We had camping reservations at Cape Disappointment, a ridiculous name for a vacation destination. My wife and I amused ourselves by making dreary predictions of a terrible weekend during the three hour ride to the Washington coast. Our five-year-old twins watched cartoons in the backseat. Holly had many fond camping memories from when she was a child and wanted to offer our children the same experience. We pulled onto the loamy state park road and wound through scrub pine to our site, one of a dozen. Although midday, the sky was milky white. Getting out of the car, I felt a stiff wind blow cold sand against my legs.
I wanted the best for my kids, too, but I didn't have the same experiences my wife had to draw upon. My family was an old-fashioned Catholic brood of seven. We went on vacations to the Jersey shore, but we hung out on the boardwalk and slept in motels—beds overflowing, the smallest of us wrapped in blankets on the floor. After my youngest brother was born, my father didn't so much abandon us, as he just seemed to lose interest. He started dating. He would disappear for unexplained weeks at a time. He would bring his girlfriend to the high school football games to watch my older brothers play. One Saturday in the fall, I spotted my father among my classmates, strolling along the cinder track that circled the football field with his girlfriend. He had a full beard and had grown out his hair, which had started to grey in a large patch down the middle of his head. It took me a few minutes to recognize him, and when I finally did, he saw me too. I kept my expression even, as did he. After a heartbeat, he turned, pointed out something in the distance to his date, and then ambled on. My father had been the linchpin of our tribe, but then he just inexplicably took off in another direction. Why? Perhaps it was some sort of midlife crisis, a desire to recapture his youth. Or maybe he had finally fallen in love. A few years later, after he died, my mother revealed to me he really had loved this girlfriend of his. But whatever caused this essential shift in him—love or crisis—just knowing that a person could one day reevaluate their entire life's course and find it so lacking that they would abandon everything and start over had left me uncertain and cautious, especially when it came to my own abilities as a parent. So now, some twenty years later, when I needed to act like an adult, I invariably looked to Holly for an example. If nothing else, she had her fond memories to guide her.
After I unloaded our gear, Holly took the car to get firewood and food for dinner. I shooed the kids down to the beach and began assembling our campsite. When the propane stove was connected and the tent standing, I went to fetch the children and found the beach deserted.
The tide was out, the surf a quiet murmur in the distance.
Scanning the long stretch of wet sand, I saw gleaming ledges of rock, like some giant reptile frozen in the surf. Tall firs stood on all sides. Below the firs, fat white timbers of driftwood, some the girth of a telephone pole, littered the shoreline.
This was no Jersey beach.
The sand ended about a hundred yards south, where the land rose steeply, with a picturesque lighthouse on its seaward tip: Cape Disappointment. As I watched, I saw two tiny figures scaling the rocks. I had found the children. Aaron, a stocky little fireplug of a boy, was blazing a trail for Kennedy, who was closer to the beach, but high enough to cause me concern.
I raced across the beach, but the sand made running feel like an anxiety dream. I kept stopping to catch my breath and holler. Aaron was on his haunches poking a stick into the rock when I finally got his attention. He looked at me with mild wonder. I told him not to move.
"Daddy's coming," I yelled.
He continued poking his stick into the rocks.
I climbed to the children, avoiding the dizzying view down. When I reached Aaron, he took my hand. I escorted him down, and then his sister, who had discerned my terror, and was playing up the drama. "We could have been killed, Daddy!"
During dinner, I confessed how I had found the children. Holly raised one eyebrow, but continued eating. I felt ashamed. I take the kids for an hour or two and they end up in mortal danger. Holly announced that the beach now required adult supervision.
"Adult supervision," Kennedy aped.
In the middle of the night, I woke to the clamor of a nearby party. Firecrackers. Hoots and laughter. The darkness disoriented me. Someone started a vehicle and raced its motor. My eyes adjusted, but my head remained heavy.
"Darn kids," Holly hissed.
I could see our children resting peacefully. I lay there wondering how I ought to respond and then inadvertently slipped back into sleep. I woke in the wan light of dawn, a crow cawing noisily outside the tent. I sat up and heard Holly sigh heavily. Creeping out of the tent, I threw a rock at the noisy bird.
Breakfast was glum.
