“Gentlemen, we have a problem,” I said, rifling through my backpack for the flashlight that I distinctly remembered putting in there. Across the valley, the sun dipped closer to the horizon.
In a normal month, we’d have had plenty of time to get back to the car before dark. But in December, the sun barely gives us the common courtesy of waiting until the end of the afternoon before disappearing. When you’re on the couch staring at your phone and ignoring the humans in the room like a normal person, this lack of light is not a problem. But when you’re in the woods with your dog and your two kids, two miles from your car, you have no choice but to reckon with nature’s thoughtlessness.
“Did we forget to pack Cheez-Its?” my eight-year-old son, Evan, asked.
“NO CHEEZ-ITS?!” my five-year-old son, Zack, wailed.
“Guys, calm down. We have plenty of Cheez-Its,” I said. “We just don’t have a flashlight.”
“Phew,” they replied.
My wife, Kara, had gone into the city with some friends for the day, leaving me free to plan a non-age-appropriate adventure with our children. Naturally, I decided to drag them out into the frigid December woods for the longest hike of Zack’s life, almost a five-mile roundtrip. We’d gotten off to a later start than I’d intended, on account of some important video games we’d needed to play first. Those bosses weren’t going to beat themselves.
“Guys, we need to head back toward the car. It’s going to get dark very soon,” I said.
“But the Cheez-Its!” they said.
I quickly put Cheez-Its in their gloved hands as I packed back up for the return trip. The sun disappeared behind the horizon, meaning that we were now playing on borrowed time, like when a soccer game ends but everyone keeps playing for some reason, waiting for the referee to decide randomly when the game is actually over.
Evan would almost certainly have no trouble with the return hike. Earlier this year, he’d climbed a large, steep mountain, and he spent the entire second half asking if we could jog back to the car.
“No, we can’t do that,” I huffed.
“Why not?” he asked.
“The dog is tired,” I wheezed.
But Zack can’t walk across the parking lot at Target without asking to be carried.
“We’ve been walking for FOREVER!” he’ll say before we pass the first cart return.
But both kids trotted through the woods with no signs of tiring, their daily aerobic routines of arguing and chasing each other around the house finally paying off.
“Look, a little baby tree!” Evan said, stopping to point at the ground.
“That’s really cute. Keep moving,” I said, gently nudging him forward.
The light faded around us as nighttime settled on the woods. Just as the referee blew the whistle on the official end of daylight, we arrived at the final trail junction, where the trail widened into a gravel road for the last stretch before the car. Even without almost no light, we could see exactly where to go.
“Gentlemen, we made it. Smooth sailing from here. Great job,” I said.
“Don’t bears come out at night?” Evan asked.
“No. Well, yes. But not around here. Well, okay, there are bears in the woods around here, but not the kind that bother people,” I said, struggling to find the line between reassurance and honesty.
“Is anything going to eat us?” Zack asked.
“No, definitely not. Maybe if you bathed more,” I replied.
In a few more minutes, we arrived at the car, safe and sound.
“Hey, found my flashlight!” I said, retrieving it from the trunk.
“That’s okay you didn’t have it. This was my favorite hike ever,” Evan said.
“Yeah, me too!” Zack agreed.
I’d like to think that even with some self-administered adversity, we’re creating lasting memories together out there in the woods, but they’ll probably just remember the Cheez-Its.
You can shine this little light of yours on Mike Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org.