A Life Unlived

It’s nearing that time of the year where I think about what I accomplished in the past 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the new year. We’ll begin a new decade in just a little over a month, which has me thinking about the big picture. One thing I’ve realized is that, despite being on this planet for almost half a century, I haven’t really lived because I’ve missed out on some things that are the hallmark of a well-lived life.

For instance, I’ve never engaged in a fight over a chicken sandwich. Popeye’s has been in the news lately just as much for its customers getting physical as it has for the taste of its revamped chicken sandwich. I’ve never even stepped foot in a Popeye’s much less popped a fellow fast-food customer because they landed the last of the sandwiches available. I feel like I’m missing something, and I’m not talking about the indigestion likely to be had from a greasy fast-food sandwich. Maybe I’ll swing by Popeye’s today and look for an opportunity to join in the fisticuffs. That will surely make me feel like I’ve truly lived.

I’ve never spent the better part of my day arguing online with someone or something (in the case of the many bots that populate the online world). I’ve always taken the perspective that I have better things to do, but do I really? Have I truly lived if I haven’t tasted the victory of overcoming a half-baked argument from an ill-informed or ill-advised person/bot? I can’t say that I have. How much of a man am I if I haven’t verbally bludgeoned a 12-year-old boy who spouted off a few trigger words on Twitter? I have my doubts.

I’ve never breathlessly followed every move of reality TV stars. The problem is that I wouldn’t recognize most of them if they walked through my front door right now. Recognition aside, think of all of the drama I’ve missed from not knowing that so-and-so is on her fourth boyfriend after she caught the last one cheating with her best friend’s mother’s dog’s veterinarian? I’d get dizzy just trying to figure that out. I’m not sure what reality these people represent but I’m in full FOMO mode here. I’m headed over to Instagram right now to add these people (who are they again?) to my feed.

It’s disappointing to look back on my life and realize I’ve missed out on the things that make a life worthwhile. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I fell asleep in school when the teachers talked about the need to resort to physical violence when you don’t get what you want. It’s not too late. I can make up for lost time. See you at Popeye’s.

The Curious Case of the Headless Snowman

Years ago, when my daughter was still a little girl, I took her into a Starbucks so that I could grab a coffee. As kids are wont to do, she lingered by the bakery case eyeing the sweets that lined the lower shelf. The countdown to Thanksgiving and Christmas had already begun, so Starbucks had reintroduced their snowman sugar cookies, and she wanted one. I caved and bought her one, which made her positively giddy. The sugar high will do that to a kid.

A few weeks later, I was in the drive-through at Starbucks (I’m sensing a pattern here) ordering a coffee (go figure) when my daughter chimed in from the back seat that she wanted another snowman cookie. Apparently, she’d found her favorite thing at Starbucks. I obliged and pulled around to the pickup window. After the cashier handed me my coffee and the cookie, I looked back at my daughter who eagerly extended her arms toward me indicating she wanted her cookie. I looked at her and smiled, and then, I bit the head off of the cookie.

I meant it as a joke, but my daughter gave me that mixed look of aggravation and disgust that I may or may not have received from her mother once before (okay, maybe a few times). She was mostly stunned. I had taken a presumptuous bite of her glorious treat, and she wasn’t happy. She didn’t cry, but when I handed her the headless snowman, she looked like I had put a lump of coal in her stocking. She stared into the paper wrapper, and then, she took the maimed cookie out and looked at it like she couldn’t eat it now that it had been disfigured. I laughed and made a comment about the “Daddy tax,” that overwrought go-to dad example meant to teach our kids about paying taxes. My daughter wasn’t too upset to eat the rest of the cookie. In fact, she recovered enough to laugh it off. She dismissed me as her silly daddy.

A few weeks later when she asked for another snowman cookie, she eagerly anticipated my response. I bit the head off again and she laughed heartily as if I had told a hilarious joke. My son even got into it because I did the same thing to him. He followed her lead and giggled about it as well. It became our thing during the holiday season. They’d ask for snowman cookies, and I’d bite the heads off before I gave them to them.

