By Ruth McKee
For several days my 10-year-old son has been excitedly talking about a plan. He wants to go out into nature somewhere, away from all people, and “survive.” What does he mean by this? I am not entirely sure, but he says he does not want to go on a hike, bike ride, play a game, or have a plan. We are each allowed to take three survival items, he tells me. I say I’m packing water, snacks, and my phone in case we actually get lost.
I think I know what he is looking for. There are no vacations this summer, but since the parks and beaches and hiking trails re-opened, we’ve been doing a lot more outdoor exploration. We go at odd times, to be sure to keep contact with others to a minimum. We spend our days locked up at home, then go to the beach at sunset, when everyone is packing up. We wear our masks and keep our distance, but over the past four months my children have grown to be more wary about meeting another human out in nature than a snake or a bear.
As the weekend approaches I research some open spaces. I warn the boy that it’s going to be extremely hot – he is not known to last long in the heat. But he still wants to go and I am not going to be the one to discourage a child who has spent the majority of his unstructured summer in a horizontal position on the couch, binge-watching superhero shows. When it’s time to head out, he gears up in his survival outfit: long pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and snow-boots. I remind him about the heat, but he is unfazed. My nine-year-old daughter dresses to match me in shorts, a tank top and hiking boots.
We drive about forty minutes to my chosen location, a camping area with a waterfall at the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. It’s right on the edge of civilization and as we approach, a sign tells us that the area is closed for the weekend, only open on weekdays. I tell my disappointed children not to worry, we can come back here some weekday soon, it probably would have been too crowded it it were open. For today, there are lots of open, wild spaces in these mountains, we just have to drive a little further to find one.
So we drive up into the San Gabriels, into territory we have never explored: past an enormous dam and reservoir, filled with coppery-green water; over an untrustworthy bridge; through an area suddenly packed out with families who, with water-parks closed, have come to dip their toes into mountain streams. The temperature outside is oppressive, and my kids would like to do the same, but instead we keep driving, saying we’ll come back here on a weekday, too. I promise them it will be cooler at a higher elevation. There will be trees and shade if we just keep driving up, up, away from the heat and the other humans.
After a while the other cars fall away, and the mountain range stretches out in front of us. We get out of the car to look at the view, and listen to the quiet. There are no other cars coming down this road. No sounds of traffic, construction or helicopters, just the buzzing of insects in the scorching heat. We never find the perfect open space to explore, to get safely lost and try to survive, but for a moment we stop and marvel at the distance we have managed to put between ourselves and the rest of humanity.