Camping is known to bring loved ones closer together, but what happens when your relations include a treacherous sister, murderous brother, and their savage offspring? Steve Friedman leads his clan into the Rockies to resolve five decades' worth of sibling rivalry and simmering resentment.
“Family resentments will drift away like dandelion seeds on the summer wind,” I had emailed my siblings last spring, lobbying for a family backpacking trip.
“Ancient enmities will melt like the morning dew in a sun-kissed glade.”
“Whatever,” my sister had emailed back. “But you had better not scare the kids with your stupid ghost stories.” (Isaac, I learned later, had crept into the living room after my last Colorado visit—at midnight, wide-eyed, refusing to return to his bedroom. Under interrogation, Isaac admitted that he was afraid that The Fingernail Mutant was going to get him and that yeah, Uncle Stevie had told him about the monster.)
“You write pretty,” my brother had replied, “but that doesn’t mean you’re not insane. No one has forgotten the giant ham you bought Grandpa for Hanukkah.”
Why did my sister not trust me? Why couldn’t children keep secrets? Why was my brother forever bringing up painful episodes from the past? Also, for the record, at the time of the Hanukkah Ham, I had been seeking a better understanding of my place in the world. I had been seeking to understand other holiday traditions and to bridge generational gaps. I had been seeking to expand my family’s consciousness, and while it’s true that I had also been smoking lots of marijuana, my shrink assures me that I have always been a seeker, and that I should honor that part of my emotional life, because it is sacred.
I had promised my sister—again—that I would not mention The Fingernail Mutant or stolen livers. I told my brother that I would not steal the chocolate when everyone else was sleeping, as I’d been accused of doing on previous family gatherings. Why couldn’t my relatives let go of the past?
What I didn’t say but what I thought was that a bonding experience together under the stars might help us through the transitional phases we had recently found ourselves in—my brother suffering from acid reflux and lower-back pain brought on, I felt, by overwork, impending global economic apocalypse, and the imminent departure of his only son, Eddie, to college; my sister, a single mother of two, living with her kids and her boyfriend, the couple pondering the attractions and perils of marriage; and I, girlfriendless, under-employed, overweight, battling gout, and wondering if lying about my age by approximately 13 years in my online dating profile was “pathetic and sick,” as a disturbed, angry, and distressingly hostile woman whose name I won’t mention suggested, or merely cagey and forward-looking marketing. It wasn’t just the grown-ups whom I was thinking of helping. The trip would be good for the youngsters, too. It would help with the I-dog’s capacious sense of awe and curiosity regarding the natural world. Camping out would be good for Eddie, who earns straight As, throws the javelin, plays guitar, paints, is president of his school, and generally acts like the kind of boy who will never find himself shuffling along self-help book aisles. I thought some pine-scented, campfire-smoked wisdom from Uncle Stevie might help prepare Eddie for his freshman year of college.
But Iris? Would a backpacking trip help Iris? Iris is somewhat of a mystery. On one hand, she is already fairly hardy. When she was five, in the dead of a frigid mountain winter, she spent the better part of three months in a grass skirt and a coconut bra and flip-flops. A year earlier, when she was four, she had been informed by her older brother during lunchtime that “Hey, Irie, you know where that hamburger comes from? It comes from a cow. That’s right, you’re eating a dead cow right now. Ha ha. Moo. Ha ha.”
“You’re stupid,” Iris had said, calm as a giant toad, then she returned to her lunch, working over her burger, tearing at it as the wild African spotted dog tears at the baby wildebeest. “Mmmmm,” she said, smacking her lips, “cow meat!”
Recently, she has adopted some new favorite phrases. One is “Seriously!” The other is “I’m very angry!” Uttered together, the words have made adults weep. They are uttered together now, after my sister has told me to shut up about the Comanches, after Isaac has turned on me, after the blue-eyed mountain beast has swallowed an entire chocolate bar, considered her surroundings, and delivered her crie d’estomac.
“S’mores!” the tiny omnivore howls. “I’m very angry! Seriously!”