The following is a story of time I spent with my dad. A few years after these events, he killed himself. He was a depressed, recovering alcoholic who took his own life for reasons I sometimes feel I fathom, but can’t agree with.
As time has passed and I’ve reflected on his life, I wish I had gotten more time to know him. Family and friends have told me more, and I’m grateful for it, but it would have been cool to have my own observations. From what I do know, he was not perfect, but was smart, caring, and good. I wish he could see my life now, that I could talk to him about the difficulties of being a husband, a writer, a climber. I’ll never have that chance, but I’m glad he isn’t suffering anymore. As I write this, listening to “Wish You Were Here,” I think about his life and how much someone can mean to you, even after they’ve been gone for so many years, even when they left you forever.
It’s hot driving through the high desert of central Arizona, a dry, withering heat that feels like when Mom opens the oven door. The trip from Prescott Valley to Apache Junction always seems to take forever, but Dad and I sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until I get bored. He then turns on the radio: Pink Floyd, Meatloaf, and Led Zeppelin.
We descend to Phoenix, and after what feels like forever to my seven-year-old brain, we finally get to the moment I’ve been waiting for. Dad hits the brakes, making a left turn off the highway. A wavy road stretches out, only the crests of the shimmering blacktop visible.
“Faster,” I yell, and he obliges, the motor in the old Jeep truck growling. After we hit the first crest, the road falls away. My stomach drops. I laugh, a little scared, but not wanting to stop. We fly across the desert, yellow lines and saguaro cacti streaking past our rolled down windows.
When we arrive at Paul’s house, he and Dad crack open red and white cans of Bud. We go to the back yard and take in the Superstition Mountains. His daughter Tiffany and I chase each other through the sage brush, trying not to run into jumping cactus. The sun sets. Dad and Paul play horseshoes. Moths dance in the flood lights.
The next day, we load Paul’s dune buggy, then head out. I have no idea where we’re going, but I love the desert sun and wind. We pull off the road next to a steep hillside. My dad and Paul exchange some words, the dune buggy’s motor roars, and we accelerate up the hill. Terror fills me. This is much steeper than the black top waves we sailed the day before. I look to my dad. He is holding on to the roll cage, smiling, joy evident on his face. Some of my anxiety goes away, but still, I want to stop.
“I’m scared,” I yell over the thundering engine. He looks back at me, says to close my eyes if it’s too much. As we reach the top of the hill, I breathe easier. I’m glad it’s over, but my dad’s excitement is infectious.
When we start back down the hill, however, I feel like we’re falling straight towards the ground. The noisy engine, the bumpy dirt, wind and dust: it all becomes too much. I close my eyes tight, holding on to my dad. He is solid, anchoring me and diminishing my fear.
After we arrive safely back to the road, Paul and my dad talk about another run. My anxiety begins to rise, but they decide we should find our campsite. Time passes. I enjoy racing through the desert landscape in a giant toy car.
Eventually, we slow enough to turn off into a narrow, sandy arroyo. We cruise the smooth portions and bump through the rough ones, heading deeper and deeper into the Superstition Mountains. The arroyo opens up before us into broad flat space, and the adults decide this is where we‘ll spend the night. They park the dune buggy on the edge of the wash, beneath cottonwood trees.
Paul and my dad set up the tents, Tiffany and I doing our best to help. We cook beans over a crackling fire. The sunset is a brilliant pink. A small, battery powered radio picks up a Phoenix station, playing The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Tom Petty. The adults sit around the fire, drinking more Bud. Tiffany and I find the perfect sticks to poke the fire. We burn them for several seconds and pull them out, running through the growing darkness, waving our torches.
Lightning flashes in the distance, revealing billowing clouds. We all leave the fire to get a better view, walking out towards the middle of the arroyo. As minutes pass, it’s evident the storm is drawing closer.
By the time we return to the fire, it’s begun to sizzle, heavy drops of rain falling into the glowing coals. Tiffany says she’s tired, and wants to sleep. She goes to their tent. I’m still awake, and decide to get as close to the fire as I can. Its warmth feels good as the cold rain intensifies.
