Sometimes, when we head west, we land for a few days at a cabin. In a meadow in Custer National Forest, it’s far enough from civilization that the siren song of phone, internet, and television falls silent, replaced by the gentler sounds of wind in the trees and water dancing over boulders. There, the weather unfolds in the sky rather than on radar.
After a series of bright, high country autumn days, the sun succumbed to a veil of clouds which rolled in over the mountain, bringing with them a cold, splashy snow that blanketed everything it touched.
It fell through the afternoon and into the evening. As night closed in, we noticed a dark figure in the distance, a bull moose making his way across the meadow, an inky shadow plodding through the haze. We’d never seen a moose here before and we watched it until it disappeared into the trees.
When morning came we threw on our coats and burst into the bright day, the snow already succumbing to the warmth of the air and the rays of the sun. Impressions in the snow revealed that the moose had not been the only wildlife to pass through in the night. Deer tracks meandered over the cabin’s wooden dance floor and a coyote left prints for us to follow down the driveway.
We’d known the animals were there. In the middle of a national forest how could they not be? But until that morning we’d seen only trout at the end of the line and an occasional deer.
Tracks in the snow proved their presence.
We headed to the meadow to search for the moose’s tracks. Unlike those at the cabin, his were gone, concealed by the snow that fell into the night. So we followed the road over the stream and between the frosted trees as it led higher up the mountain and deeper into the forest. At a bend in the road, our son stopped and pointed down at a series of tracks across the road, fresh tracks, clear like those of the deer and the coyote back at the cabin.
The best bear defense is a good offense and a good offense is avoidance, so we retreated. And we let him know we were there by going back down the road in the same way we had come up: talking and laughing, planning for the day ahead, but always, always mindful of the presence of the bear in the forest.
With the cabin in sight, I felt the familiar relief of having made it back from the wilds with the whole tribe intact, unharmed and uneaten. J must have felt the same, because he launched a snowball at our son just as our oldest girl, who’d been walking a little ahead of the rest of us, entered the cabin.
I paused, torn between heading in and staying out. Snowball fights aren’t my thing. Playing isn’t really my thing. At least, not playing the way kids like to play. I’ll play the game or work the easy puzzle for a while. I’ll hike. I’ll read a book. But play?
I walked to the door and called to my daughter, the one our littlest girl misses because they don’t play together much anymore, and we followed the laughter and squeals around the cabin to where the battle had spilled, and I bent to make a snowball of my own. It fell short. Woefully short. But every one of us was in the game.
In the midst of it, my girlie sidled up to me. “Thanks for telling me about the snowball fight,” she said.
“I didn’t think you’d want to miss it.”
“I knew there ‘d be a snowball fight,” she said, “but I didn’t know you would play.”
She needed me. She needed to see me play and laugh, to show her that even though growing up is serious business it isn’t all seriousness all the time. And she needed me to show her the way.
The next morning, the moose was back, a dark silhouette weaving in and out of the aspen and pine that bordered the yard, just one of a forest full of animals always present but rarely seen.
And like the woodland creatures that hint at their presence more than they show themselves, the wandering steps on the winding path between childhood and adulthood are easy to miss. They’re watching us, those kids, looking to us to show them the way.