“Put your boots on, Michelle. We’re going for a walk!”
By boots, Dad was referring to my bright red rubber galoshes. By walk, I figured we’d go wandering along the water’s edge, poking around for starfish and crabs. Maybe we’d collect small pieces of driftwood, or dig for clams. Whenever we went ashore on this Southeast Alaska trip, that was the routine. After setting a few crab traps, of course, or fishing for rock cod off the deck of our sailboat.
I was a little wary. Skeptical, even. On one of our little shore excursions, we climbed a never-ending set of stairs to visit a segment of the newly-built Trans-Alaska Pipeline. I felt ripped off after that trip. Dad had been really excited about that adventure, so I was skeptical of his unrestrained enthusiasm as he stuffed me into my yellow rain slicker and all but pushed me down the ladder into our dinghy.
It was raining. Hard. It had been, off and on, for a couple days. After we landed on the beach, we met met some people I recognized from Wrangell. Then we stepped into the mossy forest. The trail was saturated, and I marveled at how deep my feet sank into the black, loamy muck.
I was cautiously optimistic at that point, telling myself: At least they’re not stairs.
Well, that passed within five minutes as I struggled to keep up with my Dad. Once in a while, he’d turn to make sure I was still following. Then he’d smile and wave encouragingly, but I wondered why he was talking so quietly to the other grownups. Dad never talked quietly. He had a booming voice that was somehow both genuinely gregarious and authoritative. Hi! So glad to meet you! He’d say as he loped up to you, extending his enormous hand for a shake.
And he did lope. One leg was two inches shorter than the other, thanks to a new—but faulty—fuel line in his twin-prop Aero Commander. He’d managed to land the plane safely, saving the lives of his three passengers, but he’d broken half the bones in his body, and his internal organs got stirred around like debris in a cyclone. The doctors never set the leg correctly, since it was way down their list of priorities. Really, for the month he was in the hospital, they didn’t expect him to live at all.
But that was long before I was born. The only thing I knew about his plane wreck was that it was why he walked funny, and why his chest was criss-crossed with scars. I’d asked him about that when we were body-surfing in Baja the summer before.
But on this day, he was twenty feet ahead of me, and I’d changed up my strategy. Instead of sinking into the wet, mulchy mud on the trail’s surface, I’d step into his slightly-less-muddy but still damn deep boot prints. My legs were short, and more than once I tripped, or I’d step so hard into the center of his stride that my boot would come off. Or, I’d just tip over sideways.
At some point, I noticed the sound of rushing water. Out of the corner of my eye – the mud was my whole world at this point – I saw bright, churning white through green ferns and rough, rusty bark. Exhausted, I gave up, letting my butt squish into the ground and started crying. I thought about hurling some pro-level bad words at my dad, but my grumbling “holy smokes” was a boundary pusher at that age. As for the grown-ups, “what the Hell!?” wasn’t entirely unheard of, at least coming from my dad, and more frequently, from my mom. But me? I’d get killed.
But as I sat there, I thought, Today’s a good day to die. In my very first “hold my juice box, watch this” moment I screamed, “DAAAAAAD! WHAT THE F* ARE WE DOING HERE? I WANNA TO GO HOME!”
He turned around, a lopsided grin on his face. There I was, sinking butt-first into the mud, one bootless foot in the air with the other stuck somewhere underneath me. My (way too big) yellow fisherman’s hat sat low on my head, and I had to crane my neck to see him, even at that distance. I know my pigtails were dirty, because later that day I couldn’t pull off my elastic bands because they were so caked with dirt.
I was pissed. And ashamed that I couldn’t keep up. I felt awful that I’d let him down, and angry that he’d done the same to me. And I was more than a little terrified for dropping my first-ever F-bomb.
He waved off the other grownups and headed my way. I’m sure I was wide-eyed as he approached. Swats were still pretty mainstream back in the ’70s, and I’d earned more than my share already. But he just bent over and dug me out, fished my boots from the mud, and set me on his shoulders. He took a few steps up the trail, and then stopped.
“What’s that over there?” he asked, nodding toward the rushing creek. I pushed back my hat so it hung by the chin strap. I squinted. Boulders? No, wait. Boulders don’t move, and they’re not fuzzy.
Bears. Black bears, and brown bears. Bears of all sizes. I gasped. “Daddy? What do we do?
He’d already told me what to do if I ever encountered a bear. Make noise, don’t make eye contact, get out of its way, and quickly walk in the other direction. But Dad kept moving forward, and soon we were on a large cedar deck. He didn’t set me down, but he walked us up to the railing.
“They don’t care about us,” he explained. “They don’t come onto this side of the creek, and when they do, they’re worried about catching salmon. Not us. This is a safe place.”
I was spellbound. I wasn’t angry or scared anymore; I’d forgotten about the five-year-old-me’s version of a Great War death march. After a few minutes watching bears scooping up and juggling silvery, slippery pink salmon, I began to feel a sense of having earned something special.
To this day, I don’t remember the hike back to the shore.
For years afterward, I’d pile on the drama and tease Dad about how he forced me to slog the half mile to Anan Creek. He wasn’t neglectful or mean; he just underestimated where other people draw the line between “kill me now” and “I’ve got this.”
But really? That was my most important adventure. I try to remember that day whenever I jump into anything new: jobs, relationships, my first time eating some kind of weird cultural food. I’m fortunate I have that lesson when I feel I need to measure the payoff against the effort.
You don’t know if those 300 stairs will lead you to a crappy egg-salad sandwich picnic next to a big, ugly piece of boring, or if a half-hour tromping through 18 inches of mud will lead you to the coolest thing you’ve seen before or since.