Travels with Dad

As we approach this Sunday's annual token nod, I'll be looking back on just more than 365 days of fatherhood. The meaning of this milestone (or meterstone) has been a little hard to pin down. Until last weekend, the effect of Dad-dom on my life was murky at best.

But as we crested Coal Bank and began the big descent back to Durango, I flashed on a totally uneventful wedding weekend. Looking back at an evening of champagne toasts, barbeque chicken and dj music, I realized that when I've broken away with the family, the trips have actually been pleasant sunny affairs in moderate temperatures involving leisurely pedal strokes in the Animas Valley or casual hikes to near-perfect desert locales. One recent jaunt even included a night's stay at a B&B, good breakfast and some fairly pedestrian hikes with the baby on my back.

The trend was a worrisome one.

My own childhood trips with my dad had a somewhat rougher flavor. For some reason, my father was hell-bent on journeys with a component of peril and suffering. And the most trying of these was usually the annual family pilgrimage from Southwestern Colorado to Southern California.

The trip was allegedly an effort at a family beach vacation, but our undersized blue Subaru always took the road slowly. After a few passes, it became obvious that maybe it was the journey that really mattered. Why else would you spend three nights between Telluride and Orange County?

Fighting extreme desert heat, four of us were packed inside that imported metal shell without air conditioning or even a functional radio. Above 80 degrees, the slick naugahyde seats would almost start to melt, becoming sticky, and frequently, we'd slowly peel the blue vinyl off our skin careful not to take any leg hair.

Ceremoniously, we'd pass Cortez, Towaoc and Teec Nos Pos and usually the only sound would be air blowing through rolled-down windows. When the heat became overwhelming, we'd stop and buy gallon jugs of cold water. Silently the jug would pass around the car and everyone would pour a small amount on their head or chest. Then the breeze would start working its magic and our eyes would hypnotically stare back out the windows.

Luckily, these episodes were always fairly short-lived. We'd just leave the mountains, reach a cruising speed of 50 mph, spit into the desert and cross the line into the Navajo Reservation, and suddenly it was motel time. As we pulled in at lunchtime, the casual observer would have thought that Kayenta, Tuba City or Cameron were destinations.

There we admired plastic tomahawks shelved alongside gaudy kachinas and mingled with the new Arizonans, white people dripping with turquoise with one hand always on the cash register.

One year, the water pump died just outside Kayenta, and dad dropped the car into neutral and barely coasted into the motel/restaurant town of Tsegi Park. Holed up in a modular motel with thin sheets of wood paneling serving as walls, we were forced to wait a few days while a Japanese auto part found its way into a box and drove itself up from Flagstaff.

As we squandered precious vacation time, the climate was ripe for a family blowout. Luckily, my dad managed to defuse the situation between pay-phone calls. Shaking me and my brother off his leg, he pointed us in the direction the deep sandstone canyon behind the motel. It was the kick in the ass we needed, and we dropped down a steep water hewn slide into the canyon's gut.

Over the course of two days, we probed that red chasm in and out, following its sublime curves to side canyons, glimpsing alien plant life and eventually stumbling upon three separate intact ruins. My dad's desert odysseys suddenly made perfect sense, and from then on our eyes saw the hogans and alcoves rather than trading posts and cheap motels.

As for myself, I'm giving myself a kick in the ass and working on getting my fathering abilities in line before this Sunday. As you read this, my wife Rachael, my daughter Skyler and I are crammed into an overloaded, overheated car taking the slow road to my 1-year-old's first river trip. Weather forecasts are pointing toward temperatures in the mid-90s and bug season is likely to be at a peak, but we should have the canyons to ourselves.

Who knows? When we arrive back in Durango for Father's Day, maybe I'll even be able to tell Rachael about that 1982 Subaru I've had my eye on.

-Will Sands




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