For our last big event before we officially started our freshman year of high school, BFF Jeff and I took a YMCA Caravan trip, with a dozen barely-teen boys and two barely-adult leaders. The previous summer’s Caravan had had a few snags, but this one was truly the Mother of All Calamities!
The groundwork for disaster was laid when all of the official vans were booked. As a result, we were given an oxidized green airport limousine with eat-your-heart-out-Buck-Rogers fins that someone had donated to the Y after its odometer passed the 100 million miles mark. We nicknamed it the Green Dragon.
On day one, the brakes gave out and the Green Dragon sailed half a mile into the desert before finally nesting in a cactus patch. On day two, after just two hours back on the road, the Dragon’s transmission stopped…transmissing. We spent the next two days at a tiny gas station-slash-auto repair shop in the town of Tiny Gas Station-Slash-Auto Repair Shop, waiting for the Dragon’s transmission to be rebuilt. We laid our sleeping bags in the sand, but after the mechanic pointed at his scorpion-in-amber bolo tie and said, “They’re ever’where,” we slept in the Green Dragon like kippers in a tin.
By day five, our frantic parents were demanding that the trip be cancelled, but we voted to keep going. We were going to have fun if it killed us!
It nearly did.
We made it to Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona where, millennia before humans invented fiberglass waterslides, God designed the prototype: Slide Rock. We walked almost a mile on jagged pebbles, but it was worth it. Sleep-deprived and nerves ajangle, we hurled ourselves into this wondrous cataract with ruthless abandon, sliding down again and again. Finally, one by one we crawled up the bright red embankment like an artist’s conception of evolving amphibians, and fell asleep. For five hours.
In 113 degree heat.
When we awoke we were redder than the Sedona soil. We walked the crimson mile back, our sunburned soles pierced by flint fragments. O’er the path we went, screaming all the way.
We sat in a stream near our campground, hoping our dead epidermis would float away in the cool blue water. It didn’t. We lay in our sleeping bags that night, moaning, and despite being manly 14-year-olds, openly crying.
The next day, the worst of us were taken to a clinic to have their Buick-sized blisters lanced. It was the most severe sunburn the doctor had ever seen. We smeared our bodies with prescription ointment, weeping in relief. And then, somehow, we began to laugh again. We were brothers, we’d survived the unsurvivable and bonded big time. And that made the misery almost worth it.
We eventually made it to the Grand Canyon, after having all of our money stolen, our brakes fail (again), our trunk catch fire while we were searching for the doe we’d hit, and then speeding away (trunk still aflame) as her enraged mate charged across the space we’d occupied a moment before, and… (honestly, this is the condensed version).
20 years later, a patch of basal cell cancer—courtesy of the Arizona sun—was cut out of my shoulder. Now, when I see the scar in the mirror, I think, “Don’t ever do that again, you idiot.” But also…
Boy, I miss those guys.