Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 8

My prolonged absence from the blog has been due mostly to my determination to finish this story once and for all.  I have been working on it non-stop for two weeks, and while the result is far from perfect, I am thoroughly ready to call 'uncle' on Uncle Day Weekend...

For readers who can remember that far back, Part 7 detailed the majority of our visit to a little-known place called Bearizona. This visit occurred within the larger context of our Labor Day weekend trip, which we rechristened 'Uncle' Day weekend because we couldn’t take the summer heat in Phoenix anymore, and so sought refuge in the high country around Flagstaff.  Another goal was to get there and back without using the I-17 at any time, and to not travel the same road twice.  Part 8 carries us all the way to the conclusion of this story. 

Bearizona’s black bear exhibit was large in size and impressive in the number of bears it contained.  The dirt road through the enclosure was probably close to a half-mile long, if you straightened out the two large loops designed to give the visitor more viewing opportunities.  Once we entered, we saw almost immediately that the bears were active.  The staff must have just fed them, because a substantial number of bears were just off the edge of the trail, eating breakfast.  For some reason, they reminded me of old pictures of Dust-Bowl-era migrants pulled over informally along the shoulders of the Mother Road to eat, picnicking on their way to the Promised Land.  I must have seen a picture like that once upon a time; otherwise, I have no idea why that thought would even come to me.  Some of the bears were on all fours, and some were sitting straight up on their haunches, but all were doing the same thing:  eating slices of white bread.  Each one had a slice of the stuff already in its mouth, or was holding it with a paw.  We noticed one bear was holding his piece up to the sun as though he were appreciating its form, the way I might hold up a plump chunk of king crab leg glistening with clarified butter.  Some had piles of slices next to them.  

Black bears and white bread.
Sounds like a country song...
Who knew bears had a thing for Wonder Bread?  And they ate it with such apparent relish, too; it seemed to be a delicacy to them, like eating dessert first.  I’m sure they had been given other food as well; good food, healthy food, food with actual flavor.  All they seemed interested in was the Wonder Bread.  It was funny, but on some level, also a little disturbing.

This example illustrates the problem of shooting
pictures through the car window.

No, camera, I didn't really want the dashboard
superimposed over an unfocused image of a bear,
even though it turned out to be kind of cool.
Despite my ambivalence, the opportunity to photograph bears at such close range was too much too resist.  I pulled the camera out, and began snapping away.  The kids were pointing and laughing, literally hopping with excitement.  Elizabeth was enthralled, and kept grabbing my arm, saying, “Look, Kev! Look!” whenever the bear would take another bite from their slice of bread.  The pictures I was taking weren’t turning out, for one thing because my arm kept being grabbed, but also because the camera kept focusing on the inside of the window, instead of the perfectly situated, large black bear eating a sandwich fifteen feet beyond.  

After trying a few different settings with the camera, I realized there was only one way to get the picture I wanted.  I rolled my window down about four inches, and moved the camera up to the opening.

The change inside the car was immediate.

“Dad! You’re not supposed to have your window down!  Dad! The bear’s right there!”
“I know, sweetheart,” I answered, trying to calm her with a soothing voice.  “It’s okay. It’s just a few inches, and I’m just going to take a few pictures, and then roll it right back up.”
“You’re not supposed to do that, Dad!  It’s against the rules!  It’s dangerous!”
 “It will only take a few seconds…”
So much for calming her with my voice. “Just a few pictures, honey.”
“What word?”
Her voice dropped down to an emphatic whisper.  “Honey.”
“Honey? Why can’t I say honey?”
It took me a moment to figure out the bear-honey connection, and when I did, I almost laughed.  But Jessica was serious, and becoming more hysterical with each passing second the window remained cracked.  
“Okay, hon-… sweetie,” I said, checking myself.  “Just one more second…”
DAD, THE BEARS!!!  DAD, THE BEARS!!!”  She suddenly began flailing around, grabbing for her pillow.  She was on the verge of completely losing it, and I sensed she was only moments away from reverting to fetal position.  I quickly snapped a few more pictures randomly, pulled the camera back in, and closed the window.