The snowman cookies returned to Starbucks recently, so I swung by and picked up a couple of them after work one night for my now teenage kids. I handed each of them the familiar Starbucks paper wrapper when I got home. They were smiling even before they looked inside the wrapper because they knew what I had done. My daughter plucked the headless snowman from the package and laughed. She knows she can always depend on me for a bad dad joke and a headless snowman cookie. I don’t get many smiles from my teenagers nowadays, but sometimes, an old bit does the trick.

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Two Frames

Years ago, my wife bought me two 5″x7″ picture frames so that I could put pictures of the kids on my desk at work. I’ve carried these frames everywhere I’ve been over the years from Seattle to Beijing, back to Seattle, and now to Atlanta. They’ve been the two constants in my decidedly minimalist offices through the years.

Since the kids started school, I’ve used these frames to hold their annual school pictures, so each fall when the kids bring their official photos home, I cut my copy from the stiff photo sheet and take it to work to replace last year’s photo in the frame. Since I can’t bear to part with pictures of the kids, I usually flip over the last photo and put the new photo on top squishing all of the past photos into the frame. While everyone else sees just the most recent photo, I know there are several years’ worth of photos lurking behind the glass.

The majority of the pictures I have of the kids are in digital form. I have tens of thousands of digital photos saved and backed up in multiple places so that nothing short of the apocalypse could destroy my treasure trove of pictures. These kids have just about every angle of their childhoods covered in photographic evidence. As they have become teenagers, the accumulation of pictures of them has slowed dramatically. If I can get my son to appear in a photo, it’s unlikely he will smile for it. He’s perfected the resting bitch face that’s indicative of being photographed by his dorky dad.

If I’m feeling sentimental, which happens quite frequently as I’ve gotten older, I’ll click on one of my photo folders and flip back in time. Some pictures make me wonder where all of the time has gone. Surely it hasn’t been that long ago since my now teenage daughter used to run from any corner of the house when she heard the theme to Dora the Explorer play on the TV. Maybe it has been a while. Somewhere in my aging mind time has been compressed or truncated so that two points separated by a vast number of days appear seemingly close together. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

Last week, my son finally remembered to bring his school pictures home so that I could have a physical copy of the true marker of time. For this picture he managed something that resembled a smile or a smirk. I’m not sure which it was, but at this point I don’t care as long as I have my picture. I dutifully cut it from the photo sheet and took it to work for the ceremonial flip of the photo in the frame on my desk.

When I cracked open the back of the picture frame, the photos from prior years spilled out onto my desk. One of them from several years ago landed right side up on my desk, and I was struck by the little boy staring back at me. Unlike his current photos, he had a big, jovial smile in this one. His face still had the round fleshiness of childhood. I shuffled through all of the photos and laid them out in chronological order. I could see the transformation from little boy to young man. For some reason, I felt like I had lost something. I had lost track of time. I had blinked and something happened that I didn’t want to happen.

I stared at the pictures for a moment before I gathered them up and put them back in the frame with only the mirthless teenager staring back at me through the shiny glass. Somewhere back in the annals of time is a baby who took ten hours to arrive, a toddler who used to do a funky little dance while he sang “Elephants Have Wrinkles,” a little boy who once jumped into my arms with joy when I returned from a long business trip, and a little boy who’d get so upset when he got water in his eyes during a bath or swim lessons that he spawned a phrase that his mother and I still use to this day. Those memories make me happy. I’m still undecided about the smirking teenager.

Closing Out the Year

On Saturday, I ran my eighth marathon of 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. With that race I’ve run a marathon in 44 of the 50 U.S. states leaving only six states to finish my 50 States Challenge. If all goes well, I will cross the finish line of the Manchester City Marathon on November 8, 2020 in New Hampshire next year to wrap up the 50 states. After two years of running eight marathons per year, I look forward to a year with only six marathons.

Back in 2010 when I decided to tackle this challenge, I laid out a plan to accomplish it in ten years before my 50th birthday. That plan had me running only five marathons per year, which, when spaced out properly, isn’t that difficult, but a disastrous year in 2014 where I only ran one marathon because of injury derailed that plan. It took a while to get back up to marathon shape, and I knew that if I was going to finish before my 50th birthday I’d have to increase the number of races I ran in the remaining years.

