Backpacking with relatives can present emotional challenges, particularly for the philosophically inclined camper. I am such a camper, and I encountered some difficult moments on a recent trip into the backcountry. During the lightning storm on the way in, for example, when I found myself shivering and huddling under a tree while allegedly loving family members chortled at my distress; at 3 a.m. on our first night, at which point I woke with a splitting headache, upset stomach, and a glum suspicion that my older brother had intentionally poisoned me with giardia-infested hot chocolate; the slightly awkward instant earlier, during the otherwise peaceful and happy circle around the campfire, when—after I had recounted to my niece and nephews how Comanches had perfected torture to an art form in this very country, maybe even at this very campsite, and how that particular tribe of Native Americans could strip off a man’s skin, layer by layer, vein by vein, until all that was left were eyeballs and nerve endings—my younger sister hollered from her tent to knock it off and if the kids had nightmares, she was throwing them into my tent and what the hell was wrong with me, anyway?
Those were challenging experiences by the standards of any camper, even those not as philosophically inclined as me. But they weren’t as challenging as the moments when I was betrayed by the two people I thought I could depend on.
First, the terrible and urgent scream from thigh level.
“You promised us s’mores!”
It was Iris, my seven-year-old niece, my sister’s child. Iris stands 3 foot 9 inches, weighs 44 pounds, has oceanic blue eyes, hair so blonde it’s almost white, and a sparkling, toothy smile that makes strangers gasp with reflexive delight. She has freckles and a pug nose, too. She has a face that compels people to pinch it and liken it to an angel’s. If only they knew.
“I know, Iris,” I said, “but Uncle Stevie needs some time to get settled and he’s not sure where the marshmallows are…”
“You! Promised! S’mores!!!” she shrieked again. It was a heinous sound, a primitive howl of rage and pure animal need.
“Please, Iris,” I said. “Uncle Stevie also promised relaxing, carefree family fun. I need your help. Have a little patience. You know how your mommy always says patience is something that will make you happier when you grow up, if you had more of it. Well, now is a good time to practice and…”
“S’mores! S’mores! S’mores!”
I rubbed my temples.
“Just give her a piece of chocolate, Uncle Stevie. She’s hungry and tired. And this is how she gets.”
The soothing voice belonged to Isaac, Iris’s 10-year-old brother, also towheaded, also blue-eyed. But Isaac is calm where Iris is stormy, quiet where she’s loud, steady where she is occasionally psychotic and possibly (though the family hopes not) criminally insane. I have been cultivating Isaac’s loyalty since he was a toddler, when I had taught him to say “Mommy doesn’t need to know we had ice cream for lunch” and “Bedtime is stupid.” Isaac had been a key ally in my efforts to organize the first Friedman backpacking trip.
I offered Iris a bar of chocolate, which she tore from my grasp and fell upon, much as a blonde, blue-eyed, pug-nosed hyena might fall upon the tender and defenseless neck flesh of a hapless gazelle. She gnashed and tore and chewed. The wind picked up. The temperature dropped.
“Uncle Stevie,” Isaac said. He would turn 11 the next morning. It was one reason we’d all gathered for this trip (there were other, darker reasons, too, and I’ll get to those in a minute).
And then, the second, even more injurious betrayal. A very challenging moment for me.
“Uncle Stevie,” Isaac repeated, “this trip really sucks.”