I was finishing my lunch by the river, keeping an eye on the dark clouds descending upon the slash of blue up north. After trotting down a steep trail, past two men and three horses, we were deep in the gorge at that point. Pema had already scarfed down her lunch, but Francis, smeared with jam, still carried around a half-eaten sandwich. They were oblivious to the approaching weather. Having changed out of their wet clothes, they now climbed the boulders along the shoreline, transforming them into mountains and naming them after their absent friends. “This is Ada’s Mountain,” Pema declared from the top of a large black stone. Francis smiled. The sun still warmed our shoulders.
“We’re going to leave in about ten minutes, okay guys?” I called out from below. I was reclined comfortably, appreciating the stillness before the long hike out. It was only noon, but we had a mile to go and a steep one at that. I had brought the kids down earlier that morning, near the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande, hoping to find the Red River low enough to ford across. Pema and Francis sat patiently on an old tree trunk as I poked around, but after twenty minutes of plumbing the depths of swirls and eddies with bare feet and rolled up pants, it was obvious I wouldn’t cross the river here. I would have to reconsider my backpacking trip the following week. We retreated to a calm pool along the Rio Grande instead, playing for an hour as the clouds gathered overhead.
It being monsoon season, almost every day we watched as two or three thunderstorms drifted slowly over the mesa. Sometimes they land and sometimes they don’t, but when they do they often come hard and fast with a shear wall of water. Half an hour later, the sun is back out and we can watch the last of the rivulets of water twist over the sand and muddy the rivers. But just as often the storms pass by, touching us with cool blasts of air that shake the trees and send us running for the clothes on the line.
I was still splayed out on the sand a couple minutes later, trying to estimate the speed of the clouds, when I decided ten minutes was too long. “Okay guys,” I said, throwing the last of our lunch in my backpack, “Let’s go.”
“But Dada you said ten minutes,” Pema said, more out of confusion than unwillingness.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I answered, forcing Francis’s yellow bee backpack and Pema’s crafty owl-bag into my own. “But I’m getting a little worried about those clouds.” I pointed to the north. “We’ve got a long hike out of here.” It would take an hour to walk out, I figured, but I had given us two, knowing we would dally along the way.
Francis, chewing the last bite of his sandwich, looked left and right, then asked, “Where’s my backpack?”
I smiled. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’m willing to carry it; and yours, Pema. Normally I wouldn’t,” and the kids surely knew that, “but I want us to be able to move quick if we have to.” Francis was still for a second, then smiled, twisting his shoulders left and right. A mile up the steep walls of the gorge is a good hike, but I knew both of them could do it so long as we took breaks here and there. Plus, there were a few spots where the rocks created shelter, something we could resort to if we had to.
“I felt a raindrop!” Pema shouted. She turned to look at me and Francis as if to prove it. I didn’t feel anything, but I looked over the black stones for dark splashes. I didn’t see any, but I didn’t care to doubt Pema either. I hoisted my backpack on my shoulders, looked up at the lip of the gorge, and pointed towards the path. “Alright, let’s go,” I said, shepherding them in front of me.
Pema quickly sprang to the front, galloping up the trail with enthusiasm. Francis ran after her, loping side to side with the awkward gait of a toddler still discernible in his steps. He has yet to develop the full frontal speed of a real run, a common subject between the two of us. Soon Pema was out of sight around a bend in the path and Francis had settled into a modest trot in front of my restrained pace. “Pema wait!” he shouted, then added for my benefit, “We’re slower, because she’s bigger.”
“Yep,” I answered.
Our pace slowed to Francis’s plodding rhythm, Pema racing ahead and occasionally stopping to let us catch up. As soon as we spotted her she would flash a smile, then turn and take off. Francis would inevitably shout, “Pema!” and begin to trot after her till, losing sight, he once again resigned himself to my company. “Pema’s fast,” he would say.
As I followed behind Francis, I kept peering over my shoulder to assess the approaching clouds, the mottled edges of which had begun to obscure the sun. The light began to fade in and out, then was gone for good as we rounded another bend in the path. Normally it didn’t rain before two or three, but whether it was imminent or not, the clouds were certainly moving fast. I still had an unobscured line of sight to the distant cliffs in the north, no telltale graying of the earth tones, the surest sign of rain, but dark clouds were now well over our heads. Still, to the south, the predominant direction of our footsteps, the sky was blue and cheerful, which kept a lightness in my step.
“Pema?” I shouted, not having seen her for a few minutes.
“Yeah?” she shouted back, somewhere above us in the trees.
“Don’t get too far ahead!” I shouted.
I resisted the urge to pick Francis up and run ahead. These kinds of hikes build confidence and alertness, but it takes patience to let a small child like Francis move at his own pace. I felt like my ankles were tied with a one-foot chain.
