I found myself in the most miserable place on earth and it was my Dad’s fault. Gnats swarmed so fiercely I took refuge under a canopy of towels. That made a very hot summer day in a desolate stretch of Utah even hotter. And the dust. Dust crept under the towels, into my sleeping bag and clung to every inch of my clothing. And it was all my Dad’s fault.
When I was a child we spent almost every summer camping out West while Dad scouted photo locations. He called it a vacation. But my “What I did on my Summer Vacation” paper at school never sounded remotely like my friends who went to the beach or the Big Apple on their summer vacations. My paper recounted camping with mountain lions, dealing with gnats and hiking trails in 100 degree heat.
I sort of blamed my Mom for some of this. After all, she went along with the “working vacation” idea. I did, however, realize she was my one hope of vacationing in a city with air conditioning. So I laid most of the blame at Dad’s feet.
A couple of days ago I asked Dad why he pursued the working vacation idea all those years ago. He said, “I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but we had limited resources so I thought it might pan out. Look at it this way. We kept going on these things. I don’t know if that was good or bad. Maybe both.”
Over the years we’ve wandered around Big Bend National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Canyon de Chelley, the Hubble Trading Post, Mesa Verde, El Morro, Newspaper Rock, Chaco Canyon, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, White Sands, Arches and Canyonlands National Park to name a few. I think Dad would have gotten along famously with Lewis and Clark. All three have a penchant for discovering the unexpected out West.
Back to the Gnats
That brings me back to the gnats. Our campground at Arches National Park seemed to be infested with the gnats. Our first clue should have been the campground’s name—Devils Garden. We should have run in the opposite direction as fast as possible because those little gnats were devils in disguise.
Naturally none of the gnats were attracted to Dad, just Mom and me. Even with bug spray the darn things wouldn’t leave us alone. Apparently this is a well-known seasonal affliction at the park. Lest you doubt me, the park even has a webpage describing the little buggers’ life cycle. Of course back in the mid-80’s there wasn’t an Internet, so we walked into our camping spot none the wiser.
To escape the gnats and to help Dad find great photos, we spent a great deal of time hiking around the park. We’d start off super early in the morning to avoid the heat. Early morning. Not a great time for a kid. There may or may not have been some serious grumbling at the alarm clock (a.k.a. Dad). Anyway we’d hunt for the perfect arch, landscape shot or whatever else Dad dreamed up.
Even Troupers Have Limits
One morning we headed out on the appropriately named Devils Garden trail hoping to see all 8 arches. Everything was hunky dory until we reached ankle deep sand, the heat skyrocketed and the breeze jerked to a halt. So did Mom. She’d been a trouper, but she calmly declared she was done and looked for a big rock with shade she could sit under it for a while. I can’t really blame her. It was a 7-mile, hot trail. Dad and I forged ahead making it to the spots he wanted to see. We picked Mom up on our return trip.
While Dad didn’t take too many pictures on this trip, he actively looked for locations. He would return two years later to take his photos of Delicate Arch. So despite the traumas, the trip to Arches was a success.
Naturally that success fueled more trips. Mom always seemed to be game for the expeditions. She enjoyed traveling and seeing new things. She did, however, have her limits.
“I hate trudging through sand and it seems like there’s a lot of it in the West. I enjoy the outdoors and the scenery to a certain point but I wanted to see something else eventually. My favorite places were historical spots, like the Native American sites,” she said.
Dad tried to accommodate her by visiting places like Chaco Canyon or the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad. But Mom always came prepared to entertain herself while Dad was out exploring.
“Sometimes I went and other times I stayed at the campsite. I always had music, a book to read and some sort of needlework. If you went to a site to photograph, you could be with him for hours. It just became boring,” she said.
In my young mind, I agreed with Mom. These trips could be boring when waiting for Dad to finish a photo. So I resorted to building rock houses for my doll, making up wildly imaginative stories about stuff that happened in the park we were visiting and reading a lot of books.
Eventually the family vacations came to a close. I headed off to college and Dad’s commercial photography business reached a point that he traveled extensively to exotic locations on fully funded business trips.
Looking back, I can see the value of all of the “working vacations” that I so bemoaned as a child. I love our great country from the bustling cities to the vast wilderness out West. It’s hard to imagine the pristine ribbons of sand running through White Sands National Monument without seeing it in person. I doubt I would appreciate the numerous Native American cultures in America had I not spent summers visiting Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelley and Mesa Verde. I certainly wouldn’t have learned to enjoy the stillness and serenity of the sun rising over a herd of bugling elk at the foot of the Grand Teton Mountains.
So thanks, Dad. Thanks for dragging me all over the West and making me get up super early to see sunrises. Thanks for driving thousands of miles with a companion who constantly asked, “Are we there yet?” Thanks for all of the great family stories we created. And thanks for instilling in me a love for capturing the moment with my camera. Those working vacations weren’t too bad after all.
P.S. Thanks Mom for indulging me with that much coveted summer trip to the city. The air conditioning was heavenly!