Like most great outdoor adventures, this one started at… the bowling alley. The high desert town of Bishop felt like an oven as we rolled in along 395, our car smelling of fast food, young boys and backpacking gear. Even the old western-style storefronts seemed to be sweating, and people sat in small patches of shade, the heat like something iron and heavy, pushing down from the sky, making it hard to move. After grabbing cold drinks and oversized hamburgers we meandered across the highway to a bowling alley—which was highly air-conditioned and wonderful.
My boys, Noah and Kai, had only bowled once before, during another family vacation in Pismo Beach. And they loved it. They loved the shoes. They loved lugging half a dozen brightly-colored balls to our ball return station and trying them all. They even told me they liked the smell of bowling alleys—decades’ worth of sweet stuff stuck on hard-to-reach surfaces, the faintest hint of old cigarette smoke left over from the days of my childhood and before, when you could still light up and work on giving yourself (and everyone else) cancer inside such buildings.
But I discovered there is a new twist on bowling, something they didn’t have back in the seventies when I was inhaling secondhand smoke and hunting for that elusive strike. They have bumper rails now. You can actually put rails up along the edges of the lane so that your ball never goes in the gutter. You can roll your ball towards the gutter, slow as molasses, watch it bounce from side to side down the length of the alley and still get a strike!
Not only is your risk of developing lung tumors lower now, you can bowl like an idiot and still beat your father!
And it was fun. We laughed. We teased and harassed each other. We tried to spin our balls to make them curve down the lane the way those really studly bowlers on television do, the guys with mullets and special gloves. We did little dance moves in our slippery shoes. We clapped when Johnny Cash came on the radio.
I’ll be honest with you. At first I hated the idea of bumper rails. It seemed cheap. It seemed like cheating. But as we walked home, sweating in the late-night desert heat, I reconsidered bumper rails. They were okay. They were fun. They helped my kids have a good time. They made the ball do funny things.
And I started thinking it would be really cool if life had some sort of bumper rails—something soft and indiscrete and forgiving that you could put around your kids without embarrassing them. Of course I’d never want to keep my boys from experiencing all those important, small failures, the ones that help all of us learn about ourselves, understand the world around us and become better human beings. But I’d love to have bumper rails to keep them away from life’s truly dangerous failures, the ones that lead to honest-to-goodness gutters with all their hypodermic needles, ruinous relationships and infectious diseases.
But I guess you can’t build a bumper rail like that, not with plastic or wood or metal anyway. You can’t put your kids in a giant hamster ball or pad their clothes with packaging peanuts.
I actually thought about it for a long time that night as we lay in our cheap hotel room, sweating beneath the sheets, and I realized that in a way this whole trip was about building bumper rails for my kids. That’s what I could give them—the mountains, a million stars, a month of sunsets. We could laugh together. We could talk and share dreams and spend hours in each other’s company. I could kiss them on the forehead after reading to them each evening, and we could sleep side by side, and maybe somehow that would be enough to build a bumper rail. Maybe that would be enough to keep them from life’s really big gutters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not Super Dad. I can be a real asshole sometimes. I’ve lost my temper and yelled and slammed doors and been just as unfair and impatient as the next guy. But when it’s all said and done, when my two boys sprout weird hairs on their bodies and grow into men, when they leave the imperfect nest Pam and I have built for them, I hope these times we’ve shared surround them as they go. Maybe something small, like diving together into an emerald swimming hole or watching bats dart across a dusky sky, will pad them more than corduroys full of packaging peanuts ever could.
I liked the thought of it anyway.
Just before I finally dozed off, a chorus of coyotes started up in the distance, a pack of them yipping at the desert sky, a family sticking together. And I guess that’s the way you do it. You journey into this uncertain world side by side with the people you love, and you make time to howl at the moon.
J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.