I look over to my dad, standing under our guyed out tarp, entranced by the oncoming storm. A small smile turns up the corners of his lips. Rain spatters on the blue plastic like a drum head, creating a noise simultaneously comforting and ominous.
A bright flash of lightning arcs close by. The resulting boom sends me running for my dad. The next moment, the sky opens up, flooding the parched desert. For the second time today, fear fills me. I’ve never experienced a storm this way, never been outside with only a thin tarp between me and the chaotic sky.
“I’m scared,” I say once again. Lightning cascades around us. It’s hard to hear his reply over the deluging rain, but he tells me I can stay with him under the tarp or go to the tent, just a few steps away. I decide to stay, not wanting to leave his side. We both stand silent, the storm so loud I barely hear myself think.
As the storm’s rage heightens, my dad sets down his beer and steps out from the tarp. He turns his face up to the fury and smiles, a storm god reveling in his creation. With all my fear, I don’t understand how he can do this, how he can love something so scary. He revels in the intensity, even as the cold rain drenches his black t-shirt and blue jeans.
At the time, this made no sense, but as an adult, I’ve made the choice to go out in storms, both physical and mental. I’ve turned my face up towards an angry sky, feeling the raw energy of Earth. I’ve stood on a hillside, heart pounding as lightning flares, knowing the only way to safety is to push on, through greater danger. I’ve voluntarily gone out into dime sized hail, just to feel its power. Time after time, I’ve deliberately put myself in risky, painful, and difficult situations, because I want the fear it brings.
I know why my dad had such a look of joy on his face: He felt alive. It’s the feeling that brought me to climbing, to running across 20 miles of rocky ridge until I collapsed, to using the skills and abilities I’ve built to face risky situations in the mountains. Today, his actions make complete sense.
After a couple minutes in the downpour, my dad returns to the relative protection of the tarp. Water drips from his dark hair, but there is still a smile on his face, bigger than before. The temperature has dropped as the storm intensified, and despite my desire to be with my dad, I feel cold and want to get to a safe place.
“I’m going to the tent,” I say. He gives me a hug. The short distance between the tarp and tent soaks my t-shirt to the skin. So much water is falling that the desert can’t take it in. It just sits there, ponding up over the sand. My feet churn through it, engulfing my tennis shoes.
I crawl in the thin nylon shelter, trying to zip the door shut before it floods. I’m tired and cold, so I dive into my sleeping bag. Immediately, I warm up, despite the wet. More lightning flashes overhead, initially keeping me awake, but the day has been long. I fall asleep.
A loud crack of thunder wakes me. I realize water is coming into the tent, and I’m flowing with it. I struggle to get out of the sleeping bag, but can’t. I hear the tent unzip, and in the next flash of lightning, I see my dad’s face. He pulls me out, sleeping bag and all, and sets me next to a sturdy cottonwood. The broad, sandy arroyo has become a river, and with my weight removed, the tent begins swiftly floating away. My dad jumps into the current and pulls it back, setting it in the trees beside me. I can barely keep my eyes open, despite the storm and wetness. After a few moments, I fall back to sleep.
The bright light of a desert sunrise wakes me, and for a moment, I don’t know where I am. The green walls of the tent are damp, as is my blue sleeping bag. My last memory was of the raging arroyo, but when I unzip the tent, it all feels like a dream. Everything seems normal. The fire is once again crackling, this time heating breakfast. I smell bacon and eggs. As I emerge into the morning light, the fear of the previous night feels so far away.
We have a lazy morning, slowly packing up soggy tents and sleeping bags. When we go to load the dune buggy, it’s buried all the way to its axles in wet, heavy sand. Extracting it takes time, but eventually, we are ready to depart.
The day grows hot as Paul drives back up the arroyo, along the winding network of dirt roads, to his house. We transfer our camping gear to the Jeep truck and say our goodbyes. I once again ask Dad to drive fast on the wavy road, cheering loudly each time it drops away. I have no fear.
In the years that have passed since my dad’s death, I often wonder what changed inside him, what went wrong. Why did he want to quit feeling alive, to cease experiencing joy in the midst of a furious thunderstorm? I’ll never know, but he taught me to seek out those kinds of adventures, uncertainty and all. And I’m grateful to him for teaching me that risk and danger aren’t the worst things in life.
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