Holly was sleep deprived, I wasn't much better. Holly said I ought to report the teens in the nearby campsite. Everything over there looked peaceful and calm: I saw an old pickup, its fender and hood covered in dull grey primer. It didn't seem neighborly, and I expressed reluctance. Holly glared over her tin of coffee. The entire weekend lay before us.
After breakfast, I set off for the ranger station.
I found a young man in uniform, told him about the previous night, and then walked back to camp. A few minutes later, a ranger jeep roared up the road. Holly and I ducked into our tent and peeked out the window flap.
The ranger got out of his vehicle and stood by the old pickup. One by one, the teenagers drifted over to the ranger, some barefoot. The ranger wore his official hat and kept his hands on his hips. The boys stood looking at their feet, their heads shining halos of hair sticking out in odd directions. One cherub-faced boy used the heel of his hand to rub his eyes.
"Remember partying all night," Holly said.
"We're just like grownups now," I sighed.
Holly suggested we make a pact. "From this point forward," she said, "it's live and let live."
Holly took the children to the beach. The boys cattycorner to us dismantled their tents and loaded their truck. I watched our breakfast fire die. I felt sleepy and sad, as if I, too, were extinguishing. Was this how my father had felt when he grew weary of being a parent? If I dared to look long and hard enough, might I find my own life lacking: this thought left me feeling unsettled and frightened.
Live and let live, I reminded myself.
A girl wandered past our site.
I ignored her, but for the next hour, she came past again and again, each time slowing a bit, peering into our camp. At mid-morning, the sun had not appeared, our camp fire was gone, and the entire park seemed deserted—except for this one lone girl, who kept wandering past our camp.
She approached tentatively. "You need firewood?" she asked.
I smiled. "You have extra?"
"You can get it on the beach," she said. Extending her arms, she presented a large chunk of white driftwood, as if it were a newborn.
Large signs everywhere restricted campers from burning the park's driftwood. "I don't think we're allowed to use the driftwood," I said, trying not to sound condescending. She looked about 12 or 13-years-old and I wondered if she could read.
"If the rangers ask, you say you're using it for whittling." She dropped the driftwood, which made a dull thump.
"Take this," she said. "I got tons."
"O," I said.
"What's your name," she asked, chewing her lip and fingering her hair.
Something about the way she asked this made me uncomfortable. With growing unease, I wondered if she were flirting with me. The whole thing was wrong—the driftwood, the girl, the cloudy morning and the terrible night. I longed for Holly to show up, a competent adult who would absolutely know what to do. I struggled to stand from my camping chair and decline the driftwood. Just then, Holly and the kids did appear and the girl slipped off.
When I explained what happened, Holly insisted we report her.
"What about live and let live," I laughed.
"This is different," she said, toeing the block of driftwood. "It's environmental."
I couldn't bring myself to report the girl. I had already reported once today. I wanted to wait one day—if not for the sake of decorum, then at least so I could speak with a different ranger.
That night, we slept peacefully.
In the morning, we broke camp and the sun shone. I used my foot to nudge the driftwood by our fire pit into the weeds. The sunshine combined with the sea air made me feel invigorated, as if there were no situation I couldn't handle.
On the way out of the park, Holly stopped at the ranger station. I was determined not to report the girl and was ready when Holly asked. I declined. Politely but firmly. Holly threatened to do it herself and I said that was fine.
Holly's jaw was set, but before she got out of the car, she quickly switched tactics and groaned. "Come with me…," she said.
"Fine," I sighed.
I could do this much.
Inside, Holly stood in line at the information window behind an elderly couple. I browsed a brochure rack. Turning to catch Holly's eye, I saw the ranger was the same young man to whom I had reported the boys. Horrified, I grabbed a brochure, unfolded it, and buried my face. Holly started talking to the ranger. I knew that she was going to explain the girl's scheme for burning the park's driftwood. I knew that to corroborate her story my wife would eventually turn to me, but in that very moment I also knew that I was no longer hounded by the ghost of my father: I could trust my own judgment, which wasn't perfect, but was at least as good as my wife or anyone else's. I would do the best I could with what I had. Any excitement that would light my future days would come from shepherding my children from harms, both real and imagined.
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