Hunter is at his dad’s, Alexis is at his next host family and Jessica is visiting her grandma in Arizona this week. It’s just Brenna and me, which means there will be camping.
“Look dad,” Brenna says as we leave the drive-through, drawing my attention to paper folded around half her hamburger. “They make it really nice here.”
“Yeah, they do,” I acknowledge, seeing no reason to question her appreciation for Jack in the Box.
Yesterday’s unrelenting snow and rain had me doubting we’d be going anywhere today so we didn’t prepare. I’m happy for unexpected sunshine but we’re leaving a bit late after using the morning to gather gear and groceries.
I hadn’t even picked a camping destination. That was another morning hustle. Yesterday’s weather brought the snow level almost down to Boise so anything mountainous was out. I pulled up a map of the low lying Owyhee desert and picked an arbitrary road in an area we haven’t visited. It was kind of like throwing darts.
The civilized part of the trip we know quite well: across Simco Road to Grand View then out to Shoofly Cutoff. But now that we’re on untraveled Jeep trails, we’re keeping a close eye on the route I put down in Gaia GPS.
“Look!” Brenna calls as we’re driving. I see them too. She’s pointing to a herd of antelope on the hillside ahead, silhouetted by late afternoon sun. “Take a picture,” she says.
“I don’t have the right lens on,” I explain. “They would be too tiny. We’ll just have to remember them.”
Our destination is the end of a cherry stem road (it extends into a roadless area) at the edge of canyons around Big Jacks Creek. We’ve been a few times to Little Jacks Creek¹ to the west and the Bruneau River² to the east but never here.
We find no level ground around the edge of the canyon, nowhere to pitch a tent. We could go back up the road to the sage and bitterbrush plain but I think we deserve some scenery for our two hour drive.
“Let’s walk down the canyon and see if we find a flat spot,” I say to Brenna. We’ll leave everything in the Jeep for now.
“Do we have to walk far?” she wonders. She doesn’t seem fond of this plan.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I hope not.”
We came to car camp, not hike. In the Jeep are folding chairs, full-sized pillows, a cooler with condiments, ice tea and bottled beer, two-and-a-half gallons of water, three almost-empty fuel canisters I need to use up, and more. The farther we walk, the less tenable this seems.
The canyon is fascinating. I wish we weren’t racing the clock to make camp before dark. There are so many little features I’d like to stop and consider. Thick moss seems to contradict pale sagebrush. Rock walls rise high above, grey and red, in forms that first appear soft and subtle but up close are impossibly fragmented.
“Can we go back now?” Brenna pleads. That’s typical. It always takes a little time for the kids’ outdoor enthusiasm to reactivate.
“Let’s just see what’s down here,” I answer, nodding to an open area visible a few hundred yards below. I’m not going to carry all our stuff this far but since we’re this close to the bottom, we might as well see it.
“Look at this!” Brenna yells excitedly as she runs to investigate a house-sized stand of orange, orthogonal rocks in the middle of the wide open space.
“I think it’s a castle,” I reply.
“Can we camp here?” she pleads.
I can’t refuse that enthusiasm. “Sure,” I answer, trying not to think of how stupid it will be to hike back to the Jeep, haul everything down here and then back out tomorrow.
It has to be a comical sight — two chairs and cooler handle held in one hand, a pillow under that arm, and stuffed duffel and water jug held in the other hand, waddling over rocks, turning sideways to squeeze between brush, grunting.
“You look really tired,” Brenna says, seeing sweat run down my face.
She doesn’t realize yet that any parent would be glad if their children’s happiness was only a matter of physical effort. This is the easy part of being a dad.
I suggest the name “Brenna Castle” for our newfound fortress. “But it’s for all of us,” she demurs.
“Okay,” I say, “how about ‘Abbott Castle’?” She decides that’s acceptable.
In spite of broad vistas unimpeded by trees or terrain, we didn’t see another soul during the last hour of driving. We take advantage of our utter isolation with incautious whoops and yells echoed around the towering walls of this ancient coliseum.
I pry apart a smashed bun to fit her cheese hot dog but can’t find our ketchup anywhere. It seems to have stayed in the Jeep.
“It’s okay,” Brenna says. “I like just mustard sometimes.”
We sit facing the fire together, eating hot dogs and Doritos as God intended, her with a can of iced tea and me a bottle of dark evening beer. Haunting bird calls, hoots and warbles, emanate from darkness all around. It’s beautiful.
