(Note – although it makes sense on its own, this is a continuation of yesterday’s story, Over the Embers)
I woke up as the east sky yellowed in a pre-dawn glow. I always felt like hell after the first night out on a camping trip, but this was worse than usual.
“It sucks getting old,” I said.
“Finally listening to me, I see.”
I opened my eyes and took in my surroundings. Jason was pushed up close beside me on the left and Teddy was on my right. Pressed up against Teddy was Derek, on his side and watching me.
“Now you’re becoming a helpless old man,” he said.
The day before came back to me in a flash.
“Not so helpless that I can’t take you over my knee if needed,” I answered. He laughed.
I slipped out from between my two younger sons. We had all been under a single sleeping bag. Even unzipped and opened up it wasn’t big enough to cover us all. I gently pushed Teddy against his brother and started to rearrange to bag to cover all three.
“No, I’m getting up too,” Derek said.
I nodded and made sure the two younger boys were completely covered.
“Get the pack down and pull out four breakfast bars,” I told my oldest before going to the edge of the road.
There was a good ten foot drop where the road bank had been washed away, with some of the road still undercut. The car, actually what they call a cross over between a car and an SUV, was pushed up against some trees about 30 yards from the road. The incline was steep so I guessed it was also about 30 or 40 feet lower.
There was a small stream running down the mountain side at this point. Seeing chunks of rusty metal in the washed-out area I figured the stream had passed under the road in a large corrugated metal drainage pipe. I studied the shape of the road and the surrounding woods.
“Here’s the pack, Dad.” Derek was behind me, holding the pack out.
“Thanks. See if you can find the breakfast bars. I’m going down to the car.”
“What?! You almost killed yourself going down there yesterday.”
“Yes, but I was rushing and didn’t study it. I needed to get there before dark fell. See over there?” I pointed down the road. “There’s an easy way down to the level of the car. It shouldn’t take long.”
“What’re you going after?”
“The other three packs. We need them.”
“So, you think it really might be a while before someone finds us.”
I looked at him closely, then glance to be sure the two younger boys were still sleeping. “Son, nobody is coming to find us. This was washed out months ago, and yet there was no indication, no ‘Road Closed’ signs. Hell, even my GPS showed it open. And look at the road. There’s debris all over it. We’re the first car this way in a long time. We’re going to walk out.”
“Nobody’s coming?” I could tell he was fighting back tears. “And we have to walk out? That’s miles.”
“I figure about six, maybe eight miles to the main road back there.”
“But that road was empty yesterday.”
“People do use it, though. And, worse case, it’s another ten or fifteen to the state highway. If it was just me, I could do it in a day, perhaps needing tomorrow morning, but…”
He looked back at his sleeping brothers.
“I’ll find the bars.”
“Thanks Derek, I knew I could count on you.”
The boy sat down on the road and started to dig through the pack. I watched, feeling proud of the boy, then turned towards my task.
The path down to the car wasn’t as easy as I’d originally thought, but working carefully I was soon there. Looking back up I studied the washed-out area, both the original cut and the newer slide that had swallowed our car. The boys came to the edge and waved.
“Back up a bit, boys,” I yelled. “And stay far from the cut-through. The road is still undercut over there and it might slide again.”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Derek yelled down. “We’ll stay close to the camp fire. I think I should be able to get it going again.
I gave a big thumbs-up and watched them back away from the edge.
How in the world did we ever survive? I saw the cut-through at the last second and stopped right at the edge. I had gotten out of the car to look and the boys followed me. I’m not sure why they followed me. Typically, it would take a small bomb to dislodge Jason and pull him away from a game, but he put his tablet down and came out.
Within seconds of us leaving the car there was a rumble. The car shook and then dropped. I instinctively grabbed the boys and fell back away from the edge, taking them with me. I have no idea how close we were, but I’m sure it was inches, not feet. The luck that had run out when I had chosen the shortcut to the campground had certainly returned when it was most needed!
I brought my attention back to the car. It seemed steady enough. Although it was still on an incline, it was much shallower and the car was pushed up against some big trees. It wasn’t going any further. The roof was dented so the car must have rolled on the way down. The driver’s side back door, being left open by the boys, had ripped off during the fall, which is just as well since the other doors may have been impossible to open.
I climbed into the back of the car and discovered that we were also lucky to find my backpack so easily. Everything had been thrown around and jumbled up. I grabbed a pack and drug it out. Doing it this way would take forever, so I tried the back hatch again. It didn’t take very long to pop it open. I took everything out and tossing it into one of three piles: must have, good to have and don’t need.
I pulled out another backpack and paused.
It was Nancy’s pack.
My eyes misted up. This wouldn’t do. No, it wasn’t Nancy’s pack any more, it was Derek’s pack. He’d grown into an adult pack. I tossed the pack onto the must have pile.