Running so many marathons in a year is not impossible. Many marathoners run much more, especially enthusiastic 50-staters, but inevitably, you sacrifice time when running so many marathons because your body cannot fully recover. I’ve seen this first hand the past two years as I’ve logged eight per year. My times have steadily declined, but it was a trade-off I was willing to accept when I decided to attempt to complete the 50 states in ten years like I had originally planned. Had I not ramped up the number of races, I would not have a chance of finishing in ten years. Now, that prospect seems likely assuming I don’t suffer an injury like I did in 2014.

Now that I’ve finished the 2019 race schedule, I’m going to take some time off. Well, not exactly. I’m going to take it easy or easier. I’ll still be out there running in the pre-dawn cold of late fall and early winter, but my runs will be short. I’m closing out the year in a steady but relaxed pace. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when the year began. Now, it’s time to get psyched for the year to come, but before I do, I’m going to relax.

Where Do I Go From Here?

I’m off and writing another story now. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and get very excited about it and just start writing without any clue about where I’m going. I just let the characters tell me where they want to go. To people who may not write or care about writing, this sounds weird, as if I’m admitting to being possessed by a ghost of some kind. Rest assured, I have no belief in the supernatural (I don’t even enjoy reading or writing about such things), but there’s something almost otherworldly about the process.

One of the things that I enjoy about writing is the opportunity to step into a character’s shoes and try them on for many miles. It is an enlightening process. I have to ask myself how a character would behave in a certain situation and then put that on the page in a way that is engaging and sensible. In a story, it’s all connected, so not only do I have to make sure the main character behaves in a believable way, but I have to ensure that secondary characters respond believably. While it’s bad to head hop in prose (I’ve done it; I know), a writer has to head hop to create a believable and engaging scene.

Oftentimes, a character will inspire several chapters almost without thinking, but then, inevitably, I come to a point where the obvious path is a little less clear, and I find myself leaning on my fictional character. Where do I go from here? Depending on where I am with the story in the development of the character, I may get an answer, or maybe not. When I get an answer, I just keep on writing. Some mornings, I keep writing well past my allotted hour because it’s just too good to stop. On other mornings, I barely get a thousand words because my character has decided to give me the silent treatment. In that case, I go do something else until she works things out.

It’s a notoriously finicky process. It’s also funny because in real life I absolutely hate depending on anyone for anything, but in writing, I’m forced to depend on these characters (fictional ones!) to finish my story. I’ll leave that irony on this page. Time for me to go do something else.

 

Them

Doris Hale paused to look at herself in the mirror in the narrow hallway of her home. She didn’t like what she saw. She wondered when she became so old. Her hair, once dark and silky like a luxurious coat, curled atop her head, short, gray, and brittle. She could see her scalp in places as if her hair strained to cover all of her head. Wrinkles grew from the corners of her eyes and her mouth. Her upper lip looked almost perforated by columns of wrinkles as if her teeth were about to break through her skin. Everything sagged, her eyes, her nose, and her lips. Even her preternaturally bright green eyes looked dull and muted. She sighed and turned away. She had to replace the light bulb above the mirror. The new bulb cast a harsh light that magnified her time-worn flaws. She was 65, not dead.

She trundled down the short hallway to her living room and dropped into the recliner in the cramped, square space around her TV, which hung on the opposite wall. Its dark screen captured a gray reflection of her among the furniture, and Doris stared at it for a moment. No wrinkles there, but her outline seemed implausible, lumpy like an overstuffed chair that had been beaten out of shape after years of use. She struggled to see where her body ended and the plump recliner began in the reflection. She grimaced and grabbed the remote to delete the dour picture.

The screen flickered to life but remained black for a moment before the channel beamed in all of its brightness. The face of an older, elegant gentleman filled the screen. He looked solemn, chagrined, and he spoke in a booming baritone that pressed against the tiny speakers on the TV. Her familiarity with him relaxed her and she settled more comfortably into the recliner. She kicked her shoes off her feet and pulled the lever on the chair to put her feet up. She eyed her swollen ankles. The ache in her feet swam up her legs. She sighed heavily as she turned her attention back to the TV.

The man, a reverend, paced across the stage, determined. Like Doris, time had been unkind to him. He hunched over slightly and walked with a gimp that suggested either his knees or his hips were rebelling against him. She knew what that felt like. He stopped and looked over the audience that Doris could not see beyond the spotlight that glared upon him.