Frost on the tent is just starting to melt as I unzip the vestibule to crawl out. “I’ll get the fire going before you come out.”
“Okay,” Brenna answers.
Brenna eats breakfast quickly then makes the vertical climb to the top of Abbott Castle. “You said you’d play with me,” she calls down.
“I will,” I say, “just let me finish my coffee.” Jeez.
“These are the keys,” she explains of triangular rocks she’s gathered when finally I join her atop the castle. “This one is yours,” she says, handing me one. “Put it in your pocket.” I always end up with rocks in my pockets.
She scurries to another area and begins speaking with a British accent. “This lever will melt the world if you pull it,” she says of a long stone loosely fitted among a stack of other rocks.
“Wow, that’s powerful,” I say.
She climbs to a higher spot. “This is the guard tower” (still speaking with the British accent).
Then she notices a circle of long, angular stones surrounding one taller than the others and drops out of character a moment. “Someone has been up here.”
Then she’s back into character. “It’s the king’s sword! This is the sword room.” She barely has the strength to lift the center stone and raise it above her head.
Then she’s dashing to the next stack of rocks, manufacturing details and descriptions faster than I can remember them. There are more guard towers and a princess tower. There are rules about the key holders and where in the castle they’re allowed to wander.
“Can we stay another night?” Brenna asks.
“I don’t think we have enough food.”
“Yeah we do,” she counters (of course).
We really don’t but I move to a more important objection. “Mom will be worried if she doesn’t hear from us today.”
“It’s the same age as me!” Brenna calls. We’ve left the castle for now and are venturing farther into the canyon. Or trying to. Brenna is falling behind to catch and count spots on a ladybug.
It crosses my mind to correct her. There’s no such thing as a nine-year-old ladybug. Spots don’t indicate age. But I think I’ll wait until it doesn’t undermine her excitement. “Wow, it’s an old one,” I call back.
There is an occasional faint path but most of the time we’re picking whatever direction is feasible around rocks and brush.
If there is any path at all along this section of Big Jacks Creek it must now be underwater.
“I don’t think we can go any farther,” I say to Brenna.
“There’s always a way!” she insists before darting off into the brush. How the attitude has changed since we first began hiking yesterday.
“See, I told you,” she calls after a moment, directing me around to a small gap we can stoop through.
“You were right.”
We get through the brush but are stopped where the canyon narrows. It’s deep looking, wall-to-wall water. We turn around to explore the other direction.
“Oh, look at this,” I say, turning to Brenna. She’ll love this. Someone long ago built a log shelter here against the cliff.
Some things about the shelter are curious. It’s built with logs carried from afar but encloses a space hardly larger than our tent. Clever use of a natural chute in the rocks as a chimney suggests it was fully enclosed but there are no apparent roof remains beyond haphazard branches I think were thrown on later.
“They must have had weapons to catch animals for food,” Brenna believes.
Continuing upstream looks like more bushwhacking. “Shall we go back to camp?” I ask.
We eat lunch then I casually pack our gear and put sod back on our fire ring while Brenna continues to play in Abbott Castle.
Shuffling up the trail with arms full of gear goes as expected.
“I wish we could be there,” Brenna says more than once.
Vivid red rocks signal the end of our efforts. We only saw those near the Jeep.
I set down the load with great relief, gather my breath and walk to collect one red rock for our backyard pond décor.
Brenna was a little car sick yesterday. She can barely see over the dash so the usual “watch the road ahead” doesn’t work. I have an idea that should help. “Do you want to drive?” I ask.
I keep looking at her.
“Yeah!” she says. She can’t reach the pedals so she slides over onto my lap. I’ll manage our speed.
She gets anxious a few times when she over corrects and goes off the road or up onto a bank. “I want to quit,” she says.
“It’s okay to go off the road out here,” I reassure her. “There’s nothing to run into. You can be done if you want but you’re doing great. You’re driving on roads harder than most grown-ups drive on.”
She seems to like that idea. She changes her mind. “I want to keep going.”
“Those are the chalk hills with all the fossils,” I remind her when the white mounds come into view. We’ve hiked on them a few times. Fifty miles across the plain, across ancient Lake Idaho which created those old shoreline hills, are snowcapped mountains soon to host our forested adventures. Everything in it’s time. I can’t wait.