Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

A cold drizzle fell from a gray sky as I shook hands with my son Tait. A moment later, he and his buddy, Cooper, drove off down the Frying Pan Road, leaving me with pit in my stomach. I felt like a mamma bird that has just shoved her only chick out of the nest.

Tait is 17. Cooper is 18. They’ve been buddies since they were babies. They have hiked mountains and deserts, often pushing the edge of parental guidance. Now they were off on the first road trip of their young adult lives.

This was a dream trip for Tait ever since he camped last summer on a California beach with another family. Recounting his first morning there, Tait said he got up early and stood barefoot in the surf to witness sunrise on the sea. He turned to see a vintage VW bus pull up and disgorge half a dozen wet-suited “old guys,” each of whom grabbed a surf board and ran into the waves like children. “They looked so happy, and it was only five a.m.! So this is California!”

Since that day, Tait has vowed to take a road trip to “Cali” in a VW camper, sleeping on the beach and surfing the Pacific swells. “Well, we don’t have a camper,” I said with relief. “That can be fixed,” smiled Tait. Last winter, Tait discovered a 1984 VW Westfalia for sale in Basalt. He convinced me to split the cost with him. The vehicle was ours. The dream trip was his.

The boys reserved a campsite for five days on the beach at San Onofre. They marked the calendar for what seemed an eternity away. Finally, the day arrived and they set off for two weeks of camping, rock climbing, mountain biking and surfing.

The moment of departure was not as idealized as Tait had envisioned. Two days before leaving, he complained of a bad tummy. “Anxiety,” diagnosed Mom. We convened a family meeting and assured Tait that all would be well, that we fully supported what he had envisioned. This was one of the most important moments in our recent family life – both parents supporting a vulnerable child on a plan of his own design.

As insurance, we bought a Spot Me satellite messenger so the boys could check in. This device has three message options: “I’m fine,” “Help,” and “911.” The “I’m fine” mode sends an e-mail with a link to Google Maps, complete with GPS coordinates. Clicking the link, I could see, literally, the very tree under which the boys were camped.

Tait eyed the thing suspiciously. “What if I press it every mile?” he grinned. I told him once a day would be fine. “What if it falls out of the car at 60 miles an hour?” I advised him not to let that happen. “This is just a long leash with minimal contact,” I assured. “Good!” he said.

Tait and I did a tune-up on the camper engine, a skill I learned during my formative years owning a succession of VW bugs. We test-drove it on a couple of shorter trips, and it proved reliable. But like most old VWs, it has a few quirks. The boys would be crossing the Mojave Desert, which is a bad place for a quirk to become a breakdown. Receiving an emergency call became my daily concern.

An hour after they left, I pictured Tait and Cooper slapping high fives as they crested McClure Pass on a Jack Kerouac-style adventure. I told myself not to worry, that life lessons are there for the learning, a point I had made to my father many years ago.

As they spread their strong, young wings, I saw these boys soaring on thermals of their own making. I could only hope their first flight would be a good one and that they would land safely back in the home nest with a new perspective, even if a feather or two were out of place.

Satellite locations came in nightly from Comb Ridge, Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott and finally San Onofre. Two weeks later, the boys rolled back into the valley with serious surf tans. They appeared happy, confident – and hungry. Their stories have been selectively shared and edited, but we all acknowledged that the pursuit of youthful dreams provides the raw materials of life – for the parents as well as the children.

Paul Andersen is making his own plans for the VW camper. His column appears on Mondays.