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.
Hulk and Ice lead the way, followed by a skipping, trilling Jaws, then, holding hands, Quisling and The Captain. Dr. Comfort comes next, and I follow, regarding the group, thinking about family camping trips in general, this trip in particular, and my future. I wonder if I might be happier if I moved to Durango, living closer to women who spend more time outside and less time hunched over cell phones. I might be able to contribute more to society’s general good if I were intimately involved in the day-to-day lives of Jaws and Ice. I ponder the positive ways I might help mold their characters. With painstaking training, I believe Jaws could be turned into an elite athlete, or a highly paid professional assassin. With enough sacred teaching moments, I might help shape Ice into a critically acclaimed novelist, or a cult leader.
My eyes start leaking again. I feel a philosophical urge coming.
“Hey, Ann?” Ann is Quisling’s given name. “Sorry I told the kids the ‘I Want My Liver’ story. I know I promised.”
“You know, you were a pretty cute baby,” I say. “I actually was glad Mom brought you for show-and-tell that one time. I know it wasn’t your fault I never got to bring in my dead caterpillar.”
“Really? You forgive me for using my two-month-old telepathic powers to make Mom ruin your big first-grade moment with your friggin’ dead caterpillar? Jesus, Steve, do you ever think maybe you should fire your shrink?”
I know she doesn’t mean it. I know that she’s a good sister, her shocking treachery regarding the Ice Lakes Basin notwithstanding, and a good mother, even though she needs to crack down more, especially on Iris.
By now I have caught up to Dr. Comfort. “So,” I ask my brother, “what was your absolute favorite moment of the trip? The campfire? The s’mores?”
“When we were under the trees, in the thunderstorm,” Dr. Comfort says, which surprises me.
“It was a reminder of how powerless we are in the face of nature,” he says, “and how we just have to surrender to it, and when we do, everything is all right. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to struggle so much.” It’s the longest speech I have heard my brother make in approximately three decades. It’s also somewhat prophetic. After the trip, he starts practicing yoga, stops fretting over balance sheets on weekends, and once, when my mother asks him what they’ll be having for dinner on a night when she is joining his family, he actually tells her.
We have been picking up our pace, until we’re all hiking together.
“Quis?” I ask my sister. “How about you? What was your favorite moment of the trip?”
“Under the trees. Intimate, all together, and no one was complaining.” (The outdoors and, I like to think, our lightning-storm bonding work their magic on Quisling, too. A few months later, she and The Captain announce plans to marry. I think I should get more credit for the nuptials because I proposed the camping expedition, but that doesn’t happen. I’m working with my shrink to let go of that resentment.)
“Skipping rocks with you, learning about Attila the Hun and Hit...”
I cough loudly.
“I mean, skipping rocks with you.”
“It was all cool.”
“S’mores!” cries the flesh-eating cherub.
Me? Has a camping trip with my closest kin transformed me? I philosophize about this when we arrive back in Durango, at the house The Captain and Quisling and the kids share. Inspired by Dr. Comfort, who does the same, I pad into an empty room and I lie down and stare at the ceiling. What I see is our cozy little campsite. What I hear is the soft lapping of the mountain lake.
In the interest of efficient philosophizing, I insert the earplugs I always carry with me to family gatherings.
I stare at the ceiling some more. Philosophizing with great intent, I return to our campsite. It is the same place, but it is different. Great, fat marshmallows spill from easily accessible pouches. The clouds are thin and wispy, not overweight, and the children are well-behaved, and everyone—even the adults—clamors for the “I Want My Liver” tale. We recline on spongy grass, happy and filled with love, safe from predators, and the ground is soft and we are in a glacial basin.
I hear a door slam, and the boys shout. Then Iris screams that she’s hungry. Seriously! I stuff my earplugs in a little deeper and I put a pillow over my eyes. I return to the magical campsite. I seek the crackling fire, the family love, the moonlit circle where marshmallows are plentiful and forgotten children are found, the hushed place where philosophizers are exalted. I seek really hard.
Writer at Large Steve Friedman lives all by himself in New York City.