Our plan was to camp for a week with an overnight backpack trip in the middle. Nancy was huge into backpacking before we had kids and we had always wanted to ease the kids into it, a little at a time. Now that responsibility was up to me.
I had the boys pack all of their clothes into the backpacks to teach them frugality. They had to pick and choose. After everything was out of the car, I went through each pack and picked one light shirt, two pairs of socks and a pair of underwear from each. I tossed the rest of the clothing into the car. I then grabbed a jacket for each boy, a blanket and another sleeping bag. I filled the packs with food and drinks. I didn’t think it was enough and filled a couple of cloth grocery bags full of food also, mostly perishables. After the back was open things went very smoothly and I finished the packing and unpacking quicker than I had expected.
I tried unsuccessfully to close the back and then, giving up, started up the hill with the two smaller packs. Derek met me half way and took the packs to the top while I returned for other stuff. I grabbed the remaining pack and a bag full of emergency equipment, like a broadband radio and flashlights. Again he met me half way but didn’t take the backpack from me.
“That, that’s Mom’s backpack.”
“It was your mother’s backpack, but it is yours now, remember? You filled it with your clothes. You need to take it.”
Tears filled his eyes as took the pack.
“I know this is hard. She really wanted to come on this trip, but it wasn’t to be. I think she is here with us, don’t you? In our hearts and minds, at the very least. Oh, what she would have said to me when I lost the car, right? She would have teased me to no end. I mean, I’ve lost the keys before, but losing an entire car? No, i’d hear about it.”
He smiled, but it looked forced.
“Hey, keep your chin up kid. Teddy and Jason look up to you so you need to set an example, OK?”
“We all need to grieve, I know because I have been too, but right now you and I have to be strong for the little kids. So go up there and smile.”
He put the pack on his back. It fitted perfectly.
I went back down and grabbed the bags of perishables.
“Goodbye,” I said to the car. “I don’t know if they’ll be able to drag you up the hill. We’ll miss you.” Nancy had picked out ‘Sable’, the name she gave the car. Leaving Sable was like leaving a part of her behind.
I was about to leave when I took one more look in the back and pulled out the big tarp. I didn’t think we’d need it, but I thought that perhaps we would sort the stuff one last time and having the tarp to wrap the stuff left behind would be good. Or perhaps even bringing it would be good so we’d always have a dry spot.
Once again Derek met me and took a bag of food to carry.
When we returned to the makeshift camp the fire was going and the two younger boys were in the woods on the uphill side of the road looking for dry wood. I called them back down.
“We’re going to be leaving soon,” I said. “Take a banana and an orange out of the bag to finish up your breakfast. Also grab a soda. We need plenty of fluids.”
“Soda? For breakfast?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, I want to conserve the water for our hike.” Secretly I was looking forward to a cola. I’m a “coffee junkie” and missed my morning caffeine.
I spread out the tarp and placed the blankets and sleeping bags on it as makeshift chairs. Well, we were still on the ground, but at least our backsides were padded.
After breakfast, we unpacked and repacked everything. I wanted to be sure none of the packs were too heavy but we had everything we needed. Derek and I each had a sleeping bag tied to the bottom of our packs and I tied the lighter blanket to the bottom of Jason’s. Jackets were tied around waists. Matches, flashlights and other camping gear was distributed throughout. The dry goods were put in the packs and the perishables where put in bags. I’d carry the food for as long as I could. We’d eat only fresh food for lunch. A bundle of sticks was also placed in a bag for Derek to carry.
Just as we were about to break camp I heard thunder. Looking up I was hit in the face by the first big drop. It looked like our luck had finally run out.
“Toss your packs and bags over here,” Derek said. We piled them all up, huddled together over them and held the tarp over our heads. It soon started to pour. I could hear the fire hiss and complain and realized I had almost left it burning, never a smart thing to do.
As the rain beat down on the tarp, I watched my oldest. Derek looked a lot like his mom and had her strength, both the inner strength and the physical strength. He also inherited part of her personality, and not just the good side. Jaded before his time and very sarcastic, his moodiness was of the vocal kind. Nothing was ever quite right or good enough, and even the greatest moments were usually met with his razor-sharp wit. He’d taken Nancy’s death very hard, bringing this darker side even more to the surface, but watching how he handled the current situation I knew he’d be alright. Sure, I knew when we were back out in the outer world I would once again be the target of his scorn, but when push came to shove, he could be depended on and was rock solid, traits he inherited from his mother.
He noticed me watching and gave me a rare smile.
“Is this your idea of camping, mister?” he asked.
“Sure beats hanging out in the city, don’t you think?” I answered with a wink.
He laughed. I could see the stress of the last few months roll off of him, like the rain off of the tarp, as the mantle of newfound responsibility brought out the fierce young man in him.
I smiled. He’d be fine.