I lowered my head until it rested between my hands on the steering wheel.  My daughter has two personality traits that sometimes drive me crazy.  One is a tendency to over-dramatize; the other is to not manage fear very well.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.  In this case, I was sure she wasn’t just being dramatic.  She was truly terrified. 

“Okay, Jess, okay.  The windows are up,” I said, my head still resting on the wheel.  As a parent, this hypersensitivity to fear was worrisome.  As someone who’s struggled with intensely debilitating feelings of fear his whole life, it was extremely concerning.  Quite frankly, even I, the most chicken-@*#! person I know, didn’t respond with such blind panic when I was her age.  Like most good little boys, I learned at an early age to rely on the three “S’s” for controlling pervasive fear, at least outwardly:  subdue, suppress, and stifle.  By ten, I had long figured out that there was one fear which held great power over the rest:  the fear of embarrassment.  I guess what bothered me more than anything was that she seemed completely unwilling to recognize the rules of civilized society, or play by them.  She abandoned herself so readily to the slightest scary stimulus, she seemed so willing to instantly abdicate control over her mind, it felt as though there was nothing there to build upon, no foundational resistance to work with, or to encourage, or develop.  Trust me, we’ve seen some amazing displays of meltdowns over the years.  In this particular situation, the resulting scene was little more than tremendously annoying, limited as it was to the interior of our car.  But put her in a public context, say a shopping mall, or the zoo, and we’re talking show-stopping, gasp-inducing reactions from innocent bystanders.  Put her in a room with a nurse and a needle, and I literally begin to worry for everybody’s safety.  But how do you begin to reach someone who glazes over at the first sign of trouble?  Where do you even start?  Not knowing what to do was driving me crazy.  My forehead hurt, only partly from leaning on the steering wheel.  It wasn’t fair, I thought.  She showed absolutely no natural ability to stifle. 

I turned my head enough to look over my arm at Elizabeth, who gave me an exasperated shrug, as if responding to the same unspoken question.  “We broke the rules,” I said quietly.  “Even though I made sure that it was safe, I shouldn’t have rolled the window down.”  I could hear her whimpering underneath her pillow.  “I’m sorry, Jess.  I won’t do it again.”
“Promise?” Jessica  
The car became quiet for a few minutes, and then, with a heavy sigh, I began moving the car forward.  After another lengthy pause, Elizabeth spoke.  “Hey, Jess,” she said brightly, “Do you see those two bears over there?  They’re both standing up!  It looks like they’re dancing!  Oh, they just fell over!”  It was usually Elizabeth who took on the role of coaxing Jessica back out of her shell in the aftermath of moments like these.  In this case, she had some ready help from the clownish behavior of the bears.  Jessica recovered quickly, blithely comfortable under the false security provided by the assumption that nothing bad could happen as long as the windows were up.

We crept deeper into the exhibit, watching the bears still munching away with perfect contentment on the remainder of their white bread.  Others roamed restlessly around the depths of the enclosure.  Several crossed the road, intentionally oblivious to the rumbling strand of cars and trucks.  A few bears were sprawled out on the ground in positions that reflected, in a friend’s perfectly coined phrase, “dinner afterglow.”  Except, of course, they had just eaten breakfast, but there seemed no point in trying to tell them that.  

Under the irresistible influence of the bears, the atmosphere within the car magically gained back all of its cheerful buoyancy. One bear was rubbing its backside on the rough bark of a ponderosa pine, shaking the poor tree, which was not a small specimen, so hard that it looked as though it were about to crumble to pieces.  I heard a laugh, a girlish squeal of delight, that I didn’t recognize.  Bewildered, I looked behind me from one girl to the other, trying to identify the source.  Then I saw Elizabeth, completely absorbed in the bear’s stumbling antics, giggling with pure enchantment, her face glowing with an expression of enraptured innocence. 