God told me that we are near the end of times. Man has sinned. He has sinned beyond what even God thought was possible, and now, he must pay for these sins.

Doris subconsciously nodded as he spoke. She had just returned from her church after spending the morning helping prepare for the upcoming revival. She’d had lunch at the church with several of the women who helped out including the preacher’s wife. The preacher was a younger man in his early forties, tall and classically handsome, and his wife was even younger, maybe mid-thirties. She was a beautiful thing, so young, with her whole life ahead of her. Doris felt a tinge of jealousy. She had once been young with more years ahead of her than behind her. Now, the opposite was true.

She’d also once been married to a tall, handsome man. They’d been married for over forty years. Looking back she always thought those were the happiest days of her life, almost like a fairytale, but the truth wasn’t quite so simple. She’d loved Bill and he’d loved her, but there were moments, many moments actually, when she’d considered her life without him, almost willed herself to make it happen, but that wasn’t God’s way, and she’d never acted upon it. Instead, she stood firm by her husband and endured. That was what it was. Endurance. Perseverance.

She certainly needed that stamina to stand by his side as the cancer slowly took him away. Three years that felt like thirty dripped by as Bill lost everything that made him human, the last of which was his dignity. She remembered bathing him after he had messed himself for the third time in one of the last days of his life. She recalled his constant moaning as he withered in pain in the hospital bed that the hospice company had set up in the tiny dining room just on the other side of her sofa. His ghost still lay there, sometimes giving her a vacant stare. She glanced that way but quickly turned back to the TV.

A choir emerged on the stage behind the reverend and began to sing a hymnal. Doris turned up the sound and sat back in the chair. She closed her eyes and let the beautiful voices, full and melodic, engulf her. The sweet sound rose and fell upon her chest, and as the song reached its climatic ending, she opened her eyes to the reverend, face pressed against the screen, nodding as if the choir had done as he had directed. He didn’t smile despite the beauty of the voices; he didn’t even seem to really enjoy it. Instead, he pulled his lips back in a pained expression and chastised the audience about its sins and God’s imminent retribution, and Doris gave him her rapt attention.

Before the sermon ended, a toll-free number punched the bottom of the screen as the reverend stood on the stage and insisted that everyone contribute in the name of God. He admonished those who prized earthly possessions over the spiritual wealth God offered, and then he paused, as if he were an actor in a dramatic play, and put his hand to his chin, slightly stroking it in a gesture that conveyed thoughtfulness. His diamond cuff-link sparkled in the spotlight, outshining the gaudy rings that pinched his beefy fingers.

I know you will give all that you can today because you are a child of God. You don’t want your soul to perish with the wicked and wretched.

He nodded slowly, seemingly satisfied. The camera pulled back revealing the width of the stage. The music started again, and the choir, now visible, began to sing, low and soft. The hymnal continued until the show ended. A commercial blasted onto the screen with shrieking sound that startled Doris. She fumbled with the remote to mute the TV, and then, she sat back in the recliner again, lost in the stark silence of her living room.

She felt like she needed a nap. Her morning had been unusually active, and the exertion had left her feeling tired and worn down despite the fact that she had done very little all week. Her days were like that now, slow, lethargic, and mind-numbingly dull. The TV provided her only escape when she wasn’t busy at her church. She was thankful for the summer revival because there was more to do than usual. She didn’t feel so lonely.

After Bill died and the rush of sympathy petered out to only an occasional phone call or visit from the friends they had shared as a married couple, Doris wilted under the weight of loneliness. On many days, her only interaction was with the TV reverend. She’d have lunch with a girlfriend here and there, but all of her closest friends still had their husbands, who they had to care for, and many of them had children and grandchildren that consumed their time. The sliver of attention that remained available for Doris grew smaller as the memories of Bill faded from everyone’s consciousness except hers.

She nodded off in the recliner, her head lilting to one side as she gave into the desire to sleep. She began to snore, the rise and fall of her breath rattled across the otherwise silent room.

A picture of her and Bill hung on the wall next to the recliner, one taken before the cancer made its presence known. Bill draped his arm across her shoulder and leaned into her, smiling as the picture was taken. He seemed jovial and genuinely happy, but Doris didn’t quite smile as if her dour mood had temporarily been put on hold to take the picture.

