men. Camping was something we hadn’t done together in years, although we’d talked about it the way we used to talk about going on a cruise or starting an internet business or building a race car.
Initially there was some reservation. They liked the idea, but didn’t know what to expect, how they should act. Our relationship in town was two sons and a dad divorced from their mother. They had gotten used to that. Away from town the relationship would be different. They wouldn’t be sure who I was.
Preparations were awkward. Each boy said he’d bring money for beer and gas, but I said we’d probably need a little more than that, so let’s think this through. We sorted out who brought what in a series of emails. The oldest, always interested in cooking, wanted to prepare special burgers and bring buns, crudités and wine. The youngest, with his survivalist inclination, would bring drinking water and firewood, folding chairs and a first aid kit. Because one of my hobbies was camping, I had tents and sleeping bags, a lantern and a cooking stove. I also promised to take care of breakfast so they could sleep in.
Driving out on Christmas Day they discoursed authoritatively about the fastest cars and newest computers, the best beer and the hottest babes. But once beyond the Sunrise Highway the talk turned to scenery and camping trips past. They were amused that their cell phones no longer got reception. By the time we reached the boundary of the Anza-Borrego State Park they were trying to recall the names of bushes and cacti, and when we pulled into Bow Willow Campground they were wondering if we would see bighorn sheep, or roadrunners, or maybe coyotes. There was no need for me to say anything when we arrived. They seemed to know just what to do, unloading the car and choosing tent spots, stacking firewood a safe distance from the fire ring and hanging the lantern. Without my asking, the oldest walked to the campground spigot and got a pail of water for washing, came back and slapped together sandwiches, while the youngest checked our daypacks for canteens and compasses and sunscreen. While I changed socks and lace my hiking boots, they spread a map on the picnic table and considered trails. They wanted to hike all the way to the Rock House, and although I knew that was too far to go in one afternoon I said nothing.
Faster and stronger, they led the way, but stopped regularly for me to catch up and confirm identification of a creosote bush or stag horn cactus, or point out neat rock formation to me. Tracks in the sand were identified as coyote, which prompted the oldest to say he hoped we’d see some. But coyotes are nocturnal, I reminded them, and then that was a topic of discussion for a while. We hiked on in silence, all eyes on the look out for the elusive bighorn sheep. Lizards and cactus wrens and stink beetles were as big as the fauna got. But we spotted a red tail hawk soaring in the blue sky.
At a trail juncture I got out the map. The Rock House was over there, over that ridge, another hour of hiking. But the sun was nearing the horizon, and my sons prudently let go of the Rock House idea and selected a route back to camp, which they judged from the contours to passable. The Rock House, they agreed, would have to wait until next time. I was delighted they were considering a next time.
On the way back we encountered a forest of jumping cactus and had to carefully pick our way around the prickly bushes. About that time the oldest son confided he was frustrated by a lack of promotion at work. He wasn’t sure how long he would continue in the job. The youngest then revealed that he was at an impasse with his girlfriend. She planned to move to another state for work, but he wanted to stay in San Diego. Weaving through the cactus, we couldn’t avoid missteps and cactus occasionally clung to a pant leg. I showed them how to remove the barbs with two sticks instead of fingers. As we neared camp, the sun set and the air chilled and our talk turned to dinner and the campfire.
The oldest began on the burgers and set the table, while the youngest lit the lantern and carefully arranged wood in the fire ring. They handed me a glass of wine. There was nothing for me to do, so I set up a chair at the edge of the lantern light and watched. With dinner ready soon, the mood became jocular, the youngest teasing his big brother about how bad the “special” burgers would turn out and the big brother predicting his sibling could never light the fire with only one match.
The burgers turned out exceptional. And after only one match and a bright, warm fire roared to life. Folding chairs were drawn up close, and one of the boys brought out cigars. We reminisced about the family dog who never liked to camp. And about the camp sites we liked the most. There were moments of silence while the fire crackled and we puffed on our cigars. I told them about my writing ambitions. I asked about their mother. And then the oldest, as if the earlier discussion was still in progress, said that it was a bad time to change careers. We nodded. He said it was probably best to stick with his job for the time being, meanwhile he was going to look into cooking schools. We agreed that was the best thing to do. The younger put another log on the fire and told us a trial separation with his girlfriend was probably the wisest idea. Or maybe he would take on an assistant who could watch the company while he was visiting his girlfriend out of state. We discussed the pros and cons of that, and left it at that.
When the fire died down we looked at the stars, pointing out constellations, discussing life on other planets, expressing the awe of infinity. And that was the end of our day.
As promised, I was up earliest and spread the table with sweet rolls and fruit, and started the hot water for coffee and cocoa. When they joined me they teased each other about sharing a tent, about snoring and farting. The oldest said he had heard a coyote right before sunrise.
Although it was never spoken, it was time to break camp. We didn’t hurry. We took a photo of the three of us standing by the fire ring, then drove back to San Diego.