Teenagers might one day be the death of me

stanley_valley copyOur wedding anniversary was Sunday, and Mike and I slept in separate rooms.

It wasn’t like that. He did spend the better part of an hour trying to make a fire for me in a teensy stove, but there wasn’t much for kindling and the wood may have been a little wet. The room would be warm enough anyway once all the girls returned to the cabin.

When I looked up this place online I read about a lodge that sleeps 50 on the shores of Alturas Lake with a view of the Sawtooth Mountains. There would be en-suite bathrooms, linens and towels and hand stitched quilts and a staff to serve meals in a common dining area.

It sounded rather swanky for a labor-day weekend orientation for twenty or so Rotary foreign exchange students, but maybe the intent was to start their year off with a bang.

In retrospect the fact that I thought we were staying in that lodge is a little funny.

“Don’t you read your emails?” Mike asked me on the drive up. Apparently, I do not. Mike and our kids would actually be staying in one cabin with five or six teen boys on exchange from several different countries. I would be the chaperone for one of the girls’ cabins.

The lodge with the view of the lake and the mountains was occupied by a huge, extended family of Lutherans. They spread into a parking lot full of RVs.

Our abodes were what had been billed on the website as the “rustic cabins” toward the back of the property. Not so much swank as I’d expected.

The first morning, rather than participate in the sessions, we loaded up our own boys and drove an hour into Stanley, Idaho. We’d actually been scheduled on the agenda – a presentation on how not to piss of your host parents or something – but others were going take our place as presenters.

We were needed to drive to where our cell phones worked, and try to reach one of our group who’d failed to arrive the night before.

The young woman had left work late, but planned the hours-long drive into the mountains anyway, to arrive well after dark. She’d been on exchange herself years before, and was happy to be invited to help these new students feel a little more comfortable, reliving a little of the year she’d spent in some far-flung country.

We woke to find she’d never arrived at this place where our rustic cabins faced a chilly mountain lake. Here there were no cell phones, no wi-fi. No word.

This is one of my favorite places in the whole, wide world, especially on chilly mornings when wisps of fog cling to the grassy valley floor. In the distance, rolling hills studded with trees give way to jagged, 10,000-foot peaks.

On this morning, though, the road to town was exasperatingly long. This vast space felt menacing. Too many places where a young woman’s car could have left the road without a trace, swerving to miss a deer or when her eyelids became heavy for a moment.

It has been less than a week since, just miles down this highway, that exact thing had happened to a young man. He’d been on his way back to college in Montana from his summer job as a river guide. The pines had camouflaged even the bright orange of his kayak on the roof of his car. A summer storm had erased the tracks his Subaru carved in the soft shoulder as it left the road and careened down an embankment.

This is a place that can envelop and hide someone’s child on the edge of plain sight for days, if not weeks. If not always. Like so many places in the world: simultaneously majestic and menacing.

So we drove into town, not to elbow our way to a table for sourdough pancakes, but for cell phone service to reach out to a missing girl, who wouldn’t answer our call or our texts.

The years-old number we found for her mom was no longer in service (we worried over whether it was time to envelop her in our anxiety anyway).

Who the hell are we to accept responsibility for these people in this place that could swallow someone whole without leaving a trace behind? What were we thinking, pushing our own kids to one day leave us, still children, and place themselves in the care of others who may or may not take their job as seriously?

And what business does a twenty year-old have, driving through desolate mountains late at night, completely on her own? Did she even know we were worried? Did she give up looking for the turnout in the dark and return all the way home? Did she turn off the road somewhere to spend a chilly night in her car?

I’ve talked about being grateful that our own kids are past the age where I worry about stray Legos or bite-sized pieces of food presenting choking hazards, or the possibility that we might put one of them down for a nap from which he’s never to wake. The anxiety of having babies and young kids was sometimes almost suffocating.

But it’s times like these I realize we’ve only traded one anxiety for another. From the worry a toddler could trip into a campfire, to the paralyzing thought that an adolescent doesn’t take seriously enough the hazards of a mountain road in the dark.

And I knew, on that day we were celebrating our twenty-third year of marriage, what I really wanted a stiff drink well before noon.

We returned from town, ready to rally search parties from our own group and from the swarms of Lutherans. The girl had safely arrived, twelve hours later than expected. She had indeed missed the turnoff in the dark, and turned back to spend the night with a friend before coming back in.

Mike and I loaded our kids back in the car and headed out, west this time, to tour the nearby resort town of Ketchum, and toast our years together over lunch on a breezy patio. We wandered through streets crowded with vacationers enjoying what turned out to be a pleasantly warm, early fall day in the mountains.

We returned to camp in time for afternoon sessions with the students, dinner and socializing. Mike and I snuck a couple of beers in the car, making toasts and feeling a little like teenagers ourselves. Then it was back to cabins full of kids who weren’t nearly as chatty as we expected, worn out from hours of lectures, their first s’mores, and songs at the campfire.

The girls weren’t at all disappointed in Mike’s inability to get our own fire started. I gave him extra points for trying, and then sent him off to sleep in his own bunk.


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