While Doris slept, the sun pressed against the closed blinds in her living room as it crawled across the sky toward dusk. She startled, turned, and quickly resumed snoring. She slept until the light dimmed, until the TV became the brightest thing in the room.

When she woke up, the ambient light from the muted TV blinded her. She raised her arm to shield her eyes, but her shoulder screamed. Her stiff neck ached all the way down her back. She turned her head to the side instead until her eyes adjusted. She blinked at the dimming daylight outside her window. She wondered what day it was, how long she had slept. She fumbled with her cell phone that sat on the end table near the recliner. Her fingers felt swollen and immovable, but she managed to grip the phone and flip it open to see the day and time on the monochrome screen. Saturday had slipped away from her.

She maneuvered the lever of the chair and it helped her sit up despite her body’s protest. When she placed her feet on the floor, her ankles still felt swollen and stiff. Her knees didn’t feel capable of holding her up when she leaned onto her legs to get up. After two attempts, she stood up and shuffled toward the kitchen for a drink of water. She drank greedily as if she had just crossed a desert without an ounce of water. Some water dribbled down her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. The cool tap water felt good to her parched throat. After she finished she leaned over the sink, arms levered against the counter as if she would fall over otherwise. The silence made her ache more.

Before she could make her way back to the recliner to unmute the TV, her doorbell rang. Its soft chime punctured the silence like breaking glass, startling her. She rarely had visitors, much less at 7:30 at night. Even the solicitors that canvassed the neighborhood called it quits before dinner time. A feeling of grave concern rose in her chest. She mumbled something to herself as she considered what to do.

The doorbell rang again, impatient and insistent. Doris took one step toward the hallway and looked at the solid front door. A tinny knock followed as if the doorbell weren’t enough to get her attention. She ambled down the hallway to the door and pressed her eye to the peep hole. She couldn’t see much in the faint glow of the street light near her house, but she could she the outline of the person ringing her bell. The figure was slight with short hair like a young boy.

She flipped on the porch light and the person flinched in its glare. She didn’t recognize her right away. A lot had changed since she had last seen her, but the vague familiarity prompted her to open the door.

“Ashley?” Doris said as she pulled the door open.

The girl nodded and burst into tears as she flung her arms around her. Doris, frozen in place, slowly put her arms around her granddaughter. The last time she had seen her granddaughter, she had been a little girl, eight or nine years old. How old was she now? Doris thought for a moment – 13 or 14?

“Ashley, what’s wrong? Where are your parents?”

The girl continued to cry, wet, heaving sobs that almost toppled Doris as she stood in the doorway. She flicked the door shut with one hand and returned her hand to the girl’s back, patting her as if to assure her everything was going to be okay, something she had done many years ago when a much smaller version of the girl had fallen on her steps and skinned her knee. They stood in the foyer under the harsh hallway light with nothing but the girl’s sobs and Doris’ soft words of comfort filling the air around them.

The sobs slowly subsided. “Ashley, what’s happened?”

Her granddaughter pulled back from her embrace and wiped her eyes with her fingertips, but the tears still streamed down her face.

“It’s Ash.”

“What?”

“I don’t go by Ashley anymore.”

Doris nodded, confused. “What’s wrong, honey? Where are your parents?”

“Can I stay with you?” Her eyes darted around the confined space of the hallway. She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. The hallway light gave her wet, swollen cheeks a sticky sheen.

Doris paused, taken aback by the sudden question. “Of course…but can you tell me what’s going on?”

Another sob overcame Ash, and she hugged Doris again. Doris stood there teetering in her own hallway as her granddaughter cried on her shoulder. She inhaled a scent like a musty basement, and when Ash stood back again trying to control her tears, Doris noticed that her clothes were filthy. Her fingernails were dirty, and she could tell that her granddaughter had probably not bathed in a while. She waited for her to calm down.

“Honey, where is your mom?”

Ash shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Is she okay?”

More tears trickled down Ash’s face. “I don’t know. She kicked me out.”

“What?”

“Nancy kicked me out. She and Doug both did.”

“Why would your mom do that?”

“Because she’s a bitch.”

Startled by the harsh word, Doris tried to understand, tried to catch up to the drama that had apparently unfolded between her daughter and her granddaughter. It’d been several years since they’d last spoke, and she had no inkling of what had happened. She barely recognized the young girl in front of her, only her eyes had given her away, and right then, they were pleading and full of tears despite the fury that burned within them.