I was stunned.  I had no idea she was even capable of such little girl noises.  In the history of our relationship together, 25 years and counting, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard her laugh like that, or look quite like that.  I studied her face as though she were a stranger.  We’ve been to some great places together, fun places; places where we’ve professed to have had the most fun we’ve ever had, together or individually.  For instance, we both adore Disneyland, have been there many times, alone and with the kids; but nothing in Walt Disney’s dream world ever produced a response like that in her.  Monterrey and San Francisco, two more favorite places; no such luck.  New York.  My God, you would think if anything would trigger an undiluted outburst of sheer giddiness, it would be the shopping nirvana of Sex in the City Manhattan. London, not even LondonElizabeth’s a hopeless Anglophile, and not even standing on the aorta of the British Empire could do it.  Paris, a city we both fell in love with, that amazing night at Walter’s midway up the Swiss Alps, Venice, Florence, Rome.  In all the time I had known her, which was practically since she actually was a little girl, I had never seen her become a little girl right before my eyes. 

I wanted to capture that school-girl giggle forever.  I wanted to trap that moment in a glass jar, with holes in the lid, and learn how to keep it alive, to feed it and keep it close to me.  I would guard it and protect it with my life, if only I knew how to produce it.  But how do you get from fun, in all its various forms, to generating that peculiar kind of spontaneous joy?   And if you can’t make it, how do you hold on to it?  All I had to work with was my own faulty memory, and a camera.  CAMERA!   Please don’t be too late! I quickly fumbled for the camera, turned it on her, and snapped a picture. 
Joy is a peculiar kind of happiness...
Maybe I wouldn’t be able to keep a picture-perfect memory of what Elizabeth sounded like in that moment.  Even now, as I write this (a little more than two months later), I can’t remember exactly how it went, or recall with any reliability the actual contours of that sound, except how incredibly amazing it was to hear.  But years from now, I’ll unexpectedly see that picture, and I hope I’ll be instantly reawakened to the memory of how that moment felt.  I quietly applauded myself for at least remembering that I had the camera, and using it, before the moment had dissolved completely.  This time, the bear didn’t get away, I thought smugly, resting against the seat and watching Elizabeth floating like a feather indeterminately back to earth with bemused enjoyment. 

“I’m sorry,” she said eventually, wiping tears of a certain kind from her eyes.  “This just reminds me of going camping with my mom and dad.  We would always see bears.  Being here just brought it all back to me...” Her voice trailed off. 
I shook my head emphatically.  “Don’t apologize. You just surprised me.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that out of you before.” 
She looked at me semi-sheepishly, her deep smile still glowing.  God, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that expression…

After leaving the bears, which was the last of the drive-through exhibits, we were directed into a parking lot in front of what looked like a brand new old western fort, the log stockade kind.  The woman who was in charge of parking told us that inside was a zoo containing smaller animals that were better seen up close, instead of from a car.  We parked in the gravel lot, unloaded the kids, and approached the entrance, where we were greeted by a large bear carved from wood holding a pot of honey.  It was a clearly designated photo opportunity, one we obediently took advantage of:

Two girls and a bear.
Sorry, Maria, but he's not going to share
his honey.
Writer’s Note:  I’m going to make a conscious choice here, and skip the description of the walk-through section of Bearizona.  There are several reasons for this, chief among which is the fact that I’d like to leave some surprises for you people to discover on your own, and also that this story is already 36 pages long, and if I don’t do something drastic this story is going to boil over to a Part 9, and I am desperately committed to keeping it at 8.  I mean, please, people, try to understand.  I didn’t anticipate this story spinning so helplessly out of control.  Who takes 36 pages to explain what happened on a little family trip that barely lasted 36 hours, in which nothing tragic or even modestly dramatic occurs?  It’s time to exercise some self-restraint, don’t you agree?  I’ve only been at this writing thing for five months, and already I feel like I should check myself into some 12-step program for out-of-control writers.  I wonder if Betty Ford has a rehab center for that…   

Instead, I will concisely summarize our experience within the fort by saying that when we came back out, our tummies were full, each girl was clutching a stuffed teddy bear, and it had just crossed over to afternoon.  We easily spent four hours in Bearizona without ever experiencing a moment of that dragging, strung-out feeling you get sometimes when you overstay a place in an effort to get your money’s worth.  By the time we left, we all agreed that Bearizona had been the highlight of our trip.  Although from this experience, Maria would develop a fear of bears that would make Stephen Colbert proud.  For weeks after our visit, she would make us check her room each night for bears before bedtime, and if she woke up crying, it was inevitably because of the bears she saw in her dreams. 

