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October 2010

My F*&^ing Family

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.
funny family camping Illustration by Zohar Lazar

The trailhead is a happy place, filled with the promise of adventure and the soothing properties of nature. I am filled with optimism, as I usually am at trailheads. I’m so filled with optimism that I mention, yet again, how this would be a beautiful day for a real hike—to a glacial basin—and I reflect on the spongy beauty of the tundra we will not be climbing to.

“Give it a rest,” my sister says. 

“It’s sad that your mom has no sense of adventure,” I say to Isaac, who I still think of as my ally, even though he

squealed about The Fingernail Mutant. I consider forgiveness and generosity of spirit to be two of my greatest strengths.

“You mean the kind of adventure sense that inspired the Hanukkah Ham?” Mr. Comfort asks.

“Is that like fancy holiday pig meat?” Iris wants to know.

“Your Uncle Stevie is silly sometimes,” my sister says to her daughter.

“I’m a seeker,” I say. “Seekers seek. When will everyone understand that?”

“How about seeking your backpack and putting it on,” my sister says. “I want to get in before dark. And it looks like it might rain.”

Mr. Comfort triple-checks to make sure all the chocolate bars are accounted for, and then my sister’s boyfriend announces that it’s time to go.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” I ask.

“What,” my sister says, “do you want to complain some more?”

“Don’t you think we need to agree on our trail names?”

“Why do we have to have trail names?” Isaac asks.

“We have to have trail names because of safety concerns, mostly,” I explain. “Say we’re up at our Highland Mary campsite, which is dangerous to start with because of the hidden perils lurking everywhere in the surrounding forest, unlike at a campsite in a glacial basin, where you can see everything. Then a bear, or a mountain lion, or a plague-carrying marmot attacks, and someone cries for help. And say, for example, I-dog, it’s you, so you yell, ‘Hey, Steve!’ or ‘Mom!’”

“Yeah?” Isaac asks. Attacks by wild animals continue to captivate him. I love my young nephew and our sacred teaching moments. Sometimes I suspect he might be a seeker, too.

“Well, who knows if there might be other campsites near where we are, and maybe there will be someone named Steve there, and another mom, and none of the adults will be absolutely positive if it’s he or she who is being screamed to, or someone else, and that split second hesitation could spell the difference between life and death.”

“And it would not be fun to find yourself between the gaping jaws of a grizzly!” says Eddie, who has already benefited from some sacred teaching moments. “Not fun at all!”

“Seriously!” Iris says.

“That makes sense,” Isaac says. “It really does. Mom, I think Uncle Stevie is right on this.”

“Great,” my sister snarls. “Friggin’ awesome. Trail names. OK, let’s have ’em. Give us our goddamn trail names.”

Iris is, of course, Jaws. Mr. Comfort, at Isaac’s insistence, will henceforth be known as Dr. Comfort “because it sounds cooler.” My sister’s boyfriend, a weirdly calm and sweet-natured guy, is a captain of the Durango Fire Department, and hyper-efficient with power tools. He is The Captain, obviously.

Eddie, at Isaac’s behest, will be addressed as Hulk because his forearms are the approximate size of well-fed anacondas. I suggest The Professor for Isaac, but he says he’d rather be Ice, “because it sounds cooler.” I ignore my sister’s proffering of “Piggy,” “Infant,” and “SlowMo,” and accept Ice’s suggestion: Java Junkie. (In efforts to self-medicate my inclination to stillness and over-philosophizing, I recently upped my caffeine intake to nine cups a day.)

“What’s mom’s trail name?” Jaws asks.

“I think we’ll call your mom Quisling,” I say.

“Quis what?” Ice asks.

“Well, children,” I tell them, as the three of us share another sacred teaching moment and, at my urging, a giant bar of milk chocolate. “A long time ago, when the Nazis were going to invade Norway, one of the head Norwegians kept promising all the nice people there that he would fight the Nazis, and the Norwegians believed him, because they were nice, and they trusted people when they made promises, because that’s what nice, kind, decent people do, but in secret the head Norwegian, whose name was Quisling, was plotting to give away the country to the Nazis, who were really, really bad. So when someone promises something, like your mom promised Uncle Stevie, but then betrays the person…”

“Fine,” my sister snaps. “I’m friggin’ Quisling. Now can we please get going, because I’d like to have our camp set up before dark. And I see clouds.”

At a mile and a half, I feel drizzle. I had packed a lightweight water-resistant jacket rather than a heavier waterproof one because, as I explained to Isaac during a sacred teaching moment, “An experienced camper has to make decisions every second, and it’s more important to travel light than to burden oneself, especially considering that we’re not traveling to monsoon country.” After two miles, the drizzle has turned to a steady downpour. Then the downpour turns to hail, with thunder.

Then I, who happen to be about 20 yards ahead of everyone, reflecting on the hard and lonely path of the seeker, am almost struck by a jagged bolt of lightning. It’s later alleged by some in the group that I jumped in the air and turned 180 degrees in one move. I might have screamed, too. I scurry back to the group. To my great displeasure, the children are laughing.

“You jumped really high,” Jaws says.

We gather under a tree and discuss whether that’s such a good idea in a lightning storm. But at least we’re protected from the downpour, so we stand, huddled into a tight group, not talking, watching the lightning, listening to the thunder. It’s cold, and at least one of us is soaked. We crouch so closely together that we’re touching.

When the rain stops, we resume our trek, ending up an hour later at the third of the Highland Mary Lakes, a half-mile-long, 300-yard-wide smear of shimmering blue. Ice and Hulk pitch their tent in a protected spot with good views of the lake, Quisling and the Captain claim an area a little closer to the rocky shore, and I suggest to my brother that we spread our gear on a nearby hilltop, because it seems the safest spot around.

“Isn’t this where lightning will most likely strike?” Dr. Comfort asks.

I explain to him that we’ll be able to see any approaching predators, that camping is all about tradeoffs and risk-assessment. The CEO grunts. He’s even quieter than usual. I know that he’s worked the last 10 weekends, and that his acid reflux and back pain have been worsening, and that the college applications piling up on the dining room table provide bittersweet reminders that Eddie will soon be leaving home. I suggest to Dr. Comfort that he might be going through an important transitional phase in his life, and perhaps if he opened up a bit about his feelings, he would feel better. He grunts again.

I look upward at what are now angry, swollen clouds. I feel my eyes moisten. I identify with the obese clouds. (My nickname as a toddler was “butterball.”)
The dark clouds continue to gather.

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