“Did you see the snake?”
I twisted around just in time to watch Isa step barefoot down from a large boulder into the creek. Agnes was already waist deep. I stood between two waterfalls, relaxing into their powerful roar. Overhead, the elms and locust trees merged into a single canopy that provided much needed shade from the blistering sun overhead. We all had sunburns.
Sully, the youngest in our group, stood on the same boulder Isa had just climbed down. A little further downstream was Brock, Sully’s father. The five of us had been camping the last few days, though our first attempt had been thwarted when we were evacuated due to a forest fire. Even as I write this, the smell of smoke – from a different fire, ignited only two days ago – is wafting in my open window.
It was Brock who had seen the snake, and Agnes, Isa and I followed the direction of his gaze to a crack in the boulder upon which Sully was standing. Sure enough, at the bottom was a medium-sized garter snake, half-submerged in the water. “Yeah, interesting,” I shouted over the roar, “I’ve seen ‘em swimming in the Rio Grande before.” We watched for a few minutes as the snake, largely idle, dipped its head in and out of the water.
“What do you think it’s doing?” Brock asked.
“I’m scared,” said Sully.
I looked up at Sully. Having watched him grow from a bald-headed baby into the lithe and exceptional child he is, I knew the snake was no match for him. At his fourth birthday party, held at my house only a couple months ago, I watched him ride his bike for the first time. It wasn’t his first time, it was my first time to watch him. A few months before that I had walked a mile and a half home with him and Agnes on a dark moonless night.
I smiled patiently. “It’s okay, Sully,” I said, trying to reassure him, “it’s just a garter snake.”
“I’m scared,” he repeated.
“If you want to stay up there, that’s fine,” I answered, “but it’s not a big snake and it’s not going to hurt us.” I looked at Agnes and Isa, now six and five, who had moved downstream near Brock. The little snake bobbed its head in and out of the water. “Maybe it’s trapped,” said Brock, but I could barely hear him over the roar of the falls.
Sully, seeing that neither his father nor I was going to get him, slowly stepped over the crack in the boulder, then spun around and dropped himself into the knee-deep water and smiled.
I motioned for him to come near. His legs crashed through the water, splashing through the bubbles descending from the waterfall. Drawing near, I pointed to the crack in the rock and Sully laid eyes on the warm brown snake. A small wave kicked up by the waterfall splashed over the little snake’s head and resided. Unperturbed, the snake licked the air with its forked tongue. Sully laughed hysterically.
Brock waded up from downstream, mouthing something. I pointed to the waterfalls, then my ears and shook my head. The girls were playing at some distance in the mud. It was a little after one o’clock. We had been out there for hours. The day before we had spent nine hours on a different river, and the day before that, another. There are moments when you simply become immersed in your surroundings.
“Is it still there?” Brock asked, close enough to break through the noise of the falls.
“Yeah,” I answered, shaking my head.
“Dad, look,” Sully said, pointing. We watched as another wave drenched the little snake, then, apes that we were, we all bared our teeth. Wet snakes. Smiling apes. Locust trees and smoke-filled canyons. I leaned forward to get a better view.
The river was about fifteen feet across, ankle deep in most places, but occasionally up to my thighs in a deep pool. A massive boulder buried in the river made the falls, after which the river traveled a hundred more yards and emptied into the Rio Grande. It being a drought, the river was low. As I lay against the hot dry stone in the middle of the river, the water spilled through two narrow channels on each side. To my left, just slightly beyond one of the falls, lay the snake.
“You think it’s stuck?” Brock asked, echoing my own thoughts. The crack in the rock was only a few inches wide, with smooth vertical walls that went straight up. The snake was perched on a small piece of rock at the bottom, its head dangling into the water. Another waved pummeled the snake and its head disappeared under the water.
“I have no idea,” I answered, “maybe it’s just cooling off?”
“What’s it doing?” Sully asked. We all watched, eagerly awaiting the resurfacing of that little brown head. Waiting. Waiting.
“What’s it doing?” Brock asked, chuckling. The three of us could plainly see the lower half of the snake’s body draped over the rock, the front six inches or so dangling under the surface of the water. Waiting.
“Can it breathe?” I asked. More chuckles. Then finally it’s slim brown head appeared above water, tongue flicking curiously.
“Oh,” Sully said, laughing. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
“Maybe it slipped down the rock and can’t get back up,” Brock offered.
I looked at the girls downstream. Agnes’s arms were coated in thick black gook. Isa was laughing. I looked back at the snake.
“I’ve seen ‘em swimming before, but maybe the water’s too choppy,” I said. Brock reached for a stick.
Brock and I used to live together at New Buffalo, an old community just outside of Taos. I knew him briefly before he became a father, a kind and generous man. My daughter was starting to walk. There’s nothing so spectacular about either one of us, but there’s a kinship I feel with him that I haven’t found in another man. Northern New Mexico is full of intrepid and radical dudes. There are hunters and conservationists, welders, artists and entrepreneurs. We’re just dads.
