Sweat dripped from my face as I crested the rocky ridge. We had been hiking in the 100-degree weather for hours, and I was exhausted, exhilarated, and thrilled with the wide spread of nature I was privileged to experience. When we finally labored to the top of the steepest incline, what a sight to behold! In the background, stunning, soaring mountain peaks, and straight ahead, a refreshing oasis, the deepest green color for miles in a mostly dry landscape.
With cries of joy, we raced down toward the water, dodging large rocks and sliding on matted earth, intending to plunge our dusty hands and feet into the cool, rejuvenating pool or maybe just dive right in. But, at the water’s edge, we skidded to a sudden stop. The beautiful, evergreen water was roiling with snakes! It wasn’t obvious at first but there were snakes undulating through the depths, writhing on the surface, and basking on the banks. First, we stared with a morbid curiosity then we backed away to find new, less wriggly mysteries to discover. The eventful day rolled on.
The terrain dipped and rose, and rose some more. As we gained altitude, Dad was beginning to worry and warned us to stay close. We pressed on through a dark cave and emerged on a narrow, twisting path that wound its way around the edge of a cliff.
At long last, we reached the climax of a rough path: a formidable precipice overlooked the deep, rocky valley. My heart sang and I leaped forward, oblivious to my father’s warning cries. Gleefully frolicking among the boulders, I failed to notice a 500-foot drop-off behind me. As I teetered heedlessly on the brink of disaster, Dad grabbed my collar and hauled me to relative safety. Why was he so angry and concerned? In my mind, I was a mountain goat—free as a kid! But apparently, being young and foolish, I had no idea of the looming danger and considered it mean that Dad made me hold his hand for most of the hike back.
At the end of a full day of beautiful sights, childish fights, and an all-around feeling of placid contentment, we returned to the car for drinks and snacks. Hiking through those arid rock formations, I had worked up a formidable appetite. Vaguely, I remembered Mom stashing the remnants of a picnic meal before we began. We piled into the car. My stomach prodded. I looked around, “Where’s my sandwich?” It wasn’t in my immediate area. “I know I had leftovers!”
When I failed to find them, I began to get frustrated. “Where’s my sandwich?” I demanded aloud of nobody in particular. “Where is it? Did someone eat my sandwich?’’ I wondered. We were nowhere near civilization and my parents were sympathetic to my hunger—after all, I had lost my sandwich. Dad pulled the car over, everybody stopped eating their snacks and got back up on weary feet to help me look for my delicious salami, cheddar, and mustard sub. Departure was halted as we hunted through the vehicle for my precious missing sandwich. After about half an hour of fruitless searching in bags and napkins, under seats and in cracks, suddenly it dawned on me. “Oh! I ate my whole sandwich!”
“Johhhn!” My mother, father, sister, and brother moaned in complaint against me. But their ire faded as, one by one, we began to muse on the absurdity of our situation and the remoteness of our location from the next meal, which each of us would have welcomed heartily. Simultaneously, as a family, we burst out laughing. My sister shared a piece of her food. And to this day, “Where’s my sandwich” is a household idiom used whenever someone can’t find something they are ridiculously culpable for losing.
As we drove away from Pinnacles National Park, we ruminated on our near-death experiences and the rugged beauty of the terrain. The following morning, we were back on the trail. Our next stop was Sequoia National Park. Against the warnings of my parents … again, I insisted on eating nothing but too many sugary yogurt cups offered in happy abundance at our bed and breakfast. Roughly halfway through the car ride, I began to feel the consequences of my defiance. A bad feeling swelled in my belly. I warned my parents of impending doom, ironically as they had warned me. There was nowhere to pull over, no shoulder at all, just ledges. It was too late! I leaned out the window, our awful premonitions were realized into the open air. My nausea was relieved. But, behind me, my sister sat silhouetted against the car seat in a frame of barf.
Miraculously, she stayed calm. There was a moment of shocked silence. What should we do? Then, there came a haven for recuperation—the roadside rest stop. We cleaned up. Of course, there were “I-told-you-so’s,” but that afternoon was a credit to my family’s love and patience. I still can’t believe how well my sister took it! We shoved off again in 15 minutes, mostly sanitized and with a good lesson learned about heeding parental wisdom.
And soon, the long-anticipated towers of Sequoia National Park finally surrounded us in real life. We walked among those trees hundreds of years older and bigger than myself. I was struck by a profound sense of awe. As we moved beyond the narrow path crowded with tourists, deeper into the mist-wreathed forest, we began to realize just how isolated we were.
Some of those massive sequoias were 20 times as wide as Dad with his arms spread out, and my dad’s arm span is wide. I cannot properly memorialize their vastness. Some were completely hollowed at the base so that we could actually walk inside welcoming trunks so spacious they could have passed for caverns. In height, they were almost too big for our minds to process. In depth, the forest was so great that at one point, we thought we were lost. Mom was sure the bears were hot on our trail. My siblings and I, the kids, began to tire. Mom had to invoke the offer of ice cream to keep us going.
Finally, after an impactful day of wandering in Sequoia, we returned to the comparative triviality of our ordinary lives. At the hotel, we munched on small boxed cereals and chattered about our adventure, surrounded by people from all over the world talking about the same things. But words were hardly sufficient to convey the ethereal beauty of those cathedral-like trees. They had to be experienced. To see them in real life permanently expanded our minds. That was four years ago, in California. Nowadays, I wonder if we could take such a trip.
Sometimes, while sitting in school, I escape to the memory of that joyful vacation with my family. At least we finally stopped straining to see our teachers through giant, cloudy, scratched plexiglass shields that enfolded each of our desks. My current point of view is so different from those beautiful days, though. I think through a mask, that we all still have to wear over our noses and mouths, almost everywhere. Especially when I have asthma, I struggle to breathe past it. Although anything is better than e-learning, I wish life could be more clear and carefree again. More than seven hours a day, five days a week, stuffed in a mask. School has become something to be dreaded.
Before COVID struck, I used to look forward to going to school and learning something new. Now, I beg Mom to homeschool me—anything to get away from that mask. I also miss my friends; we are socially distanced and isolated now. Although I recognize that the disease was serious, the remedy seems to have serious side effects, too.
There is talk of masks being recycled into next year. I try not to imagine that scenario and think instead of summer—almost here!
In my mind’s eye, with a smile on my face, I revisit that time before the world became sterilized and separated. We are just starting to relax “safety measures” in our cities and schools, and I think that many people are reluctant to go back to normal. For those people out there: Don’t be afraid to be free! If we don’t get back on track now, will we ever? It is painful to be locked down.
Last fall, my family and I were planning on seeing Zion, walking again through the glorious United States and experiencing unfettered life. I don’t know if we are yet liberated enough for that dream to come true, but I sure would like to see it happen! If we continue to open back up, and not let ourselves be confined to our masks and our fears, we can move past this troubled time, and go back to the real places and great learning experiences of the free world.
John Falce is 13 years old. He lives with his military pilot father, Florentine-trained artist mother, two brothers, and sister on a four-acre hobby farm in Milton, Fla. He is trying his hand at raising pigs when he’s not at school. John got into writing while obligingly editing for his mother’s book. He loves a good story and hopes you enjoy this one.