It’s my job to abduct the children every weekend. To give Jill a break. Usually on Sunday.
Saturday is Jill’s Costco day, so she’s gone shopping and what-not most of the day and I’m home with the kids feeding them frozen pizza and jokes. I like my day at home with them after a week of commuting and Jill likes to have her legs back without a kid on each one.
On Sunday, my goal is to get the kids out of the house and give Jill as much time as possible to dread the coming week. There’s just too much dreading to do.
She really needs 8 uninterrupted hours. Ten hourS if she also wants to have time to hate herself for wasting all of that time dreading.
I chide her for putting it off. I’ll remind her on Saturday “Monday’s coming, you know. If you start dreading now, you can burn through even more of the weekend and really hit the week with a running start.”
On Sundays, I look for places that are at least an hour away from home. That guarantees that I’ll be gone more than two hours without even trying. I like easy. When you add another hour of getting in and out of the car + 90 minutes of fighting + 30 minutes of negotiations +15 minutes to stop and get gas + 2 hours of play + 1 hour at the urgent care clinic + 20 minutes to fill out the police report + a god-awful eternity to try to sit down and have one goddamn meal, then Jill gets a full to day to work up a frothing panic.
Summer time at Woodsmoke Ranch is the perfect place for this weekly ritual. It’s a little more than an hour away, there are two swimming pools, and my brother, sister, and two aunts have places up there. Any given weekend, I can spend time with extended family, get sunburned all to hell, and get jolted with booster shots of panic whenever I lose sight of 3 year-old Ben at the crowded pool (happens at least twice per visit).
Well, not so last Sunday. It was late July and too cold to go swimming. Thanks a lot, Chicago.
I really didn’t know what I was going to do. Stay home? HA all over that! I implored my genius brain for help. Once it was done reliving the nursing home episode of Breaking Bad, it offhandedly told me Just go for a walk at Starved Rock. Then it went back to its constant loop of childhood pain interspersed with Homer Simpson quotes.
“You are a genius!”
Yeah, Starved Rock, like I said.
It was going to be perfect. I hadn’t been there in over 10 years, well before kids, and from what I remembered, the trails were all handrails and wooden planks. Everything was curated and safe.
That’s what I hated about it when I was younger (and had the luxury of being able to hate how I spent my free-time). And why I used to bypass Starved Rock for Matthiessen State Park. Matthiessen was all dirt trails and drippy canyons. You didn’t have a goddamned gift shop where you bought a varnished walking stick for $20. The universe gave you your walking stick on the freaking trail. And it was always exactly the right length.
But in my new life, what I considered crappy about Starved Rock before had morphed into a selling point. I would be one man hiking with three kids—give me all the guardrails you got.
On top of that, the sucktastic weather meant it wouldn’t be all hot and buggy for our visit to nature. It seemed all the cons were turning up pros.
We hit the first snag before we even left. Ian didn’t want to go. I told him I’d leave without him. He gave zero shits. It was just me and Elsa and Ben loaded up in the SUV looking at Jill’s glare as I backed out of the driveway.
The kids were great. They started arguing before I got to the street. Elsa even argued a little extra to make up for Ian not coming.
Then Ben fell asleep and Elsa began asking me if we were going to get lost or stabbed. Both were strong possibilities but I lied.
The way there is pretty much a straight shot down I-80. Still, I gave Google maps the opportunity to make it more interesting. Sure enough, after a 120-degree left turn that nearly rolled the Honda, I was looking at a fenced off dirt road with a WRONG WAY sign sneering at me while the disembodied voice from my iPhone, gently encouraged me to go 1000 feet and then turn right.
I risked our lives again and reentered the route we left and took winding country roads all the way to the for reals park entrance. And it was packed.
It wasn’t until I began getting the kids out of the car when I realized that I brought nothing for the hike. No bag, no water, no nothing. Not a big deal. I had a stroller. I’d just cram it full of hoodies and popcorn and diapers and wipes and kids and it would be fine.
In the 10 or so years between visits, Starved Rock State Park had done a whole lot more sanitizing. They built an insanely huge visitor’s center complete with museum, gift shop, and air conditioning. The very things we go out into nature to see. There is even a burger and ice cream place for all those who want to quickly replace any of the calories they may have accidentally burned while walking in the air conditioned museum.
After traumatizing Elsa by dragging the kids into the men’s bathroom, we were finally ready to hit the trail wooden planks.
It was fine at first. Ben kept running ahead, showing people his handfuls of popcorn. Elsa kept twirling as she walked, throwing her arms wide and inadvertently slapping the other “hikers” who came out to poke a stick at nature.
Then we got to the stairs. There were many of them. I’d say, before we left, I stepped on at least 200 hundred. And at every set we ascended or descended, Ben insisted on going up the left side. It didn’t matter if there was an army of people in his way. He moved out of the way for exactly no one. He insisted and forced his way up and I got all the blame. Of course I did. I’m the dad and he’s three. But I also had the stroller because of this condition I have called stupidity. So I was carrying this open, heavy, stuffed stroller on the right side, trying to wrangle Ben away from the left as Elsa peered longingly over the handrails asking if we could go over them and, you know, into nature. Nature is where the bugs are.
At one point, we came to this canyon that had a small bright orange creek running through it. There were big warning signs telling everyone not to touch the orange water. I was reading one of these signs as Elsa splashed around in the orange water.
Every once in a while we’d get to a place that evened out and Ben would grab another handful of popcorn and we’d smile politely at all the people in fanny packs and tourists speaking stupid German (ever heard of a vowel?) and we’d examine a leaf that triumphed over the railings. And we saw three bugs. Exactly three. I took photos. An ant, a beetle, and something I’m convinced was a tick.
After a while, we left. I think they added stairs while we were braving ticks because I swear there were more on the way out. I didn’t have to tear the kids away, either. Which was a little sad. Because if you don’t have to tear them away, then it wasn’t a great time. And I want to fill their times with great. But it wasn’t a sad that ice cream couldn’t fix.
On the way home, doing 80mph Ben thought to himself Well let’s see how dad reacts to this and he opened his door.
When I got home, Jill was still at the window.
I think we’re going back this Sunday.