We had hiked into the wilderness about two miles as the sun was setting. Knowing twelve-year-old Nick, he wouldn’t take well to walking the trail at night. About dark, we found a spot under the canopy and built a fire before we made dinner. Once the fire was good aflame, I sent Nick off to gather more wood.
“Dad, there’s something you should see,” he said after just a minute.
“What is it?”
“A snake.” Nick slid behind me as we went in for a closer look.
A copperhead lie next to a rotting branch on the forest floor. Our fire was only twenty feet away. Night was falling.
“Shitfire,” I said but remained calm. Nothing about snakes bothers me. Besides, I had to keep a good face on for Nick, who gets the jitters at the mention of a snake. My immediate worry was we were too close to the snake. I took up a branch and tried to scare it away. I lifted it, set it to one side, and gave it a poke. But the snake immediately returned to its place next to the log.
“She has a nest with eggs,” I said. “She’s not going anywhere.”
Not wanting to risk a snakebite, I left it where it was. But we couldn’t move and leave the fire. It would be hours before it was out cold.
“I tell you what we do,” I said. “We set up on the other side of the fire, away from the snake. She will leave us alone. Let’s gather wood from over that direction.”
If Nick gave the copperhead another thought, he didn’t let on.
Nick and I both had makings of lean-tos, but the sky was clear and nothing felt like rain to me. We laid our mats out on the open ground. Our fire died out slowly, the smell of woodsmoke, decaying leaves, and dried grass pleasant and conducive to sleep. Nick nodded off immediately.
Thoughts of the snake kept me awake a good long time. I’d heard stories of campers waking up with snakes in their sleeping bags, the snakes seeking the body heat of the camper. I kept waiting to hear it slithering through the grass. I watched the film of stars lying on the trees above. I fell asleep despite myself.
The snake left us alone. After the sun was well up, we packed and took off down the trail. We planned on hiking just half of the 20-mile trail. The day had grown hot by the time we made it to the old military road, a jungle path, that lead down into the valley to a ford across Little Paddy Creek. There, we’d be able to get some water and set it aside to let the purification tablets do their job. I told Nick we’d take our shoes off a while and breathe the air a little.
We got to the creek, filled our bottles, and took our boots off. With my feet in the water, I began to think about being here at the creek the first time. I had driven from Kansas City and hiked in to the bluff above the creek in the dark the night before. I had not heard the creek from the bluff and thought it dry. But here it ran well. The water was cold, too, like it shouldn’t have been. I slipped my boots on, untied, and walked upstream a little.
Nick and I sat at the edge of the creek, looking up the valley. Usually, Nick is a quiet kid. We speak only when we have something to say. This day, though, Nick chattered. He found the wilderness to his liking, and I could tell that part of his satisfaction came from the fact that it was he and I together.
After a while, I said it was time to pick up our boots.
“There’s something I want to show you over here,” I said.
We picked our way through the willows and scrub that opened to a spring pool I had found thirty years before.
“What do you think?” I said.
“It’s pretty cool, but there’s nowhere to sit,” he said looking at the steep brushy bank.
“That’s because we aren’t going to sit. We’re going for a swim.”
I took off my clothes, careful to hang them on the willows to dry the sweat. It was a hot day, steamy. We had been happy to get to the creek, as we drank all our bottles dry in the heat. Now, the pool lie clear and blue before us.
I paid attention to Nick out of the corner of my eye. He stood for a moment watching me strip to the skin. At first, he didn’t seem to know what to do, but after a time began to take off his clothes, hanging them on the willows as I had done. I walked gingerly over the broken chert and slid into the pool, the cold robbing me of breath. When I was in the center of the spring, I looked around. Nick was taking his time getting into the water. Once in, he swam around the perimeter of the pool, diving and scooping up handfuls of chert and sand.
I showed him where the spring entered the pool and had him hold still. We watched the madtoms school up near the source. The minnows and darters lost their fear of us and swam up close, some taking nips at our skins. I flipped over a rock with my foot and a crawdad shot across the spring floor.
“This is really great, dad,” he said. “Perfect for a hot day.”
We stayed in the water a good long time, listening to the songbirds around us and taking in the open space of the valley. At some point, we’d had enough. It was time to move on. We eased our way out and took our time making it across the broken chert. We gathered our clothes and walked out past the willows to the trail, where we pulled our togs and laced up our boots.
The forest closed around us as we made our way up out of the valley, our packs again heavy with water. We hiked in silence, father and son together.
When we reached the plateau, the heat had gotten to me. My head spun and I could feel my body not responding to command. My clothes were soaked and despite the hot day, I began to feel chilled. I knew I was in trouble but took it easy, careful not to alarm Nick. I just need to cool off a little, I told him.
“Do you mind if we just stay here a little while?” I said.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll just read my book.”
I laid out my ground cloth in the shade next to the trail and took off my shirt and shorts, lying down in just my undies. Nick was unbothered by the heat.
I spent a good hour there in the shade, thinking the whole time what I would do if the heat really got me. He was a self-assure and responsible 12-year-old. But did I want to send him off by himself to get help five miles away? He’d have to wait for someone to come down to Roby Lake and then depend on them to call the right people to come get me. I decided I wouldn’t put him in that position and flagged myself with my shirt.
My head became stable. I got up and found my limbs move where and when I wanted them to. I pulled on my shirt but hung my heavy denim shorts on my pack. I would finish the hike in my undies. Nick thought it was funny.
“What’s someone going to do when they come across you and your boxer briefs?” he said.
“We’ll be friendly and they’ll be uncomfortable thinking they came across a crazy man.”
We wound back toward the bluff from which I had first heard Little Paddy Creek in the night thirty years before. The trail descended down ravines and rolled back up, but most of the trek was flat and smooth. I was happy when the hardwoods gave way to pine, which meant that the ground was getting thinner and we were closer to the limestone cliffs above the creek.
We arrived at the bluff in the late afternoon. The heat had gotten to me again. My head spun and I was dehydrated. So, I laid down under the pines for an uneasy, restless nap. I regretted not filling two of our bottles. Our last liter and a half of water had to last the rest of the night and into the next day. Nick wanted to climb down to the creek to get more water. Maybe I should have let him, but I thought it safer not to have him laying at the bottom of the cliffs with a broken ankle or worse. It’s better to be a little dry than have two invalids in trouble.
Nick found spot intriguing and kept himself busy in the woods along the ridge. He made sure we had enough wood for the night. When night fell and we’d eaten, we spent only a little time by the fire. Both of us were tired. The day good behind us, we went to sleep to the songs of whippoorwills.
The next day, we walked the remaining three miles back to the truck at Roby Lake with hardly any water. We were on the road by mid-morning. We stopped at a store near Fort Leonard Wood and bought plastic jugs of water for the trip home. Knowing how much I needed, I bought three gallons and bid Nick drink as much as he could. I finished off two jugs on the drive and didn’t have to stop once in four hours. I was even more dehydrated than I thought.
Arriving back home, plucked our packs out of the bed of the truck.
“What did you think?” I said.
“It was great,” Nick said, which is something. He hardly ever commits himself and uses superlatives sparingly.
“There’s only one thing,” he said.
“You were really in trouble in there, weren’t you?”
“It wasn’t that bad,” I said. “The heat got me. But that spring and the time I laid on the side of the trail helped. I don’t think we were in any real danger. I just worried about what I would have asked you to do if I was in trouble.”
“I think we skip it next time,” he said.
“You mean you don’t want to go again?”
“No, we’re going again, as soon as we can. We just skip the hard part and take more water.”