“Can I have some water?”

Doris shook away her confusion. “Sure, honey. Have a seat and I’ll get you some.”

Ash walked into her living room and took a seat in the recliner like it was the spot she always sat when she visited. Doris watched her from the kitchen as she held a glass under the tap. Ash used the bottom of her shirt to wipe her face. She sniffed and looked around the living room as if she were just taking it in for the first time. She only paused briefly at the muted TV before she turned back to Doris.

Doris returned to the living room and handed Ash the glass of water. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

Ash took a long swig of the water. “Nancy and Doug kicked me out last week.”

“Last week? Where have you been staying?”

She almost drained the glass. “Here and there.”

Doris couldn’t hide her shock. She held her hand up to her mouth. “Why did they kick you out?”

Ash stared at her feet. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She took a final gulp of the water and held the glass toward Doris. “Can I have some more water?”

Doris obliged, ambling back into the kitchen and back out into the living room with a full glass. Ash thanked her and kept the glass to her face until she had completely drained it. Doris didn’t know what to say. She thought about calling her daughter, but she didn’t know if her daughter would answer her phone or if she even had the same number that Doris had for her.

“Can I take a shower?” Ash handed Doris the glass, her eyes once again pleading with her grandmother.

Confusion swirled in Doris’ mind. The nap had dulled her senses, made her feel lethargic. The last few minutes had made her dizzy. She wanted to sit down and think for a moment, decide what to do. She needed some time alone to think.

“Of course, the towels are in the closet just outside the bathroom down the hall.” She watched as her granddaughter disappeared down the hallway toward the only bathroom in the house.

Doris sat back down in her recliner and rubbed her face. She waited until she heard the shower come on before she picked up her phone and searched for her daughter’s number. She hoped Nancy would answer her call. If there was ever a time to put the past behind them, it was now.

The Call of the Wild

This past weekend my two brothers and I took one of our infrequent brothers’ trips, a weekend getaway just for the boys for old time’s sake. We grew up together in rural north Georgia during the 1980s, which is as boring as you’d expect by today’s standards. Our parents rarely went anywhere or did anything, so the three of us were left to our own devices in terms of entertainment. That’s why I openly laugh at my kids today when they proclaim that they’re bored. How can you possibly be bored with infinite on-demand choices in terms of TV shows, movies, or games? But I digress.

Anyway, we spent most of our childhood in a tiny four-room rental house, which meant that we were always on top of each other and always trying to get our own space. Luckily, that dumpy rental house sat in the middle of a vast wooded area with seemingly endless avenues for exploration. Looking back, it wasn’t that big in reality, but to a kid, it seemed endless. We spent countless hours traipsing through the woods exploring and teetering on the edge of trouble, but we also camped out a good bit, if only to escape the confines of that tiny house.

We had a pup tent that practically had permanent placement in our backyard, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to sleep out there under the stars during the long summer. We’d play games in the moonlight, try to scare each other with ridiculous horror stories, or just listen to the latest music on our dad’s bulky portable radio, which had a slot in the side for an 8-track tape  (Google it, yes, downloads are a recent thing). Those nights spent outside away from the ever-watchful eye of our fretful mother were some of the best of our childhood, at least that’s my perspective.

Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for camping. As I’ve gotten older, I have admittedly romanticized it a bit. It’s my way of holding on to the parts of me that were young once, but most importantly, camping, to me, has always been a means of escape, even if only for a little while, because of what it meant to me as a kid.

Now that we’re older, we have the means to camp out beyond our own backyards. For this trip, we decided to camp in Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Zion is one of the premier national parks in the United States known for its colorful canyons and stunning sandstone cut deep by the seemingly innocuous Virgin River. It’s a popular destination for campers and hikers the world over.

We flew into Las Vegas, which was the site of our last brothers’ trip eight years ago, and drove the three hours to Zion. Once we left the carnival atmosphere of the Vegas strip outside the airport, the drive was nothing more than a vast expanse of desert interrupted by the occasional small town wedged against Interstate 15. The temperature outside the SUV we rented hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe August wasn’t a good time to camp at Zion.