Around the next corner we stumbled upon Pema once again. This time she let us catch up and the three of us paused for a moment to look down at the river. We had left the shoreline only fifteen minutes ago, but the frothy water already looked distant. “Look at that,” I said, “We’ve already climbed pretty high.”
“Yeah!” Pema shouted, an exclamation quickly aped by Francis. They were proud. Me too. Looking over the expanse to the far side of the gorge, I guessed that we had come about a quarter of the way up. “Alright, let’s go,” I said, shuffling them ahead of me.
The path gets progressively steeper as it ascends, and as we rounded the next curve we encountered a familiar series of switchbacks where, on our way down, we had happened upon two men widening the path for their horses. At first, both men had seemed surprised to find a couple of young children blazing down the trail they had just negotiated with horses, but as they greeted me with ever widening smiles, I realized they were mostly nervous I would report their illegal trail maintenance. Now, as we retreated up the path, the men were nowhere in sight. The dirt was loose in a few spots and one of the junipers, whose twisted trunk we had ducked under on our way down, had been cut down. “That’s a bummer,” I said, touching the fresh cut as we passed.
“What’s a bummer?” Pema asked.
“Well, those guys cut this tree down,” I frowned. “And I don’t think they should have done that.” Francis, following my lead, touched the tree, his three-year old fingertips passing instantly over a hundred years of growth rings. Some of these junipers, twisted and gnarly, are three to seven hundred years old, though they’re never much bigger than shrubs. The occasional elders can reach a thousand years or more. Green twigs were scattered all around us, and the distinct odor of fresh cut cedar hung in the air.
“Come on, Dad,” Pema said impatiently. “Let’s go.” She began climbing a series of large rocks embedded in the path. Francis followed, carefully placing each hand as he guided himself up the rocky incline. I was caught between admiration for these two, who take obstacles like this in stride, and the desire to move faster.
“Francis, do you remember…” Pema asked, turning back to us and covering a guilty smile with her hands.
“What?” Francis said, stopping short on the rocks.
“Do you remember…the horse…” she drifted off.
“Pee?” asked Francis, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah,” Pema answered, smiling. They tittered, then, encouraged by each other’s audacity, laughed robustly. As we had passed the men’s horses on the way down, Pema had asked why there were three. “Well,” said one of the men, “these two carried us down, and that one,” he pointed, indicating a horse with deep brown hair and two large saddlebags, “She carried the tools. Horses are good at that.” Almost immediately, the horse, a female, began discharging a milky-yellow liquid from her rump, which continued for an inelegantly long time. “They do that too,” the man said, then smiled and walked back up to his partner. Pema was entranced. Afterward, the horse’s visible organs, which continued to expand and adjust without the least hesitation of modesty, had captivated Pema. “Why does she keep doing that?” she asked me quietly, pointing uncertainly. “Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it’s just what she does.”
Francis, scrambling on all fours, made it to the top of the rocks, which I took in two long strides. Pema, quieting her laughter, turned and bolted while Francis and I settled back into our regular pace. A strong breeze blew over us from behind and I could feel the temperature dropping in the air. The wind shook the tree branches ominously and I heard a few loose cones tumble down a Ponderosa Pine just beyond the path. “Come on Francis,” I said, “Let’s scoot.” He trotted for a few yards, then resumed the same pace. There was only so much he could do.
We passed over a rise in the trail, giving me a good view of the cliffs in the north, which had become unmistakably fuzzy and gray. No more guessing. The rain would be on us shortly. I looked at Francis, who was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The rain was about a mile away, but that would be bridged quickly. We curved around another bend. “Pema!” I shouted. “Yeah!” she answered from behind some rocks up ahead. The clear odor of ozone struck my nose, that unique chemical smell of rain. “It’s going to rain any second now!” I shouted. “Don’t run too far ahead!”
At least I could see the cliffs. It would probably come hard, but nothing like the wall of water that makes mountains, and cliffs, disappear. I’ve been in storms like that, the water approaching with the sound of a raging river. One minute you’re dry and the next the sky and air is an unimaginable tangle of water, almost as if you’re underwater. The front edge of a storm is often hail, at least in the mountains, but down here I didn’t expect that. But even the raindrops, which sometimes come in strawberry-sized drops, can land with such force that one’s whole body, and the whole earth, thrums with a percussive energy that is magnificent, dark and fearsome.
I felt a prick of moisture on the back of my neck, then another on my palm. Dark spots began appearing left and right over the coffee-colored earth, leaving wet marks on the back of Francis’s blue t-shirt. Looking up, raindrops were clearly visible in the air, falling one by one in slanting, gray columns.
