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How Courage Is Bred

The essay which these photographs accompany describes a family camping trip to Kennedy Meadows that recreates a trip I took as a boy. The experience of the outdoors gave me inner strength that inspired me during my time in Afghanistan. These outdoor memories are shared with my dad, a Vietnam veteran, and they are something I want to pass on to my children.

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Even in June, the South Fork of the Kern is a cold river. The current slows as it leaves the South Sierra Wilderness and enters Kennedy Meadows, but its lazy pace under the noonday sun doesn’t take the edge off the snow-melt waters. Where it pools in shadows, the river remains an icy reminder of its origins high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a venerable range presided over by its loftiest point, Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the continental U.S.

I remember only one visit to Kennedy Meadows as a boy, though I grew up little more than an hour away in Ridgecrest, a small town in the Mojave Desert known mostly as a jumping off point for both Whitney and Death Valley and a bedroom community for a Navy ordnance testing and development base. I was about the age my son is now, eleven years old, and I recall camping under the stars on a warm night, marveling at the swathe of the brilliant Milky Way as I listened to the moonlit river whisper and chuckle its way down to Kernville in the south. My father, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, had brought me and my two sisters here for a brief escape from the hundred degree Mojave heat that was searing the Indian Wells Valley below. It was one of only a handful of camping trips we took, but it is notable in that my whole family has happy memories of it, even my mother, who was happy to be left behind to sleep in her real bed in an air-conditioned home.

In 2012, we plan our return. I am the age my father was when he introduced me to the place; he is now close to seventy. I have three kids—a boy and two girls—and an adventurous wife who enjoys camping more than I do. We are in search of something greater than just a trip away from home. This is a quest to discover whether the place that touched my soul as a boy still exists, whether the web of family and natural beauty that enchanted my thoughts could be experienced again this side of adulthood. We pull in on a Monday to a nearly deserted U.S. Forest Service campground in Kennedy Meadows. I’ve been looking at satellite views of the site for weeks, conferring online and by phone with my father to ensure it’s the same place. My dad drives up to meet us for the first day of our trip. He’s filled the bed of his truck with enough seasoned wood to give us merry blazes every nippy morning and crisp night of our stay.

We have a hard time keeping the kids in camp while we pitch the tent. The lure of the river is strong. Though there are many trees and the river is but a hundred yards away, the site is very dry. I slowly spin in place to take in the panorama of steep and rocky slopes surrounding these meadows and marvel, as I did most days I was deployed, how much my childhood scenery resembles the mountains of Afghanistan. Snow and rock, scrub pines and desert earth, Farah Province, Herat, Kabul—I felt almost at home there, apart from armor and fears of ambush or I.E.D.s.

I’ve been back three years. My children, so young when I was deployed, are now seven, nine, and eleven. Finally, we say yes to their pleading and change clothes for the river. The shock of the water gives them only temporary pause. They are all strong. They found more within themselves when I was gone than I could have given as a protective presence at their side. Boldest of all, as a new Scout should be, my son pushes ahead and makes it to the middle of the freezing stream. He picked up a branch somewhere along the way from camp and looks like a pathfinder as he leans on it and gazes upstream at some enticing rocks.

“Come on,” he yells, not to me or any other adult figure, but to his younger sisters. “Those rocks are awesome!” We mostly keep pace, but lag behind a bit to see where this is going. My father stays on shore. The footing in this rocky stream is treacherous. I snap a few shots as my son and older daughter coach my youngest through a deep spot, and then they climb a boulder. My wife surveys the water to ensure it’s deep enough and that no submerged rocks form hidden hazards. “OK,” she says, both of us shaking our heads at the craziness of children.

One by one, in order of age, they launch themselves from boulder to water. The youngest must be coaxed by the oldest, but she wants this added drama to ensure we all are looking when she fearlessly, arms outstretched, leaps into the stream. My son has his arms wide too, as though he’s flying with her. You might think from looking at my picture that he’s trying to catch her, but that is not the case. From her angle and total surrender to flight, you can tell she’ll body-slap the water several feet from him. He spreads his arms in sheer elation, present only by her request to help with the recovery as she swims back to the bank.

I look at my father on the shore, grinning with delight, and say to myself, “This is how courage is bred, not by a moment, but by a family, by a place, and by a choice deep within.” This is what I’ve come back to, and this is what I want to share with my blood.

Submitted by: Liam C