Back on highway 40, headed west again, I began to watch the clock more closely.  We spent far more time at Bearizona than I had anticipated, and this meant that the possibility of making it back before the returning crush of holiday weekend traffic was slipping away. Fortunately, our plan of bypassing the I-17 in favor of a less-traveled route back to Phoenix should preserve us from the worst of it.  Still, I had never driven this exact way before, and didn’t really know what to expect from the roads, or the traffic on them.

We bolted another thirty miles along the interstate before reaching the junction with highway 89 near the town of Ash Fork.  Turning south, we aimed ourselves directly into some very dark clouds.  The prospect of rain was thrilling, and I accelerated towards it as if reacting to the distant sight of a long lost lover.  At home, the total extent of precipitation we had seen since May consisted of exactly three half-rains; and in many ways, a half-rain is almost worse than no rain at all because of the teasing torture it inflicts.  For those of you not from the desert, a half-rain is what happens when it actually does rain, and the rain actually hits the ground (thus distinguishing it from the half-half-rain, which is when you can see it raining above you, but the rain never makes it within 500 feet of your stinging, dried-up eyeballs), but because everything is so infernally hot, within twenty minutes you would never be able to convince someone who wasn’t there that it had rained at all, unless your car was parked outside and you could show them your dirty windshield with its hundreds of fossilized remains of water droplets that evaporated on impact.  It’s very difficult to accurately describe how much a man’s undies can get into a twist as a result of enduring this succession of rain-teasing (I assume the same holds true for women, but I haven’t checked personally).  In fact, I’ve discovered that there is a whole psychology to the relationship between desert dweller and rain; a complex, stormy (excuse the pun) psychology.  I would love to explain it in greater detail, but I’m kind of in a rush to get home, so I’ll have to save that for another time. 

As odd as it may sound, if there were anything that could have made our trip even better, it was to have it rain on us.  And it finally did, as we were zinging south on highway 89.  Huge, juicy, morbidly obese drops of water began to hurl themselves against the windshield and the thin steel of the car’s roof.  Inside, we were all thrown into a state of primitive excitement.  I had to explain all over to our two-year-old, who had initially been frightened by the sudden, noisy assault, what rain was, since nearly one-fifth of her life had passed since the last time she experienced precipitation that actually got anything wet.  We shut off the air conditioner and opened the outside vents so the thick smell of rain could permeate the car.  We rolled down the windows enough to feel the wind and be splashed by rain-spray, occasionally taking a whole, fat drop on the shoulder or side of the face at high velocity, inspiring fits of laughter.  We barreled along, spontaneously breaking into a serenading rendition of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head,” which we sang enthusiastically, being one of the few songs about rain we knew that wasn’t completely depressing.  This launched a discussion of why there are so few songs in praise of rain.  Most of the songs we could think of were inherently negative, even openly hostile, while the rest tended to be “silver-lining” songs that celebrate finding happiness despite the rain.  Even in that most classic of rain songs, we observed that Gene Kelly was “Singin’ in the Rain,” not singin’ because of the rain.  What the world needs, we decided, is a great rain song for the rest of us, the people who don’t have enough rain in their lives, who look around when it’s wet and only see a wonderland.

The rain stayed with us for close to half an hour, almost all the way to Chino Valley, a small town north of Prescott.  Because it had absorbed all of our attention, once the rain ended we could clearly see that we had left the big evergreen trees behind, and had dropped in elevation to the point where we were surrounded by wide, gently sloping, straw-colored grasslands.   The only prior knowledge I had of Chino Valley’s existence (so that’s where it is) came from seeing what always seemed like an abnormally large number of buses from their school district routinely navigating the streets of northwest Phoenix.  As I looked around at the vast empty land and sparsely distributed homes, I couldn’t begin to understand where all the kids that filled those buses were coming from, let alone why their buses seemed to spend so much time in the big city a hundred miles away.     

We came into Prescott from the north, passing through the granite dells that I had seen many times in promotional pictures, but had never seen personally.  The dells are giant, rounded boulders that have lots of deep lines cut into them.  They were surely formed by some perfectly reasonable geological process, but they looked to me as though some ancient Titan had attacked them in a moment of weakness with a giant cheese slicer when the rocks were still soft and, presumably, cheesy.

