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.
A month before the trip, I telephone my sister to get her in line with my plans for camping above treeline.
“Mr. Comfort is going to push for something wimpy,” I tell her. Mr. Comfort is my brother’s nickname, which he earned over the years by, whenever backpacking, lugging two pillows, fresh tomatoes, hammocks, a reclining chair, one or two hardback books, salt and pepper shakers, and an extra-long, inflatable air mattress. Mr. Comfort is a complicated man. In his professional life, he is demanding and hyper-focused. But he also finds a way to take a short nap every afternoon, no matter his location or social obligations, or the value of the stock market. He is implacable about this, but never overly confrontational. He is like a combination of Rupert Murdoch, Gandhi, and Yoda—but lazier. Lately, he has been lobbying for hiking trips on which no hiking actually takes place, on horses. “Or at least some llamas that could carry our stuff.”
“And Mr. Comfort is going to want to camp for only one night. So you have to promise to stick with me on the plans, OK?
Two nights, Ice Lakes Basin. No horses or anything.”
“I’ll back you, but no ‘I Want My Liver’ story for the kids.”
“That’s not just a story; it’s a parable. It’s a powerful narrative and…”
“No promise, no deal.”
Mr. Comfort and Eddie (Mrs. Comfort stays home) and I all arrive at my sister’s in Durango, Colorado, on a Monday afternoon in early August. Over dinner, I review the plans for the next day. I extol the wonders of the Ice Lakes Basin, the lunar splendor of the tundra-y landscape, its spongy beauty and stark, annihilating isolation.
“I can hike up any mountain!” screams Iris, who has just finished assaulting a brick-sized piece of lasagna. “I’m like a mountain goat! Seriously!”
After dinner, while everyone else drives to a hot springs for a prehike soak, I recline on the couch to read more about Ice Lakes, which I have never technically visited. When the group returns, I encourage everyone to get a good night’s sleep, because we have an adventurous three days ahead.
“Um, Steve,” my brother says, “actually, we’re not going in tomorrow. And we’re not going to Ice Berg Lake…”
“Ice Lakes Basin. Not Ice Berg Lake! Ice Lakes Basin!”
“Yeah, whatever. We’re going to hike to Highland Mary Lake and stay one night. It’s six not-too-steep miles, and it’s got some nice, hilly campsites.”
“What?” I glare at my sister, who won’t meet my eyes.
“It was her idea,” my brother says. He has never shied from delivering unpleasant truths.
“Iris doesn’t want to go tomorrow,” my sister says. “She’s been on the go for the past two weeks, and I don’t want to fight with her in the morning.”
“She’s a seven-year-old!” is what I want to say. “Make her go!” is what I want to say. “That’s what mothers do. They make their kids do things! You think I wanted to walk to school on rainy days when the worms were crawling all over the sidewalks? You think I wanted to eat mom’s tuna casserole just because you liked it, or mow the lawn, because Don was hogging the rake? You think I liked that disgusting bubble gum swill they called ice cream at Baskin Robbins? You think I liked it when mom brought you in for my first-grade show-and-tell, when I told her very clearly that I really would have rather presented the giant, dead caterpillar I had found in the backyard? You think I liked that?”
But I say none of it. I think it, though, I think it hard.
“So we’re only going for one night?” I ask. “And we’re camping in the woods?”
What I mean is, “So the middle child gets screwed again? So number two son is ignored one more time, in a lifetime of getting ignored? So good old Uncle Stevie takes another one for the fucking team?”
“I suspected you would be the one to turn,” I say to Mr. Comfort the next day, as we load up on trail mix, graham crackers, and chocolate at a local grocery store. “I didn’t think our sister was going to stab me in the back.”
“Yeah, well,” Mr. Comfort says. (Over-sharing is not one of my brother’s sins. When our mother asked what kind of cake he was going to serve at his 50th birthday party, he replied, “Why do you want to know?” When, a few years ago, at my shrink’s urging, I delivered a 10-minute soliloquy over the telephone to Mr. Comfort, which I had written out in advance, regarding the decades of jealousy, resentment, admiration, and love I had felt for him, and admitted that sometimes I hadn’t expressed those feelings in a way that demonstrated ownership for my actions, and after I had vowed to be more emotionally transparent and kind as we moved into middle age, he replied, “So noted.”)
“I can’t believe she lets Iris hold her emotionally hostage,” I tell my brother.
“Mmmm-hmm,” Mr. Comfort replies.
“Children want boundaries,” I say, tossing a bag of chips into the cart, then steering toward the dairy section, where I plan to get some whipped cream, in case anyone needs a hot fudge sundae to build strength on the night before we hike in.
“They need boundaries.”
“You know,” I say, “I was talking to my shrink last week about the plight of the forgotten child and…”
“Hey, Steve,” my brother says, “if you’re planning to sneak the chocolate, why don’t you just buy a few extra bars this time? Save some drama.”