The cost of adventure is a torn t-shirt.


I was 8 years old and was setting off on a family vacation. We lived in Las Cruces, and my father who was an avid camper wanted to check out the 3 Rivers camping area up north of us in the mountains East of the Tularosa Basin.

We were relatively new to New Mexico (3 years) and my father was a professor, so summers were our time to get out into the family car camping version of the wilderness. Anyhow, it was dry on the way up, and hot as hell although I wasn't allowed to say that at the time. We were in a 1971 VW Vanagon with an additional hardshell clam camping gear rack on top because a Vanagon alone was not going to hold enough gear for this adventure. We had a rare instance of resolve in which my father consented to listening to normal radio stations, and my sister and I were grooving to the tunes of Olivia Newton John singing about how “...we have to believe we are magic...', and I had some of my camping equipment in my hand like my knife and my aluminum canteen in case I had to implement either of them immediately.

In other words, I was ready. Plus the place we were going had ' 3 Rivers' in the name, the likes of which I hadn't REALLY seen since we left Africa 3 years earlier. The way there was long, dustier, and more corrugated than I was seeing in my minds eye. When we passed the first river, it looked more like a dotted course of puddles. I was not impressed. The second river was not much better.

I hit my first real lesson as an adventurer in the Southwest: when they say river, it means sometimes.

We got to the camping ground just as the sun was setting, and my sister and I 'helped' my mom and dad get the tent set up and dinner ready. We were still green to this part of the country, and so when it started raining just as dinner was almost ready that late July, we were a little disappointed to be eating in the tent. My father was sure it would stop soon. Now mind you, at the time 'monsoons' were only something that happens in India or somewhere far away. We all climbed into the 'waterproof tent' and waited.

We might as well have been in a car wash.

The rain and wind pressed through the seams of the tent which turned out to work similar to the greenhouse effect - wicking the water in and then keeping it there. The lightning felt so close that it made my hair stand on end, and lit up the tent like a camera flash enabling me to see in the faces of my family that we were universally terrified. This was the trip we learned to dig trenches around the tent and to use tent stakes even if you did not think it was going to rain. We must have moved 10 feet that night. I just kept singing that song by Olivia Newton John in my head, as I held my pocket knife close in case the tent filled up and we needed to tear ourselves out to keep from getting inundated. None of us even considered going into the Vanagon for reasons that befuddle me.

The next morning when we awoke from the wreckage, I expected to see something biblical around me. We emerged from the puddles in our sleeping bags and the tent to see that we were the only beings worse from the wear. It was as if the storm had only touched the inside of the tent, and had left everything else bone dry. None-the-less the feeling that was pretty much shared group-wide was 'fuck this shit, we're out of here'. We packed the clamshell in defeat and started back home with adventure lesson 2 strapped to my belt: when it feels like you're going to die, it usually means that tomorrow you'll wonder if it even really happened.

This lesson is still sinking in.

We drove in silence until I asked my father to turn the radio on again. He obliged, and oddly enough it was that same Olivia Newton John song: “Come take my hand / You should know me / I've always been in your mind / You know I will be kind / I'll be guiding you”.

I saw it first. About 2 miles up the road there was a gigantic spider from a cartoon right in the middle of the road about 2 stories tall and with it's legs wipping to and fro. “Jesus Christ, what the hell is that?” I said.

“ANA MARIA WILLEM,” my mom immediately said. “You do not speak like that.”

“What the hell IS it?” my dad said as he slowed the van down. We approached slowly, and as we did so, it became apparent that the 'spider' was actually a 2 story high flash flood right at the place that the string of puddles had been the day before. It was mesmerizing. “Well, how about we go see that third river today, maybe we'll be lucky,” my dad said, like a twice defeated egg.

We get to the river, and it was actually wonderful and babbling and crystalline, and just the right size. My mom made early protégées of the kinds of snacks we all know and love her for today. We ate and played for hours. At some point I decided we all needed to march, and I was demo-ing the correct posture one should have when one is in a river marching: chin up, head back, up down up down up down pain blood.

Lot's of blood. Sure enough I had a crescent cut on the ball of my foot about the circumference of a half golf ball in the position where it looked like it was smiling at me with blood trailing from several parts of it's mouth. My sister found the offending piece of glass. It was deep, and my parents agreed that medical attention, and stitches were in order.

And then in unison, we all remembered that spider guarding the road.

“We have to try to get out,” my Dad said. My mother nodded, and mentally prepared to do war with a giant flash flood. My sister and I were scared, and I was in searing pain. My foot was swaddled in a t-shirt my mother had torn into strips earlier, so I couldn't see it, but I was sure it was being devoured by that evil bloody smile. Except for the sound of an overstuffed van moving over washboard dirt road, everyone was silent as we drove towards the main road out. After what seemed like 3 hours but was probably more like 20 minutes, we hit what can only be described as a trickling series of puddling.

Another adventure lesson learned: things that come fast, often leave as quickly as they came. 4 hours later, that flash flood was just a memory that our circa 1971 VW Vanagon could traverse with the ego of a jeep. It was the first time I truly felt like I could conquer anything.