Within minutes, we found ourselves at the corner of the city’s centerpiece, the historic courthouse square.  The granite block building had once served as the territorial capital building, and so was built with the requisite neo-classical gravitas common to federal buildings, a stateliness which far exceeded its current role as a county courthouse.   But, it also serves as the town’s central gathering place; and today a Labor Day celebration was underway, with booths and stands forming an impromptu picket fence along the inner perimeter of the square.  Streets were cordoned off, and hundreds of people were milling in every direction.  We nosed our way through the streaming crowds along Montezuma Street, wishing we could stop and investigate.  Elizabeth and I agreed that it would have been a great place to let Maria burn off some energy, but the chaotic swirling of people and cars made the prospect riskier, or at least more arduous, than either of us was willing to endure. We simply skirted by, figuring we would find a place to stop and stretch a little further on.

Highway 89, however, had other plans.  A few miles after passing through the center of Prescott, it bends away from the restaurant and retail corridor familiar to people who approach the city on the main route from Phoenix.  Before you realize it, you’re in a secluded suburban area, and then almost as suddenly, back into the open chaparral.  A quick survey of the family revealed that no one was in immediate need of a rest stop, so instead of turning back, we decided to press on.   

We didn’t stop until we reached Wickenburg, a distance of merely sixty miles, but it’s a long sixty miles, taking almost two hours, the road wending precariously down through the mountains soon after leaving Prescott. Although we had been through this part of the highway once before when Jessica was just a baby, we had forgotten just how acutely and constantly swervy it was, and also how prone to carsickness Jessica is.  As an infant she had slept through this part the first time.  We noticed her growing discomfort first by her silence, and then by the loss of color in her face.  As the car spun its way down the mountainside like a twisting maple seed, she rode along the very inside edge of nausea for the next ten miles without ever totally losing her grip. That’s my girl, I thought proudly.  Who says my daughter can’t stifle?

No one was more thankful than Jessica when we finally pulled into the familiar Wickenburg McDonald’s.  We had driven all the way from Bearizona without stopping, a distance of roughly 130 miles, which equated to 3.5 hours of solid driving.  With the exception of the rough patches through the mountains, the girls had handled the long drive better than Elizabeth or I could’ve expected.    

We claimed a booth inside the McDonald’s, saw to necessities, and placed our order.  I loitered by the counter until our stuff was ready, and then returned to our table, handing soft-serve cones to the kids, and a large sweet tea to Elizabeth.  I sipped a bottle of water, feeling pretty good about where things stood.  An hour or so from now, we would pull into our driveway at home.  Barring a serious accident on the highway between here and there, it probably wouldn’t be later than four-thirty or five.  We would unload the car, and after that, I would grab the hose and desperately shower water over all the plants outside, hoping they could be resuscitated after enduring two brutal summer days without us.  I looked out the front windows of the McDonald’s and watched the cars whizzing by in both directions.  The old traffic bug-a-boo, which had dominated my list of concerns about the trip home, had proven to be a non-factor.  We had driven from Flagstaff all the way through without any serious impediments.  And judging from the volume of vehicles passing by on the highway before us, there was no reason to think things would be much different the rest of the way.  Had I not known better, I never would have guessed that we were in the thick end of a holiday weekend.  I wondered whether the poor wretches southbound on the I-17 were backed up to Sunset Point yet (I later heard that it actually was as bad as I wanted to believe it would be, which I then felt badly about wanting to believe, although also selfishly and unnecessarily vindicated).     

I watched our daughters eating their ice cream, or in Maria’s case, attempting to submerse herself in it.  I reflected with satisfaction over the last thirty-five hours.  We had accomplished our goals, that seemed safe to say.  We had briefly escaped the absolute tyranny of the summer sun and its power to desiccate not only physically, but spiritually.  We found enough of a respite in the tempered heat and cool mountain breezes to return home with patched-up hope.  We couldn’t change the fact that summer would last at least another month, and very possibly two; but we had been given a taste of what waited for us after:  a nearly endless string of days, each one as blue and perfect as the mildest summer day in Flagstaff.  Our conviction that there had to be an end to summer was revived to something more substantial than lifeless words.   

