Headwaters of the Colorado by Matthew Chase-Daniel, 2009
When I picked my mother up at the small airport just outside of Yellowstone I felt like something of a veteran already. Of course I was excited to see her and glad she’d be experiencing the remainder of the trip with me, but I couldn’t help considering her a newbie.
Oh my God, look at the bison!
Yeah, I know—there’s a whole herd of them near the area where we’ll be camping.
They’re so cool! Can we get a picture?
If you want, I said. I have a bunch I took already.
She was excited, so I obliged. We stopped and took pictures on the side of the road with all the parked campers and SUVs from Nebraska and North Dakota. It was a little embarrassing, pulled over like a tourist. I felt like a teenager at the mall with my mom, and I hoped no one saw me, though I wasn’t sure whom I was afraid of being spotted by.
When we got to the campsite my mother wanted to call my grandparents to check in on them.
They’re fine, I assured her. Uncle George is stopping by after work.
I’d feel better, she said.
It was a tough spot for my mom. My uncle worked a lot, so he couldn’t be there as much to help out. My grandpa took good care of Grandma most of the time, but she was sick and needed extra care. It didn’t seem fair that my mom did most of the work. In retrospect it feels pretty awful that I considered it work. I love my grandparents, it was just frustrating. For both of us.
George doesn’t do things like you do, they’d confide to my mom. How long did you say you’d be gone?
All of this built up to a tremendous load of stress on my mother. I was just as needy as my grandparents, and I suppose we were pulling her apart. That was part of the reason she decided to take the time off from work to come out here and meet me. With me in college and her firmly tied down at home we were beginning to drift apart.
I set up camp in a flash. By the time she got off the phone everything was ready.
You’re pretty quick, she said.
Lots of practice.
I could set the tent up solo in 2-3 minutes. My mom brought a sleeping pad. I had been sleeping on the floor of the tent. I loved the firmness of the ground. We built a small fire and stayed up late catching up and scouting for meteors.
I love the smell of campfire, I confessed. Sometimes after camping I’ll re-wear my clothes for a few days before I wash them to hold on to that earthy smell.
It’s a nice smell, she agreed.
The night was quiet except for the occasional car driving down the road and idling when it came to an intersection. Crickets would stop their chirping and lay still in the dry grass when a car passed, and when everything was still again they sang.
The next morning we decided to rent a canoe from the outfitters up the road. My mother had never been in a canoe before. I knew a little about paddling from the times I’d gone with friends in the Adirondacks. We clumsily carried the canoe to my car with lifejackets slung over our shoulders.
Careful, I said. No, LIFT it! The lip of the canoe fell hard on my roof. I can’t lift it by myself.
I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before.
I knew she was right and I felt sore for it.
We strapped the boat to the roof. The bow and stern stuck out over the front and rear windshields. I knew it would make visibility worse when we removed it from the lake in a few hours, and the wet bow would rain down on the window, but for now it was only a looming shadow. We cranked the red straps through the doorframes so tightly I wondered if the rubber gasket would permanently scar and keep the door from closing right.
It was ten minutes to the lake. Even at low speed the wind was making the red straps vibrate like piano wire. I tried to steady one with my free hand while I steered with the other, but the tremendous reverberation felt like it would gash through my palm. It sounded awful. We turned up the radio to drown it out, but the straps overpowered all other sounds. I could have crashed into the fattest bison in the park and not heard more than a ripple in the road.
The meadows were packed with sagebrush and the wind was sweet with the smell of it, but sunscreen tainted the air everywhere we went. From the lakeshore we got the canoe into the water with ease. Moving it proved to be the hard part.
No, you paddle on that side when I’m paddling here.
No, we’re going in circles!
I’m sorry! You seem like you’re having a miserable time. Maybe I shouldn’t have come out here to meet you.
Don’t say that.
I didn’t know how to tell her. How to make her understand that I’d been on the road for almost a month, living out of my car and tent and more than one dirty motel off the highway with minimal human contact and how I’d gotten so used to being alone that I forgot how to interact with other people. We were floating in the shadow of one of the craggiest mountains in Wyoming. This was the kind of experience that was meant to be shared.
I’m sorry, I offered. I’m glad you’re here. Really, I am.
We cut through the inverted reflection of the peaks and I steadied the rims of the canoe and lifted my legs over the sides. The water was cold. I let it flush between my sweaty toes and up over my ankles.
Dip your feet in, I suggested. It feels great.
When Mom called my grandparents that night she told them about our canoe trip, her first, and about the mountains and the clear sky and clean air.
It sounds beautiful, my grandma told her. I’m glad you two got to go on this trip.
Mom felt guilty for leaving her parents for two weeks, but hearing those words—I’m glad—seemed to make everything better. She enjoyed the sights more and we both let down our guard.
That night we watched for meteors again. I didn’t see another shooting star until a few months later, back in the Adirondacks, the same night I got the call from Mom that Grandma had died. It was dark outside and I took a walk in the woods along a well-worn trail through white pines and maples. When I came to a clearing, I turned off my flashlight and lay on my back on the sandy soil. The grass was cold with wet dew and the sand stuck in clumps on my back and legs. It was a moonless night and the sky was dark and thick as ink. Far above me a steady stream of shooting stars blanketed the atmosphere, burning bright like broken angels, and if I blinked I might miss their icy blue streak as they faded away into the night.
Brian Pietrus recently graduated with undergraduate degrees in Biology and Writing. He is currently enrolled in the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at Eastern Washington University. He has since made an enthusiastic outdoor explorer of his mother and they often go on hiking trips together. Brian also enjoys photography, playing music, traveling and exploring.
Read an interview with Brian here.