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A kid’s tour of the west, part one

My breath caught in my chest as I looked over my shoulder. It looked like Sydney was going to fall 800 feet to the bottom of Canyon de Chelly.

As we walked, we couldn’t move farther from the edge. The great rock faces of the bluffs, covered with hues of rust-colored desert varnish drew us near the precipice, into the canyon. We risked falling into it as we stretched to capture its beauty.

The sun shone full. We searched the barren rocky top of the canyon for places to sit. The canyon deserved a moment of our time. We deserved it. We needed to sit and stare out over and into it. We had walked a couple of miles from Tsegi to Junction Overlook and drained our water bottle. Cars rocketed past on the road but we stuck to the canyon edge. As we walked along the plates of sandstone, we sought out resting places—the shadows of pinon trees, cool spots beneath rocky shelves. We took our time and when we could sit, we sat.

She was a pudgy nine-year-old, not very athletic but ready for anything. I pushed her a little. After all, how often would take a car tour of like this? She bounded along cheerfully and as the day wore on, her energy flagged but she kept on. She had a notion that this was important. Besides, the scenery kept her attention.

I went to take pictures of the canyon from behind her. When she stood from sitting, she seemed to teeter a little. She stumbled. I darted toward her. The rock a few feet beyond her grew steep and fell off into the canyon. I caught her by the arm.

Looking back now, I understand that while we were close, we were not at the edge of the canyon. The likelihood of her falling to her death was remote. But in that moment, I grasped her in both arms. The canyon stretched out before me. This was the moment I realized I couldn’t live without her.

We’d started the trip with Virginia, my wife, Sydney, and me. We had driven the 1,200 miles to Yellowstone and met my good friend Pat O’Kelley and his two kids, Erin and Dillon, in the park. In some ways, our stay in Yellowstone was something of a homecoming for me. On my walk from Kansas City to Helena, Montana five years before, I had spent three weeks in the park, hitchhiking from place to place. I had been to the most popular spots with no idea where I was going to spend the night. I hiked into Lewis Lake and thumbed my way Mammoth Hot Springs, stopping along the way at the great geyser basin at Norris, Old Faithful, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

During that time, I’d gotten off the main road and spent weeks far from the tourists on backcountry trails, where I ran into herds of moose next to the Gibbon River. I fly fished rivers and streams. Camping out above sublime alpine meadows, I primed my pack stove nightly and ate with relish after rugged days. Bison wandered through my campsites at dusk, headed for alpine lakes. I drank deeply the park’s water and had been sniffed by bears as I lay unprotected in my lean-to.

Being back in Yellowstone was heavenly for me and good for Virginia and Sydney. We stayed a week at the Indian Creek Campground, taking off each day to do one good thing. We might set out for Mammoth to climb the great wooden walks up the travertine sides of the springs and eat lunch at the sprawling cafeteria. On the way back, we stopped at the thermal features and springs, circled the drives that eddied off the main road, and hike a while in the meadows. In this way, we toured the park, sticking with the touristy spots. It was good for me, as I had not seen many of the sights since I was a little kid younger than Sydney.

The trip was about Syd, no matter how much I reminisced and walked through memories and old feelings. She took in the sights but more often played with Dillon and Erin. They took off in the evening to walk the road around the campground, coming into contact with other kids and finding new games to play with them. They sat in Pat’s truck, listening to Harry Potter books on the CD player in Pat’s truck. They built a world of their own while we cooked dinner or read or talked.

Every night, Pat and I built a fire. The kids roasted marshmallows and poked the fire with their sticks. Sydney entertained herself by pulling green boughs from downed trees and laying them in the fire. They sent up plumes of smoke and erupted into balls of flame. Her delighted voice skittered through the night.

When it came time, she would climb into the tent on her own and slide into her sleeping bag. When Virginia and I joined her later, she would be in dreamland, sometimes laughing in her sleep.

After a week, we bade the O’Kelleys good bye. We followed them a while until we stopped in Rock Springs for gas the lunch. We had to Get Virginia to the airport in Denver by the next afternoon. She had to return to Kansas City to work. We met the O’Kelleys at their house and spent the night. The drive to Denver passed without flaw and we dropped Virginia at the airport in time for her to make her plane comfortably.

Syd and I then took off into territory the two of us had never seen before. We had only the barest notion where we were headed and had not mapped out our route. I knew I wanted to take her to Mesa Verde National Park, a place I had never been but always wanted to go. We had two weeks on our own with no deadlines and nothing to push us. I only knew that I wanted to be just a two-drive from Kansas City so that when the time came for us to go back home, we could make it within two days. I figured I could put 700 miles behind me in about 11 hours. Two days of that was enough.

Sitting at the airport, I spread the highway map we’d picked up from an I-25 rest stop out across the dash. I pointed at the map.

“Here’s where we want to go,” I said, my finger sitting on Silverthorne, where my uncle lived in an exclusive subdivision north of Dillon. “Uncle Bill knows we are on the way but doesn’t know when we will be there. I have to call him.”

Sydney knew that Bill was the wealthy member of the family, the only one of us who really made it into the realm of money and power. His house sat by itself in the middle of an alpine meadow on the side of a mountain. It’s 30-foot atrium the center of a sprawling 4,000-square-foot complex with outdoor spa and guest apartment.

“Does Uncle Bill have a pool?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I felt her deflate.

“Can’t we stay in a motel with a pool,” she asked.

“We only have so much money, sweetheart,” I said.

“But I want to go swimming.”

“Well, Bill has a hot tub. Maybe that will work.”

We shot down I-70 toward Silverthorne, arriving at Bill’s gated community. It spread over square miles. Trophy homes sat on precarious inclines and atop undulations on the side of the mountain. I rang his house at the gate. After he buzzed us in, we wound up a narrow, paved road past a couple of houses that occupied the center of their lands. Each house had about five acres around it. Beyond, the grassy foothill rose to the rocky top of a snow-covered peak. Sydney was enchanted.

“So good to have you,” Bill said when we finally arrived at the front door with our backpacks. “Let me show you where you’ll sleep tonight.”

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