Lunch under the pines
Maria at Lake Mary
The other part of the Uncle Day weekend challenge had worked out even better, I thought.  We had set ourselves the goal of taking different paths, both on the way up to Flagstaff, and back home again.  Because of this decision, we took roads we had never been on before, and had been introduced to new places and new vistas that stirred the imagination, adding a freshness and vitality to our trip that another boring drive up and down the I-17 could never have produced.  I thought about the small and wonderful moments along the way:  the picnic lunch in the pines and the less pleasant, but still memorable, improvisational moment that followed; Maria playing in the mud of Lake Mary's rocky shore; the whole multi-faceted experience of Bearizona; and the rain that graced our ride back.  These were the things I would remember most fondly, and all were directly attributable to the fact that we had stayed off the beaten path.  I supposed there was a lesson in there somewhere, but I was too worn out to extract it.    

The women in my life
By now, the girls had finished their cones, and my water bottle was empty.  Elizabeth was cleaning the stickiness from Maria’s body with diaper wipes. The clock was ticking, the plants were waiting.

“Alright,” I said, holding each one in turn in my gaze, “I guess it’s time to go home.”

Whew!  It’s done.  If you are one of the people who actually read every part of this story, you have just finished forty pages of Times New Roman, 12 point font, standard margins, single-spaced insanity.  That’s 23,363 words, according to Word’s word count (You didn’t think I was going to count them, did you?)  You can’t see me, but I’m tipping my hat to you right now.  You have earned the right to be called a true-blue friend of the blog, either that or a glutton for punishment.  I gave you many opportunities to bail out on the story, or even forget about it entirely, making you wait like I did for weeks at a time for the next installment.  Yet you persevered.  Good for you.  I hope you were moderately entertained throughout, or at least sporadically so.  I also hope you will comment or email me to let me know of your accomplishment.  I don’t know what I can do to reward your patience and/or lunacy, but I’d like to thank you individually, and try to find out why you would ever choose to spend your time in such an unproductive way.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your narrative about your Uncle Day excursion. What you might not understand is those of us who perserved did so partly out of the creepy interest people have when looking at other people's lives (like a reality show), but also becuase we can relate. Additionally, it must be pointed out here that the main reason for me is because you are a damn good writer. I thoroughly enjoyed your recounting of Uncle Day and I am convinced even more than I ever was, that Elizabeth must really love you! :)

  2. Hutton - Sir, I tip my cap to you for your perseverance; however, I must strongly protest the use of profanity on my blog (while privately being very pleased). I'm the only one who can swear on my blog dammit!

  3. Kevin, I must agree with what Hutton said and then some! :) You are a wizard with words, creating a vivid picture for us as readers, expertly guiding the way throughout the story, until you break our heart by having it end. I wish I was a small child as a friend of Jessica and Maria so I could be invited and go on a family outing with you and Elizabeth :) As for the sound and reaction Elizabeth had to seeing the Fishy scratching bear; I remembered hearing it from her as a child while visiting her family on Christmas Eve! She loved playing with my dad - sitting on one of his knees while one of her nieces (or cousins) sat on the other and discussed the advantages of "being" a 3 year old adult. Dad played along until he'd tickle or make a face and then both girls would loose control, making that "sound" and dissolving into fits of laughter! I'm so happy that the beautiful woman Elizabeth is still has that little girl living happily inside!

    Keep up the fantastic story weaving, Kevin! You are creating an invaluable treasure to be loved and enjoyed by your and Elizabeth's great-great-great-great grandchildren's grand children and then some :)

  4. hyphen61: Wow! Can I hire you to write the publicity blurbs for my future book jackets? I felt like a million bucks after reading your comments, so thanks a million!

    It gives me great joy to report that the little girl inside the beautiful Elizabeth is alive and well.

    There are many great memories between your family and ours. Let's hope our great-great-great-great grandchildren are still making them!

    Thanks again for the stupefyingly kind words!

  5. I fell a bit behind but finally finished. I say ditto to the previous comments, couldn't say it better.

  6. Sb: Thanks for persevering. I know you are one of the few to have read the entire story. I appreciate having you along for the ride!