Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What Lurks Within

I’m emptying the teenager’s duffel and it feels a little like an excavation. I did one in Israel when I was young, an archeological dig. We pawed through various levels of dirt in the hopes of finding something of value, something that would give us some insight into another time. On this day, though, “another time” isn’t anything as lofty as ancient Palestine. I’m looking for insight into the last few weeks; what might have happened on the teenager’s California adventure.

Before he left, I had rather desperately requested that he try hard to return with everything he’d originally packed. A lot of the gear was specifically purchased for this trip – especially the pricey waterproof and fleece stuff he needed to climb Mount Shasta – and I hoped to be able to use at least most of it again this coming winter. He promised and he delivered. It all came back (and then some). That was my first surprise.

In 23 days he hiked, rafted, rock-climbed, mountain biked, hiked more, rafted more, summited a mountain, rafted more, hiked just a little bit more and had a pizza-eating contest.

That’s a lot of stuff to do in three-and-a-half weeks. So my second surprise came when, inside the duffel, I found folded shirts, folded pants and balled up socks. In other words, clothes that had been untouched for the entire trip. I found a lot of unused clothes. More than half of what we packed.

So I asked him:

“How many pair of shorts did you actually wear while you were there?” (We had packed at least five.)

“One,” he said.

“Really? You just took off and put on the same shorts day after day for a month?” I asked this earnestly. No attitude whatsoever.

His answer was simple, but the look on his face heralded the tedium involved in fielding this and other insipid questions.

“I didn’t take them off at all,” he said.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Because just from that one little sentence, I know almost 100 percent more about his trip than I did ten minutes ago. And at this rate I might get to know all about it by next summer.

When I was in Israel, we woke before the sun came up and spent all the cool morning hours gently digging at the dirt on the top of our hill. It was amazing how much stuff we found: pieces of broken plates, cups, bowls, pottery. The stuff was everywhere, and at first we thought we were really finding something valuable. But all those broken shards didn’t amount to much. To get real information, you need a specific part of the cup, an area that shows the lip or rim or handle. Those treasures are few and far between. Most of our pottery just ended up in a mountainous heap – like a garbage dump.

That’s what it felt like today, hauling the teenager’s laundry out of the duffel. I was looking for something but I didn’t know what it would be. I found possessions that were leaf-encrusted, full of sand, damp and smelly, only mildly familiar. But nothing that would allow me to understand what my son had just been through. How it had changed him. Whether it had.

At the end of my dig, I had little besides dank, soiled boy-gear. And it all got unceremoniously dumped into the washer. Before we retrieved the teenager from the airport my husband had told me something that I now understand it to be true: Most of what happened on his trip, you’re just never going to know.

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