The Superstition Mountains were evaporating into the great sigh of dusk when we struck it rich.
“Dad!” Robert said, pointing to sparks in the heap of boulders upon which we perched. “Gold!”
Eighteen months earlier, at dinner, I told my three children about an exciting assignment I’d been offered. The catch? Extensive travel.
Only Robert, then 5 and the youngest, didn’t grudgingly vote to let me go. Fighting back tears, he shared knowledge picked up on the kindergarten playground: “Sometimes daddies go away and never come back.”
I took the assignment. On the return flight from my very first trip, I sat next to a stoic 5-year-old boy who told me in a sad, sweet Southern drawl that he was going to California to visit his father, whom he had never met.
On a later trip, a boy shared his Jelly Bellies, and softly described the custody fight that left his mother sobbing at the Denver airport while he headed for his new home at Dad’s Chicago pad.
So it was that as soon as that long assignment ended, I booked cheap flights for myself and my son, now 7, and headed for the Wild West of Arizona, where I had spent several business trips haunted by images of a kid in a cowboy hat back home.
At the Phoenix airport, Robert looked like an abused baby pack mule as he proudly humped one of our two duffle bags of camping gear to the rental car.
“Listen,” I said as we gunned it out of Phoenix toward the Superstitions. “For the next three days, let’s just be podners.”
Our first stop, at my podner’s suggestion, was Goldfield, a recreated mining town about 40 miles to the east. Like greenhorns fresh off the stage, we sauntered up the town’s dusty street in cowboy hats, checking out the tacky fudge and gift shops and the impressive Lost Dutchman Museum. We slapped down $1 each to watch dozens of rattlesnakes writhe and buzz. We ate fat sandwiches on the deck of the Mammoth Saloon.
At one point an ornery gunslinger pulled his shootin’ iron and gave us the stink eye, but Robert stood his ground. We were more impressed by the white-bearded hombre who led the mine tours, and not just because of the fearsome knives on his belt and his genuinely filthy duds.
An engineer at the Phelps-Dodge mines in another life, the old-timer explained that Goldfield blossomed in the 1890s, becoming the biggest town in the territory before going bust. He led us into the reconstructed mine, spinning yarns as he went, and I watched Robert all but become one of the young cowpokes who abandoned ranch life to dig by candlelight in the claustrophobic tunnels.
That afternoon, we pitched our tent at Lost Dutchman State Park, a couple of miles up the road. On the map, the campground seems remote. In fact, the lights of nearby Apache Junction edge uncomfortably close. But with the peaks of the Superstition wilderness hovering a few hundred yards to the east, it’s easy imagine pure solitude--and to spot the ghosts of fevered prospectors clambering on the rock towers.
Unable to resist, we took a short but steep hike into the mysterious canyonscape. Back in camp, Robert tugged his sleeping bag over his chin early and vanished into sleep.
Before I could follow, though, the desert wind came caterwauling out of the mountains, beating the tent fabric like a crazed pioneer woman flailing a dirty rug.
Spooked, I stared through the mesh tent roof as jets full of business travelers and, perhaps, lone children, crossed the galaxies.
When the first of several meteors blazed by--whoosh--I nudged Robert.
“See that, podner?”
“Whuh?” he mumbled from his cowboy dreams.
The next morning, we packed quickly in the cold desert air and headed up the Apache Highway (Arizona 88). Our first stop was Tortilla Flat, a rustic stage stop-turned bar and restaurant, with real saddles as bar stools, and dusty deer and javelina heads adorning walls papered (to Robert’s astonishment) with many thousands of dollar bills.
After a breakfast of flapjacks and eggs we continued up the high desert highway. Running on boy time, we stopped when we felt like it. We explored any canyon that intrigued. Soon enough, the pavement ended, and the road dropped with exuberant impatience 1,500 feet down Fish Creek Hill. Hitting bottom, we parked and drifted up the creek, pausing to poke around in a cavern and to watch yellow cottonwood and sycamore leaves slip over foot high waterfalls and spiral into pools that reflected blue sky and red rock cliffs.
That night, with the desert sandblasted into our souls, the two of us ambled into Phoenix’s Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak for the civilized phase of our adventure. We didn’t leave the western-themed family resort until it was time to catch our plane the next evening.
Still on kid time, we played a round on the putt-putt course. We shot a game of darts in one of the hotel’s cabanas. We putted another round. We laughed a lot. We played some arcade games. We shot two more games of darts.
But mainly, in spite of the air’s winter bite, we indulged ourselves in the resort’s attached “river ranch,” ripping down the water slide; standing under the waterfall until our neck and shoulder muscles melted; shooting hoops in the sports pool; hot-tubbing; tubing side by side in the meandering “river” pool.
That night, as we watched a funny movie about Boy Scouts in our comfortable suite, my inner child felt a hunger pang. I conferred with my podner. Within minutes, room service delivered a heaping hot fudge sundae and two spoons.
Later, kicked back in our beds, we stumbled upon a travelogue on the Grand Canyon. Among the raft trip passengers were a man in his 50s and his twentyish son.
The father, forehead beaded with sweat, watched fondly as the young man recalled past trips. His dad had seemed invincible. Then, at some recent point on life’s timeline, the son noticed that the rising trajectory of his own vitality had crossed paths with his father’s, which was ineluctably in decline.
Wistfully, the son said it was now he who waited for his father to catch up.
I’d invited my own father to join us on this trip, but he wasn’t well. As I clicked off the TV, I was reminded of another show, a PBS profile of Monty Python veteran John Cleese that ends with a startling coda: a dead man’s conversation with God.
“Whoosh,” Cleese says, swiping his hand over his head like a shooting star. “What was that?” he asks.
“That was your life, mate,” says God.
So. Back to that first evening in the Superstitions.
After we had pulled on hiking shoes, I reminded Robert to shake out his cowboy boots in case a scorpion had crawled in. Out plopped a package: his first pocketknife.
As we ascended a canyon, a scrap of cholla cactus lodged in my boot. Robert bravely pried it loose with his knife blade.
Later, high on that crag, he used his knife’s corkscrew to scratch intently at the gold-colored flecks he had discovered in the coarse rock.
With darkness pressing in, we finally decided to make a note of the spot and descend. The desert twilight faded. Coyote yodels filled the emptiness.
“You know,” I said gently as we made our way through a field of eerie saguaro. “That was probably fool’s gold up there.”
“Yeah,” Robert said. “But that’s valuable too, Dad.”
Sipchen writes for the Life & Style section.
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Budget for Two
Round-trip air fare: $164.00
Car rental, three days: $125.00
Campsite, Lost Dutchman Park: $12.00
Lunch, Mammoth Steak House: $24.00
Admission, rattlesnake exhibit: $2.00
Mine tour: $6.00
Dinner at Burger King: $4.50
Breakfast at Tortilla Flat: $16.00
One night, Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak, (breakfast included): $168.00
Putt Putt Golf, darts: $11.50
Lunch, Hole in the Wall: $16.00
Dinner, Aunt Chiladas: $24.50
Room service sundae: $10.00
FINAL TAB: $583.50
Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak, 7677 N. 16th St., Phoenix, AZ 85020; telephone (800) 876-4683.