A waiter approaches our table. An hour earlier, we had made it to the trailhead, barely ahead of the ravenous beasts. I promised Eddie as we drove back toward Portland that he could order whatever he wanted for breakfast and that I wouldn’t tell his mom if he had coffee. After he asks for French toast, and eggs, and bacon, and potatoes, and sourdough toast, Eddie buries his head in his survival book.
“Age-old skills keep my mind off ever-growing hunger,” I say. (Les, desert.)
Eddie grunts again. He’s so serious. I should probably be more serious.
“You did a great job out there,” I tell him, “especially on the shelter-building. And I really did sleep on the spruce boughs in spirit last night. Or pine boughs. Or whatever they were.”
“In spirit, sahib,” Eddie says.
I study Eddie’s face. Have I crushed his tender teenaged soul by not sleeping in the shelter? (“You really have to suck up the pain,” Les said in the desert, and I think about those words now, with remorse and some shame.) Was I too hard with the sahib thing? Could I have helped him have more fun? And could I have spent less time quoting Les and Bear and more time watching Eddie, emulating his quiet, competent ways? Most important, because I consider myself, like Les and Bear, a survival expert by training but a teacher by calling, did Eddie learn a single useful thing on this trip? Was I a total failure, not just as a woodsman but also as a role model? These are the questions I’m pondering when Eddie speaks.
“Next time we go into the unforgiving wild, can we build a death pit?”
Did he say “unforgiving wild?” I feel a warmth in my guts. Could it be the coffee?
“We’ll see.” I’ve decided it’s never too late to start speaking in monosyllables, to practice being strong and almost silent. Maybe this weekend I’ll install some drywall. I wonder what drywall looks like.
“We could use the pit to catch fresh meat,” Eddie says. “Plus, it would keep us safe from the gaping jaws of any ravenous predators who had developed an insatiable appetite for man-flesh.”
“I would like that,” I say. The warmth from my stomach has moved. Now it’s behind my eyes.
“They would be hopelessly doomed,” Eddie says.
I want to answer my nephew, but I don’t. I can’t. Words fail me. I am saved.
Years ago in Yosemite, writer at large Steve Friedman slipped to the edge of a yawning precipice, then–inch by inch–manfully pulled himself to safety.