Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cascade Falls or Bust

Heat waves assaulted our bodies as we made our way from the house to the mini-van. Five children scrambled over and around each other, trying to get the coveted seats, which were anything but the back bench.
“Turn on the A.C.!,” yelled Rachel. Being the fourth of five children and only six years old, she assumed her usual spot in the back.
“Where are we going?” Parker asked, making sure all the front vents were open and adjusted to blow directly on his face.
 “Cascade Springs,” I said. I felt a drop in the temperature just saying the words. “Do we have everything we need? Water, treats?”
I checked the rearview mirror and saw Sydney push her way through seatbelts to join Rachel on the back bench. Shotgun lost to her younger brother, again. I was confident once we got to our mountain destination all would be forgiven. I turned up the rear air conditioning for good measure.
Making our way to American Fork canyon was a breeze. The ranger at the pay station took our money and gave us a map in return.
“Here, Parker. Look for the Springs,” I said. I marveled at the majestic trees lining the road like sentries guarding a hidden treasure. The river rushed by on the left, alive and untamed. We pulled away from the station and I felt the shackles of suburban life fall off me. The road wove through the forest like a ribbon, playing peek-a-boo with the river. Twenty minutes into the canyon, the noise of the car muffled for a bit until my ears popped and I knew we had to be getting close.
“Look at the drop-off,” Sydney said from the back, her eyes glued to the window.
“Don’t remind me,” said Parker. His eyes focused straight ahead. “Are we going to be ok?”
“Of course,” I said, flexing my fingers on the steering wheel so the blood could flow again.
“Do you know where you’re going?” he ventured.
“Yep. We follow this road all the way to the Springs,” I said. “Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing, I’m a mom and I’m pretty much awesome all the time!” Parker rolled his eyes at the familiar phrase I repeated over and over, hoping to brainwash my children. I didn’t look behind me but I’m sure Parker wasn’t the only one rolling his eyes. I smiled, took a deep breath and glanced at my dashboard then looked again. Less than a quarter of a tank. Adrenaline shot through my veins like an earthquake.
I was pretty sure when we left it was closer to half a tank. But now I didn’t know. Did I even check? I had no freaking idea! I grasped the steering wheel with a death grip. Holy crap! I was in the middle of the mountains on a narrow road, riding the edge of a cliff like a dare-devil and I was approaching the summit. The summit-and we weren’t there yet! I didn’t know we had to cross the summit. How much further after the summit? Oh, my sweet children. Forgive me now.
How much gas did I start with? No idea.
How much further to the Springs? No idea
How much more gas will I need to get there AND get back? No freaking idea!
We’re screwed.
My breath came out in a stutter. I turned on the radio, static. I asked Parker to check my cellphone, no reception.
“Seriously, Mom. Do you really know where we are going?” Parker asked again. He was staring me down. Sweat trickled down my cleavage and I couldn’t look him in the eyes.
Against my better judgment, the words vomited out of my mouth, “Getting there isn’t the problem. I’m just praying we have enough gas to get back out!” My voice was hysterically high by the time I finished. I tried to cover up with an awkward laugh. It was acknowledged by complete silence.
“We don’t have enough gas?” Sydney said, her voice slow and penetrating, like a disappointed parent.
“I don’t know, I didn’t check, I’m hoping that…” I tried to explain.
“This is just great!” She folded her arms and sat back into the bench. The two middle girls sat silent, with big eyes and open mouths. Stunned, nervous, shocked, worried, scared. Check your thesaurus for terrified and that was it.
“We’ll be ok, girls,” I said and smiled in the rear-view mirror at their frozen faces. “We’ll get there just fine and then figure things out. There are plenty of nice people around these parts.”
“We’ve only seen one car this whole time,” Parker challenged.
“I’m sure there are other people at Cascade Springs.”
 “Yeah, sure, Mom,” he mumbled and turned away. He reclined his chair and closed his eyes, his lips working in silent, prayerful words.
I reluctantly pressed my foot on the gas pedal to climb another hill. What kind of mother does this to her children? A pretty much awesome one, I said to myself in my snarkiest inner voice. I dug deep and pulled out my awesome self and started talking about how beautiful the mountains were and how nice the water would feel when we got to the springs. At first I talked to myself but eventually everyone joined in the commentary. The first road sign I'd seen for miles gave me hope.
We rounded the corner and the lot was large. It was also empty. BING. The dummy light. Time to fill the tank, Mrs. Brown, the red light flashed. My heart sank below the fill line.
“Well, we’ll just keep going a little bit here,” I sang to no one in particular.
The next bend in the road revealed a smaller parking lot, covered with a canopy of leaves and a big sign: CASCADE SPRINGS. This lot had other cars. Parking the van, I released a deep breath as I pulled the key out of the ignition. That’s it. We find help here or we don’t. Two motorcyclists pulled in behind us. I wondered if they were camped nearby with a huge tank of extra gas for emergencies just like this. Maybe they had a tank with my name on it. I studied them as my children piled out of the car. The men were dirty and rough looking, like they were on an extended ride, not a day trip.