“Dada!” Pema shouted.
I took a few more steps, scouting for shelter if we needed it. Suddenly, the drops got bigger and I heard a loud peel of thunder. I scanned for hail, but there was none. Then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Thunder sounded again, this time mumbling something in the clouds far away. The scattered drops that had landed only moments ago dried up and disappeared. Francis’s t-shirt was a uniform sky blue. We kept going.
Francis and I turned the corner and found Pema, dressed in a red skirt, sandals and pink top, lounging against a rock. “It’s still warm,” she said.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
“No, I’m hot Daddy,” she said, taking off her hat. “Here.” She dropped the hat on the ground before I could reach it, half on purpose. Francis laughed, grabbing the brim of his own hat. “It’s shady,” Pema said, justifying her lackadaisical manner. “Yeah, but it might be good for the rain,” I countered, picking her hat up and slapping it against my thigh. I handed it back to her. “Why don’t you keep it on. Now come on, let’s scoot.”
We cheerfully walked another few jogs in the switchbacks, Pema keeping closer to Francis and I as I glanced for oncoming rain. Looking across the gorge, I guessed we were now about halfway up. “Dada look,” Pema said, indicating a hollow space in the rocks. We had spied it on our way down, when Pema and Francis had climbed inside. We could still see their footprints in the busied earth, a neat pile of rocks off to one side. I could have squeezed myself in, knees pressed tightly against my chest, shoulders hunched, but it wasn’t raining and we were making good time. I saw no need to stop. “Yeah, cool,” I said. “Come on, let’s go.”
We were walking along a narrow stretch in the path when we came to another rocky patch. Pema quickly dashed up and around to the next switchback. Francis slowed to all fours. I waited patiently behind him when I began to hear a scuffling noise behind me. I turned toward the sound, spotting a heavy rain in the near distance. It wasn’t the shear wall of water I feared, but it was advancing with enough ferocity that I finally shed my patience. I picked Francis up with one scoop - thinking, as I did, that he hadn’t asked me even once to carry him - and cradled him in my arms. Taking the rocks in long strides, I moved quickly, but solidly, ahead to Pema.
The raindrops began falling almost immediately. The noise was consuming, but I was almost pleased to finally be in it. By the time I caught up to Pema, the dark brown patches which began to appear on the earth had already given way to one big wet sheen. My arms were dripping and thick drops from my hat splashed down onto Francis, who lay smiling in my arms. “You’re carrying me,” he said, bubbling with excitement as I bounded over rocks.
Pema was clutching her hat, now soaked, and smiling wildly. “It’s raining Dad!” she shouted over the roar. I smiled too, but then drew serious. “Okay, Pema,” I said as we approached, my feet not pausing for a second, “now it’s time to really scoot.”
Within minutes we were soaked through. I walked as fast as I could, taking long, confident strides. We had a little under half way to go. We could stop at another rock shelter, but if we were quick we could be in the car in twenty minutes. I paced myself cautiously - I didn’t want to risk a fall with Francis in my arms - but I’m surefooted and continued advancing rapidly. To my surprise, Pema kept ahead of me, moving with a grace and endurance that made my heart sing.
“Thanks for being so strong and mighty,” I shouted to Pema. “You too Francis.” I felt a bit guilty, but the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. “Sure,” Pema said, shrugging it off without the least pause. The rain was coming hard, but not so hard it was unbearable. Francis peaked out from behind his hands, which he was using to cover his face. Our eyes were only inches away, and I could feel the warmth coming off his skin. To my delight, he was smiling. “Are you cold?” I asked. He shook his head rapidly, yes, and I covered him with my bare arms. He settled into my embrace like an infant, balling up as I held him tightly to my chest. “How ‘bout you, Pema?” I shouted over the rain, “You cold?”
“I’m fine!” she shouted, plodding without hesitation up the steep, now muddy, trail.
“Be careful!” I shouted. “It’s going to get slippery now!”
“I know!” she answered.
Thirty minutes later we were in the car, heat blasting, as we rumbled across the cattle guard and hit the paved highway. The hike up had been engrossing, somehow calm and captivating. The kids had been strong. But the road out had been long and muddy and I still gripped the steering wheel with fearful concentration, shoulders hunched, wipers at full speed. Heading down the long hill, glad to be back on pavement, I glanced at the clock, 1:48, and relaxed. I had taken the kids’ wet clothes off, but I was still shivering. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Pema, smiling dreamily, was wrapped in a crumpled towel that had managed to stay dry at the bottom of my pack. Francis, covered in a sweater and shawl, had drifted off to sleep. I smiled. We had hiked in the rain for only twenty minutes or so, but we would have it for the rest of our lives.