After grabbing dinner in the town of Springdale just outside the park, we arrived at Zion in the early evening excited about all of the things we planned to do during our visit – hike to the precarious Angels landing, explore the depths of the Narrows, and drive out to spy the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. The canyon walls exploded in bright colors in the evening sun as we set up our camp.

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The view from our campsite on the evening of our arrival

Once we had everything set up, we started a campfire in the fire pit only because of the ambiance it provided. The desert does cool off at night, but in August, it doesn’t cool off enough to require a campfire. Nevertheless, we sat around the fire chatting and joking with each other. The beauty of brotherhood is that you always have someone who knows you almost from the beginning and you can pick up wherever you left off even if you haven’t seen each other for a while. There’s always an inside joke to exploit even if it’s been overdone for the last three decades. I’m sure my youngest brother is more than tired of us laughing at his idiosyncrasies from his childhood, but what kind of brothers would we be if we just let that slide? There’s no dead horse that can’t be beaten yet again.

The next morning we awoke bright and early. The stars were still in the sky when we fired up the camp stove and cooked breakfast. We never had a camp stove when we camped as kids. Oftentimes, we just had a single small pan and a weak campfire, if that, but adulthood does have its advantages in that you can buy your own equipment. After a hearty breakfast, we took the Zion shuttle to The Grotto stop in the heart of the park and began the four-hour hike to Angels Landing.

On the surface, Angels Landing may not seem like a tough hike. In total it takes about four hours round trip and the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet, but just looking at the stats is misleading because the second half of the hike is a harrowing climb across the spine of a fin-shaped mountain with heart-stopping drops on either side. Luckily, some brave souls have installed a chain along the route so that you can hold on for dear life as you make your way to the top. Just googling “Angels Landing” will bring up stories of hikers falling to their deaths while attempting to reach the top (watch the first-person videos if you want to see how daunting it can be).

To make the hike more precarious, it’s a very popular hike. When we made it to the point where the chain became necessary, a stream of people flowed up and down the trail, some maneuvering around each other while keeping at least one hand on the sweat-drenched chain at all times. To let go would have risked plummeting to a certain death. The number of people made me very nervous, especially those who were nonchalant or careless. I feared being pulled over the edge by some clueless hiker who slipped and grabbed the nearest person to join them in their gruesome death. My wife would kill me if I died on the mountain and left her alone with two kids (don’t ask how she would kill me after I died; she’d find a way).

My brothers plowed ahead as a surge of people pushed us along. I stepped back and sat at the top of this long slide of sandstone and let the crowd pass. I watched as some hapless teenager just galloped across the ledge and slipped foolishly as he made his way between the gap in the chains. He was exactly the type of hiker I was afraid of – clueless and fearless. After a long wait, the crowd thinned considerably, and I began the rest of the hike. I tip-toed along one ledge and wrangled my way around hikers returning from the top. I don’t think I’ve ever loved how a chain felt in my hand as I did during this hike.

I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but I have a love-hate relationship with dizzying heights. You’ll never see a video of me scaling a building and jumping between two incredibly high points without ropes or other safety support. My idea of a good thrill is within the confines of the over-engineered rides at theme parks. I’d rather not end up as a stain on the ground somewhere.

I made my way steadily across the mountain stopping occasionally to take pictures of the beautiful expanse of canyon beneath my feet. Below I could see the tidy black ribbon of the scenic road that wound its way through the valley, and intermittently, I’d spot one of the shuttle buses inching its way along the road. People were all around me, some above me trekking toward the top while others labored along the path beneath me. I didn’t see my brothers again until a crowd of people descended from the plateau at the top. I made the final climb as they waited for me.

The precarious hike was certainly worth it. Standing atop Angels Landing on a beautiful, clear day, I had an unobstructed view across the canyon. The vista isn’t the highest point in Zion, but it does afford a nice view of the valley cut by the Virgin River. Personally, I felt relieved to have made it without being pulled off the cliff by some hapless hiker. On the way down, I came across a woman and her teenage children making the final climb to the top. She fretted over her careless children for getting too close to the edge and not holding onto the chain, and I smiled as she and her brood passed because I didn’t have my kids with me. That’d be way too stressful for me.