“Biker-dudes!” Bryce said and dashed into the parking, back around the car and into the forest. Four-year-old attention deficit at its finest. Chasing Bryce, I worked up my nerve to approach the “biker-dudes.”  When I looked back, they were gone. Awesome. I pulled Bryce back to the car, grabbed the backpack and locked the doors. I laughed. Even if someone stole the car, they wouldn’t get far.
My lungs swelled with sweet, pure air, perfumed by the towering pines. Quaking aspen whispered a fond greeting. Despite the unsettling situation we were in, I finally felt like I could breathe again. I followed my children on the dirt path to a pavilion which was occupied by an elderly couple and a park ranger. Angels sang faintly in the background as an aura of light descended around the ranger’s head. Surely she would know what to do.
I introduced my family and answered a few questions. Where are you from? Have you been here before? Are these children all yours? With the pleasantries behind us, I began to explain my predicament with a complete lack of volume control. I lectured myself silently even as I rattled on. Dial it down! Press the mute! Nothing worked.
“Gosh. What’re you going to do?” the young ranger responded and the angels sputtered and choked on the final chorus.
“We usually carry an extra gas can with us, but we don’t have it today,” offered the older gentleman. His wife nodded with a “tsk.”
“Let’s go look at the map and see if we can find the shortest road out of here,” the ranger said. She led me to a board covered in posters and maps. We both hmm’d and haw’d over it for a while. I wasn’t sure if she knew what she was looking at but I couldn’t make any sense out it. Stupid geographical mountain maps have too many lines. The older gentleman approached.
“We’re taking off. We could follow you out if you want to go now.” His wife nodded in the background. I paused. Did I seriously drive all this way only to turn around and go back? What stupid kind of awesome is that?
“I’ll be leaving in an hour,” the ranger piped in. “I could follow you out if you want to wait that long.”
“Let’s do that,” I said. We waved goodbye to the elderly couple and turned toward Cascade Springs.
Cold, mountain water tumbled over rocks, between bright yellow flowers and fragrant vegetation. The water sparkled, holding on to the light as bounced over the low, terraced falls. We started across a well-kept wooden walkway extended over the running water and I asked, “Can we play in the water or do we just follow the path?”
“Stay on the path and enjoy the scenery,” the ranger said. She pulled out her binoculars and turned her attention to more distant views. I turned to my children and pressed my fingers to my lips to silence the complaints I knew were coming. We were hot, the water was cold and staying on the path was boring. I didn’t need words to tell me that much.
I pointed out the signs for plants, animals and geological formations as a distraction. When we saw the sign for poison ivy, everyone nodded in the respectful fear only known by those with intimate experience. The sun beat on our bare necks and arms as we travelled back and forth across the paths over the enticing yet forbidden water.
We walked slowly, separating into small groups. Rachel stayed with me. The rest divided by gender. It was a quiet path disrupted only by the friendly babbling of the Springs and the occasional rustle of something hidden the brush.
“Bryce! Over here!” Parker stepped onto a rock urging his four-year-old brother to do the same. He looked at me with an unapologetic smile. “I’m not actually in the water,” he said. He shuffled his feet, splashing the water that ran around the rock. Bryce did not hesitate to follow him to the rocks, not caring a bit about getting his feet wet. As is true with children and with spoonfuls of ice cream, where one dares to tread, the rest are sure to follow. I let them frolic along the bank and mostly on the rocks. I made sure to pull them out before they were ready to leave though, to maintain my meanest-mom-on-the-block title.
We made it back to the pavilion early and waited for the ranger. The smell of the microwave popcorn snack I brought clashed with the pine scented trees. We sat in silence, jaws working over half-popped kernels. The peaceful walk around the Springs quickly dissipated as I considered the ominous drive before us.
“Maybe we should say a prayer,” Camille said.
“I already did,” said Parker, “twice.”
“I just want to look at something before we leave,” Sydney said and walked back down the path, her arms folded.
“We’re going to be just fine,” I said and forced the most comforting mommy smile I could pull out of the pit in my stomach.
When the ranger pulled out of the parking lot, we were in close pursuit. Each hill we climbed toward the summit seemed to suck gas like a wasted addict taking his last drag on an old cigarette. I pleaded to heaven for forgiveness. If I get out of this canyon, I will always check my gas tank before a trip. I will never yell at my innocent, patient, sweet little angels again. I will read scriptures every day and dedicate my life to good deeds forever. I will stop sneaking the kids’ candy from their hiding spots in their bedrooms. I promise, whatever it takes. Crossing over the summit, I put the car in neutral and started to coast where I could. I didn’t know if that even made a difference and I didn’t care.
Not daring to touch the gas and barely touching the brakes we finally birthed out of the mouth of the canyon like a bat out of hell, the ranger’s car always one car length in front. At this point, the car was practically floating on faith. From the backseat Bryce chanted, “I love Jesus, I love Jesus.”
 The children erupted in cheers as we pulled in next to the gas pump. The ranger, who parked at the pump in front of us, walked back, smiling at the raucous celebratory noise.
“I don’t know how but you made it,” she said.
“I’m pretty much awesome all the time. I’m cool like that,” I bragged.

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