Sunday Journal: When camping trip goes awry, cowboys can be comforting

It doesn't take much even now, more than 40 years later, to bring that reedy little-boy voice to my memory's surface. "I was scared, Daddy," it says. • And my memory answers, "I was scared, too, Stephen." • Stephen was just turning 4. His was a fear of being attacked by bears, or wolves, or ogres, or trolls, or whatever else might lurk in that remoteness of the Rocky Mountains.

It was 1968. We veered from U.S. 285 onto a rutted ranch road just beyond a highway marker reading "Grant, Colorado. Pop. 11." When we spotted the rustic sign that pointed us toward Tumbling River Ranch, our sons' excitement index — measured by the back-seat stomping of new pointy-toed cowboy boots — rocketed.

Stephen was already planning to invite the ranch's cowboys to the birthday party he'd have while there. Douglas, his 7-year-old brother, had visions of himself atop a spirited steed, a la Remington's The Bronco Buster.

We were deep into the Rockies, astride the Continental Divide. Whether from the altitude or from approaching a dreamed-of vacation at a working ranch, my wife, Diane, and I experienced increased pulse rates, too.

I still remember that vacation, shot through with adrenaline.

Arriving at ranch headquarters, we learned that our cabin was not ready; we'd spend our first night in a sprawling, unoccupied ranch house a mile or so back down the trail. And we'd have to rush if we were to freshen up and get back to headquarters in time to explore an abandoned gold mine high in the snowy reaches above us.

The four of us quickly returned to headquarters for an adults-only, three-hour Jeep ride over a trail considered too precipitous for youngsters. All children were to remain behind. So our boys trooped off excitedly for fun and games with perhaps 10 others, in tow by college-age counselors.

When we returned, the kids were whooping it up near the swimming pool. But our sons were not among them.

"Douglas and Stephen?" chirped a vibrant young counselor. "Oh, they must be the new kids." Yes, but where were they?

"Uh," she scanned the faces of her charges, "I guess they didn't come back."

Come back? Come back from where?

"We told all the kids to go change into swimsuits after snack time," she answered. "They must have stayed in their cabin."

But we didn't have a cabin. We'd simply dropped off our luggage more than a mile away — across a river, down a twisting and weed-overgrown dirt track, through scrubland that, even we were sure, was populated by pouncing and crawling wild things.

"Oh, then they probably just went to the lounge."

The panic hit. Diane raced toward the lounge. I could hear her vain calls of "Dougie! Stephen!" as I scoured the banks of the tumbling river that gave the ranch its name. Finally awakened to our very real concern, counselors and Jeep drivers joined the search.

"Stephen! Douglas!"

"Douglas! Stephen!"

The calls resounded.

"I'm going to look in every cabin," Diane said. "You know Dougie — if the counselor told them to go to their cabin, he'd find a cabin to go to."

She was right; even at 7, Douglas marched to the drummer. And the counselor had told them to go to their cabin. Could they possibly have tried to find the ranch house?

"They'd have no idea where that house is," Diane sobbed. "I'm searching these cabins!" Her desperation was emphatic. I didn't try to stop her.

But I decided to check the distant ranch house. Steering the car onto the bridge spanning the narrow river, I was met by an avalanche of horses being driven to overnight corrals. Only then did I realize that darkness would soon be upon us. Where were those boys? It had been a good two hours since even the counselors had seen them.

At the ranch house turnoff, I dreaded to go farther. What if they weren't there after all? And what if they were? Could I expect them to be unharmed?

The house was eerily silent. My cautious footsteps on the tile floor echoed through the hallways. We hadn't had time upon arriving to familiarize ourselves with the place. We'd put the boys' bags in one bedroom, ours in another; but there were rooms we hadn't seen.

The first door I opened revealed an unused bedroom. The second room was Diane's and mine. I opened a third and my heart plummeted.

There were the boys' duffle bags, but no sign of Douglas and Stephen.

The big bed was rumpled, as if make-believe cowboys had used it for wrangling practice before leaving.

And there was, at the edge of the bed . . . one little pointy-toed cowboy boot?

Yes, one!

I looked again at the lumpy bed. "Stephen?" I called tentatively.

There was no answer. But the bedclothes moved ever so slightly. A head emerged far enough for one eye to focus on me. "It's Dad, Stephen," said a protective 7-year-old. "It's okay."

The bedclothes were flung aside by a miniature cowboy. He had one boot on, one boot off.

"I was scared, Daddy," Stephen said.

I fought tears during our return to ranch headquarters. When Diane saw our sons, she allowed hers to flow.

Douglas asked if we could go watch the horses being "put to bed." Stephen seconded the plea.

It would be a good time to invite the cowboys to his birthday party.

Veteran journalist Philip Harsham has worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the New York Times, and as a freelance writer for numerous other publications. He lives in St. Petersburg.

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Sunday Journal: When camping trip goes awry, cowboys can be comforting 03/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 3:30am]

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