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The view from the top of Angels Landing

I reunited with my brothers on a small ledge beneath the top and we made our way down the mountain. The trek down was easier even if it stressed our quadriceps more. By the time we made it back to The Grotto shuttle stop, we were spent. Originally, I had thought we’d do a couple of big hikes on our first day, but the intense heat combined with the exertion of Angels Landing pretty much ensured we’d take it easy the rest of the day. In fact, I took a nap when we returned to camp. We did do a couple of short hikes later that evening, but nothing more.

The next morning, we got up early again and drove two hours to Bryce Canyon. While Zion itself was enough to keep us busy for days, I didn’t want to travel all the way out to southwest Utah and not see Bryce Canyon. Bryce had been on my “must see” list for a long time, and I simply wasn’t going to pass it up when I was so close to it. It did not disappoint.

Driving out of Zion on the eastern side of the park is interesting as Highway 89 takes you through more stunning views of the canyon. There’s a long tunnel leading out of the park that takes you through the sandstone cliffs. At one point in the tunnel there’s a cut-out where you can look out over the canyon, but unfortunately, you can’t stop and take it all in. Once you get through the tunnel and into Mt. Carmel on the other side, the drive turns rather dull until you get to Red Canyon just outside Bryce. After driving through the drab scrub brush along Highway 89 for so long, Red Canyon is a beautiful surprise with brilliant rock formations that simply materialize in the desert out of nowhere, or so it seems.

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One of the first rock formations we encountered in Red Canyon

In terms of sheer beauty, I think Bryce Canyon beats Zion. Zion is larger and more interesting in terms of exploration opportunities, but I absolutely loved the hoodoos in Bryce. We hiked around the rim and I must have taken a hundred photos of the canyon and its famous spires.

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The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

My brothers dragged my camera and me away from the edge of Bryce and we drove back to Zion to hike the Narrows. The Narrows is a section tucked away in the upper reaches of the park where the Virgin River flows between a, you guessed it, very narrow and deep section of the canyon walls. The only way to hike the Narrows is to hike in the river. Luckily, the river is fairly tame this time of the year, but the current was surprisingly strong during our hike. Each of us had trekking poles, so we were able to maintain our balance as we maneuvered across the slippery river rocks in the chilly water.

Like Angels Landing, there were lots of people around us, but unlike that precarious hike, the risk of immediate death wasn’t present. Given that the air temperature was in the low 100s, the Narrows provided some much-needed relief from the heat and the angry sun that bore down overhead. For most of the hike, the sun didn’t even reach the canyon floor as the rock wall towered over us. Under less favorable weather conditions, the Narrows is actually quite dangerous, especially if there’s a risk of flash flooding because there is nowhere to go if the water starts to surge. You’re dead, plain and simple.

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Hiking the Virgin River in the Narrows

Hiking in ankle to knee-deep water is rather strenuous, but it was worth the effort when we reached a popular point in the river valley that offers splendid views of the beautiful canyon. It’s possible to hike eight miles or more up the river, but we turned around near the two-mile point and headed back to camp to relax and get ready to pack up. The Narrows was a great way to end our trip.

But that wasn’t all of the excitement in store for us. On the way down the canyon in the shuttle bus, we noticed a fog-like cloud rushing through the valley. At first, I thought it was a forest fire given the lack of rain and intense heat, but the fog didn’t behave like smoke. The bus rattled to a stop on the side of the mountain and other buses soon joined us. They finally told us that a rock slide had occurred down the road and that all buses were stopped until further notice. We waited a while, but after we realized that the shuttle buses weren’t moving anytime soon, we decided to walk down the canyon and catch a bus on the other side of the rock slide.

As we walked past the slide area, we could tell where a whole section of a mountain had collapsed, but the damage seemed mostly superficial. No one was seriously hurt from what we know, but it did provide for some excitement for an hour or so as we waited to hear what had happened. After a long walk on tired legs, we caught another bus and headed back to camp to put a cap on this brothers’ trip.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, this trip gave us a chance to reconnect as brothers, to relive a part of our collective childhood under different circumstances. Who knows how many more chances we’ll have to do that, which reminds me of the lyrics to the Baz Luhrmann song from the late 1990s, “Everybody’s Free”:

Be nice to your siblings
they are the best link to your past
and the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle
because the older you get
the more you need the people you knew when you were young