Before bears hibernate and the kids move out


My friend recently asked, "How's the house coming?" "Slowly, but deliberately," I told him, but that was only partially true because, in all honesty, it's not really going. In fact, it's crawling. Our lamps don't have shades, our kids are sleeping in sleeping bags, and up until yesterday, waffles were made by eyeing the measurements for ingredients - thanks friends for sending us measuring cups!

We don't have much, but we have enough. The desire though, to buy and build and make a home, to design rooms and decorate walls is infectious and, at times, pretty consuming.

It's how we spend our evenings, our weekends, and where we devote our thoughts and dreams until, suddenly, we stop it hits us; we're running out of time.

A few years ago, October 1st became a family holiday weekend, and with most of our kids never having see an American Fall, we planned to continue the tradition this year. But then the van needed work, the cupboards ached to be filled, and the pile of ungraded papers jeered and sneered and sat. So, on the Tuesday before we were supposed to go, we cancelled.

That night, standing outside the van and camper we'd just dropped off at Josey's parents, we argued about the week, the cancelled weekend, and why we even moved back to the States. We had hoped and dreamed for more family time and simple adventures together. Not garage sales and weekend projects. 

In an instant, under the dimming sky and beside a row of towering evergreens, I suddenly changed my mind. "Let's go," I said. "The camper may not work, but we have a tent, blankets, and a van that can get us there. Let's just go."

That quickly, the plans were back on. But by the next morning, once again, I had my doubts.

Then, this song came to mind:

What I love about this song is not the lyrics or the immediate significance, but the memory I have of when I first heard it. I was around ten and my dad had taken my brother and I fishing to some northern lake. We stayed in a truck camper, watched the Chicago Bulls win the NBA Finals over the Los Angeles Lakers in a bar that over looked the lake, and for the first time, ate hash browns and eggs, "a fisherman's breakfast." 

I remember asking what a silver spoon was and, even at the age of ten, feeling the weight and significance of wasted time and, more importantly, not being able to get it back.  

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play
Can you teach me to throw, I said, not today
I got a lot to do, he said, that's okay
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
Said, I'm gonna be like him, yeah
You know I'm gonna be like him

"Yeah," I told myself, "we need to go camping."

By Thursday night, we were huddled and cuddled in a small cabin just outside Casper. Because the cupboards can wait; making a life and spending time with our kids can't. 


Yet, somehow I still wasn't convinced. Every time I filled up the van, whenever we paid for our campsite or loaded up on PB&J's, hot chocolate, and dried oatmeal, I felt guilty, nervous, and overcome with doubt. "Is this wise? Am I doing what's best for my family?" Because right now, there is nothing saved for them. No college fund, no two months security savings, and no promise that if the van breaks down I can afford to get them home without calling family for help. 

Shouldn't we have just stayed home?

When we pulled into the campsite, "Beware of the Bear" signs were posted and stapled everywhere and each campsite came with a "Bear Box" - a metal box with a small lock meant to keep the bears at bay because, "Bears are scavenging for their last bit of food before they hibernate." 

Whenever bears are mentioned, even if it's in passing because one was sighted almost ten years ago, every sound, every gust of wind, and every movement in the dark is a bear coming to feed on me or my children. That night, I slept with the axe nearby. By 3:30 I was up and building a fire because I can only assume they're terrified of fires. If not, I don't want to hear about it. Leave me my simple comforting lies. 

My family wouldn't knuckle the sleep from their eyes for another four hours, so I had some time alone, in the dark, with my axe, coffee, and wandering thoughts. And, once more, I mulled over our decision to leave for the weekend. 

What's one weekend away? Does it really make a difference? 

What's one weekend at home? Does it really matter if we're home or not?

I had no answers. Just doubts. And something was wrestling over there, by the tent, but no worries, it's just Judah going to the bathroom. 

"Morning buddy," I say, adding a few more logs on the fire.

"Morning" he mumbles, heading back into the tent. 

And the doubts continue, Do my kids even notice? Do they even care? 

The answer would have to wait because Elias was starting to fuss and Josey could use a morning of sleeping in and the sun was about to rise, so why not go for a walk?

A half hour later, Elias and I made our way back to the campsite and were greeted by laughter, simple morning conversation, and the snap and crackle of a newly enlivened fire.

We made breakfast, drank hot chocolate, and cuddled under blankets. We talked of bears, why evergreens are called Evergreens, and wrestled with what would happen if our thumbs fell off?

Seriously. What would happen? 

For hours, Judah and Eden lined up matches all along the rim of the fire pit and watched as the heat finally won over and set the little red tips on fire and Zion climbed WAY TOO HIGH up a nearby tree because, this is what happens when we get out into the woods and away from home, we find ourselves in spontaneous and unpredictable moments, moments always hoped for and cherished as a parent. 

Then it was time to get more wood.

"Dad," Judah said while I stacked a small pile onto his outstretched arms, "Don't forget we need to cut a pile to leave behind."

I hadn't forgotten and was hoping neither had he. Ever since our trip to the Great Wall, It's been a short tradition, leaving behind a "bless you" gift, and has become a staple of our camping adventures. When we returned, arms full of wood to leave behind, our campground neighbor walked over, "to see how many kids you have." he said.

He was a friendly man, as most campers tend to be, and he was out camping with his son. "I wanted to leave three days ago," he says, "but my son wanted to stay a few extra nights, so we stayed." He nods at his son who is a freshman in college and busy tearing down their tent. "I tried camping with them as much as I could," he says, reaching out and tugging Elias' thick onzie, "but I regret not doing it more." 

We talked for a bit more about the weather, the fishing in Wisconsin and how we both would rather fish in Canada. Then, he bids us good luck in the coming storm, and heads back to his son, Chrysler minivan, and their long ride home. When they pulled out, he waved, and I felt a little sense of relief. 


Maybe we are a bit reckless in going to the mountains when our lives are in chaos, maybe I should have stayed home, worked on the house, and saved money on gas and simple cabins, but we didn't. Instead, we went to the mountains, and I think I'm okay with that because, when it's all over, when Judah, in eight short years, is on to his freshman year or Elias is packing up to move across the world, or my girls no longer fit in my lap and ask for morning hugs, I don't want to "regret not doing it more." I want to be confident that I did my best, that I soaked up every moment and minute I could, and that I worked hard for my kids to always know that they came before things or jobs or financial security. I want them to know that when life was hard, Dad made time for them, and that he took them camping

I want, "{they'd} grown up just like me" to mean they've become collectors of memories, not things. That pockets full of pinecones and shoes full of burrs are more precious than rooms full of furniture or bank accounts full of cash.

In the future, if I have to apologize to my kids, I want it to be because we built too many campfires, spent too much time counting the stars, and collected too many lakeside rocks. 


How is our house? It's empty.

How is our life? It's chaotic.

But how are our hearts? They're full. Because for a long and beautiful weekend, we had nothing but each other, the mountains, and a collection of simple moments that will last a lifetime. We had am eight hour car ride in a seventeen year old van where, with the snow swirling outside, my kids sat in the back and talked about whatever kids talk about. 

Our hearts are full because we have each other, sweet friends, and few distractions. 

Although I'm never really quite sure if what I'm doing is what I should be doing, I do know I can never go wrong with investing in life with family because I wasn't put here to make a living life. I was put here to make a life - for me, and my family. 

And sometimes, that means coffee in the mountains, instead of breakfast at home.



For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  The Mountains have a Way  :  Get Out More - Tetons, 2017