There are lots of dads in Taos, but I don’t know any with whom I’d rather spend a few days along a river with a handful of kids other than Brock Anderson. There just aren’t many men who make childcare a priority. Most of us didn’t learn that skill growing up. We weren’t around it. For far too many of us, it’s as if we believe we’re not cut out for it. Raising children is a woman’s job. A man works during the day. A good father plays with the kids in the evening and on weekends. Not Brock. He spends the bulk of his days with Sully, and he has no hesitation to take a couple other kids with him. I respect that.
For generations, our men have been cut off from the daily life of the family in order to work in factories, farms and office spaces. Perhaps that was for good reason, but today, even as fathers are wanting to become more involved, many of us simply don’t know how to do that. Like so many men in America, I held a baby for the first time when it was my own.
A well-educated and mature man is expected to give his time and intellect – the best of his days – to society first, his children second. To make up for it, children get the product of those wages. But what about those who want to give the best of ourselves to our kids? Many of us sense this trap, but when we try to give our attention to our children we come face to face with the fact that it’s hard. I see this all the time in the faces of fathers. They’re trying so hard to be a good and loving father that they can’t admit that it’s painful. What they don’t realize is that, like any skill, it takes practice. You don’t become a carpenter by deciding it’s the right thing to do. You do it by practicing. Raising children is the same.
Sadly, women are increasingly in this situation too. Having careers and lives of their own, more and more mothers are waiting to have children in their thirties, if ever. New mothers, who have done precious little with children before, suddenly find that they have one for themselves and the social pressure is excruciating. How do you breastfeed when you’ve never really seen anyone do it? I’ve watched several women go through this process. Everyone thinks it’s easy, but it’s not. Fact is, most mothers don’t have a clue what they’re doing, but they feel like they’re supposed to. At least fathers get off the hook. Everyone expects them to be a dope.
Like most men, Brock had a fulltime job when Sully was a baby. Brock builds timber frame homes and has a special flair for earthen plasters. He loves to work with the materials of the earth, carving spoons, making pottery. Like so many well-intentioned families, he and his wife accepted that having a child meant she would stay home with the baby while he brought home the bacon. That worked for a while, but within a couple years both of them were unsatisfied. After a lot of conversation, they made a radical decision. She would get her massage license while Brock stayed home with Sully. He was two years old.
I faced a similar situation when my marriage fell apart. Agnes was three. My ex-wife and I agreed to split our time with Agnes, allowing me to work half the week and spend half my time with my daughter. Prior to that, I had been the primary wage-earner. When that separation occurred, I made a strict choice to give myself fully and freely to Agnes every second she was with me. Since she was three, and needing more interaction with other children, I put myself out there to other parents and children too, including Sully and Brock.
For all the love and joy that we shared, that process was not sweet as syrup. It took patience and resilience to learn to care for two to three children, let alone one, and brought about hundreds of moments when I grew frustrated, angry, disappointed or sad. Eventually, I found my comfort zone. I learned to let go of the image of fatherhood and simply be a dad. This is something new fathers are rarely taught. We blast new parents with all kinds of images of family togetherness just like we blast young girls with images of svelte models at the checkout counter. We fail to tell them that it’s a lie.
It takes courageous men to reject the traditional role of wage-earner and become engaged in the daily events of their children. It takes creativity and humility to adapt one’s work schedule to a lifestyle focused on kids. But more than anything else, it takes practice and a willingness to slop through the difficult moments, and without resorting to Mom. Brock has done just that, and more than any other father I’ve known. He and Sully are perfectly content for days on end, sleeping, eating, playing and growing whole together. It makes my heart sing. I feel similarly with Agnes, and the four of us make a pretty cool team. We even borrowed another child for our camping trip. I sometimes feel like an isolated and weird man, longing for a distant world. With Brock, I just feel like a couple dudes with our kids.
“What are you doing?” Sully asked. Brock took the stick and walked toward the crack in the boulder. His steps were awkward, barefoot as he was in the stony riverbed. Finally, he made it to the rock and lowered the stick into the crevice. Agnes and Isa were still downstream, absorbed in their own world.
At first, the snake twisted around to avoid the stick, then stiffened and made as if to climb up the vertical surface of the boulder. “Maybe it’s trying to climb out,” I offered. Brock prodded carefully along the snake, trying to get a hold without hurting it. Finally, he lifted it into the air. Sully smiled. The back end of the snake hung loosely over the water, it’s head stiff and alert, tongue flicking. Brock smiled proudly.
Setting the snake on the shore, Brock watched as it slowly moved into the grass. Sully and I caught glimpses between the sticks and stones. “I just rescued a snake,” Brock said, laughing with mock seriousness, “that’s pretty badass.” He was right.
“Daddy, what is it?” Agnes shouted. She and Isa, having seen the action from a distance, had come up to investigate.
“Oh, Brock just took the snake out of the crack,” I answered. “He put it on the shore. What’s with the mud?”
Agnes made a face, then said, “Oh, it helps sunburns. We’re doctors.”
“Where is it?” Isa asked, following our eyes to the shore.
Then all five of us, a little tired from three hot smoky days, watched as the snake poked its head through the backside of the same exact crack and returned to its place along the river. An errant wave splashed over its head. Sully nearly fell over laughing.