Saturday, June 29, 2013

Trust and Mortality

Mike is backpacking with his Boy Scouts this weekend. I ended up arranging a play date for Nick so I could go to my quilt retreat. Nick is almost ready for a trip like this. Almost. Mike, the Scoutmaster, made the decision. I might have let him go. Mike is being cautious with a couple of the younger boys in the troop. He said that they might be ready next year.

So, I left home this morning before Nick was picked up and I came back after he was dropped off. Mike and I were worried if it would be too much for him, but I found that I could enjoy myself as I sewed and not worry too much. Last week, Mike didn't help when he had reminded me that there would be no cell service where he was and that my retreat was more than an hour away. I went anyway, knowing that Nick had been alone longer, though not twice in one day. Still, I sighed in relief when I walked up the stairs and Nick sat eating a snack and watching TV, a bit of sun on his cheeks as the evidence of having gone to the pool. Half my family was home safe.

I was about as relaxed about this trip as I'd been until one of the moms called and said there was a squall going through Eastern Washington and that they'd called for flash floods and lightning. I took a deep breath.

"Don't worry. It's great terrain for lightning. The ridge is almost always higher than the trail." I lived through lots of lightning growing up in the Midwest and the biggest problem when you were stuck outside in a thunderstorm was finding low ground. Lightning takes the path of least resistance, strikes the tallest tree.

"But it's a bad storm," she said.

"I've been with Mike in thunderstorms out in the woods. He knows to hunker down low and wait it out," I said.

"I'm in Eastern Washington now and this thing is powerful. There's a flash flood warning."

"You know, I watched how Mike handled a rough river crossing once too. He was great. The water was swift and cold and they lined all of us across very carefully. Besides, the Troop did the river crossing early this morning. They're at higher ground now. It'll be okay."

"I tried to call him and couldn't get through."

"There's no cell service in the area. It'll be okay. Mike's with Tony and Paul. Between them, they have a lot of experience being out in the weather." Paul was a hunter and Tony had been in the Army. And Mike's been in the woods. I thought of the wind storm at World's End State Park in Pennsylvania. I thought of a lightning storm we'd experienced in our tents one night in the Adirondacks.

"I've been out with Mike in a thunderstorm on a lake in the Boundary waters with wind making waves that crashed over the bow of the canoe and a four year old in between us. We got out of it. He's pretty good in a bad situation."

"Maybe the troop should buy one of those satellite phones so stuff like this won't happen."

I gave up trying to convince her. I told myself to stay calm. I'd seen Mike in much worse situations than what she was describing. Mike was the one I wanted to be around when stuff fell apart. I could feel myself wavering about his safety though. Just a little waver.

"If you want me to take Nick and head up there, I will." I trailed off. What was I going to do that Mike couldn't decide for himself? Mike might not have an advance warning, but he'd see it when it arrived. Even if I did get there, I'd have a late evening hike with a tired boy who already wasn't quite up to the hike. If water was rising in the river, I didn't want to take my boy across it in the dark. There's an important element of offering aid and that is to assess the safety of even trying to help. If one man is stranded on an island in the middle of the river, there's no sense in adding another so that two will then have to be rescued.

I ran through an attempt to text Mike while she listened to my message. I knew it wouldn't go through. I told her I'd call her if I heard from him.

"At any hour," she said.

"At any hour," I repeated. I felt a little twinge of worry in my gut. Mike has never been in a flash flood that I know of. When I was nine and on a trip west with my family, my dad had pulled off the road at a rise in the desert when it rained. We watched as desert flowers blossomed on the spot. It was a miracle to see. We also watched as a rush of water pushed debris over the highway in a gully to one side of us. It was a miracle we hadn't been caught up in it.

"You know, Mike has no trouble ending a trip if there's a problem," I said. I was thinking about that same trip when Nick was four and we paddled in the Boundary Waters. His mosquito bites were swelling up and we couldn't control them with antihistamine. We didn't want to have a half a day of paddling with a boy going into anaphylaxis. "Remember that he brought the Troop home early from winter camp when he thought Jake might be getting frostbite?"

"Okay. Just call me if you hear from him." She wasn't convinced. I could hear it in her voice.

I get it. It's hard to let your kids go into the wilderness, even prepared. There are no guarantees. None. I think people forget that there are no guarantees on the way to the grocery store either, but we get comfortable. We feel safer there.

Yet if I were to tell you when I was most proud of myself, it would be when I was canoeing or backpacking out in the middle of the wilderness, carrying my share of the gear, paddling or walking when I thought I was too tired to keep moving forward, learning to handle bears and wind and lightning and even the thought of escaped convicts in the woods. I learned who I could trust in a bad situation. I trusted Mike.

I repeated that I'd call her and she finally said goodbye. Before I sat back down with Nick, I checked the Weather Channel. I could see the squall she'd talked about. It was southeast of where the guys were. It was moving, but would be likely to be moving further away from them. The weather where they were was seventy-four degrees with zero chance of rain. That might not be totally accurate, but I pictured Mike and the rest of the guys sitting around a campfire on a clear night and telling stories even though I knew it might not be true.

Oh, they could be hunkered down in their tents listening to the wind and watching the trees lit up with lightning. They might not feel perfectly safe in the world. And that, in itself, is worth something.

Thank you for listening, jb

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