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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Not all who Wander are Lost, by Wendy Peterman, PhD

In 2012, my dad and I went on our first father-daughter walkabout. We named it after the term used in the ’80s by the rugged Australian character Crocodile Dundee. Basically, it means that we get in a car and drive in a direction we feel inclined to go at the moment. Whenever we feel like we’re done going for the day, usually around 3 PM local time, we find the nearest National Forest and set up camp. My dad often chooses to sit, legs stretched, arms propping his torso in a stream after that, cooling off in the heat of the afternoon. I, on the other hand, sleep. Once the warmest part of the day has passed, we hike around pointing out interesting rocks, plants, trees, animals, or other natural phenomena that catch our attention. I’m partial to soil crusts and insects, especially if they’re attacking trees.

The first forest we stopped in that year was the Malheur. “Malheur” is French for “unhappiness” or “misfortune.” When we arrived, I was exhausted from my intensely stressful life, and I immediately crashed into my tent for a two-hour nap. Upon waking, I opened the zipper door to my tent and was instantly rained on by a glob of bugs. I peeked at the ground outside and saw a carpet of orange critters, covering the forest floor. I glanced at the stems of the nearby trees and saw no evidence of insects boring into the bark.

My dad, standing next to the picnic table said, “What are they?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t feel like they’re bad though.”

“Look up,” he said.

As I raised my eyes past the golden stems of great ponderosa pines toward the forest canopy, my mouth dropped. Everywhere I could see, dangling on silky threads from the branches were light green caterpillars with yellow stripes, dancing creepily in the air.

Picking up a long stick, my dad said, “Watch.”

He used the stick to strike some of the silken threads, knocking several caterpillars to the ground. Within seconds, the caterpillars were covered with flat, shield-shaped bugs, and within minutes, they were gone without a trace. We walked together through the empty campground, ogling the multitudes of caterpillars hanging from trees. Occasionally, with a morbid curiosity, my dad would sweep the air with his stick, sending twenty caterpillars to their doom as a feast for the hoards of bugs waiting below. When we reached a picnic area, we sat at a table marveling at the crazy, quiet, caterpillar and bug-infested world we had entered. Sitting still, we finally noticed that the trees were barren of needles. This made my dad more inclined to knock down caterpillars and watch them get consumed.

“I have to say, Wen. This is a pretty ominous way to start a walkabout,” Dad said.

“It’s certainly interesting,” I laughed.

The next morning, he wanted to leave the “creepy forest” as soon as possible. On our way out, we passed a truck traveling the opposite way up the dirt road. My dad, always in the mood to talk to strangers, stopped the guy and asked what he knew about the caterpillars and beetles in the abandoned campground. The man explained that the campground was usually full this time of year, but now, there was this infestation of pine butterflies that had made its way south through the forest, defoliating 250,000 acres of ponderosa pines. I asked what the treatment was for that. Did they bring in the beetles as a biological control? He said they didn’t treat for it. They accepted it as a natural biological process, and the bugs just showed up wherever the caterpillars did. My dad and I drove away from the forest of misfortune and eerie bug activity, silently contemplating the concept that a biological process of that magnitude could be considered “natural” and simply allowed to run its course.

We spent the next few days making our way along the Salmon River and through the dense forests of Idaho. This was my first time encountering the adorable Englemann Spruce. For some reason, this narrow, high elevation conifer, with its upwardly-curving branches brought to my mind gnome villages and traditional European architecture, even though it’s native to western North America. Each time, we entered its habitat, the Englemann spruce enlivened me with delight as I gazed through the car window, exclaiming at their novelty and originality.

As we climbed northward into western Montana, the landscape opened, revealing the rocky glacial landscape, covered in big, golden-stemmed ponderosa or wiry lodgepole pines. My dad announced he was feeling ready to sit in some water, and we found a campsite in the Bitterroot National Forest. As I set up my tent, I noticed the stems of the surrounding pine trees had occasional sap scabs, tell-tale signs of bark beetle activity. I looked up at the tops of the trees to see if I could detect indications of stress or dieback, but the trees stood there looking calm and healthy, as if to say, “Don’t worry, we know all about bugs. We shot them with our sap and sealed up the wounds. Our immune systems are working this year.” Oddly reassured and satisfied, I rested my hand on the trunk of a tree and smiled in a moment of solidarity between survivors.

Although the days spent driving were lazy, unhurried, and full of contentment, the arrival in Montana was somehow especially joyful. I had always wanted to see Montana. Maybe I got that from Sean Connery in “Hunt for Red October.” Maybe I got it from my sister’s description of her road trip through the “Big Sky” state with my dad years before. For whatever reason, my heart was extra light. The woods felt alive and me with them. We hiked trails, easily traveled by early Americans and balked at by Lewis and Clark, who were carrying way too much stuff to get through the rugged western terrain on foot. For once, I tried sitting in a cold mountain stream, enjoying the sun on my face and the icy water dripping from my hair in the heat of the afternoon. It was one of those totally happy moments where everything is right, and every little thing can be experienced with sheer delight.

With great reluctance, we decided to head back toward home in order to get there before I ran out of paid leave. Similar to the way in which my stress had drained from me with every mile we drove away from home, anxiety increased with every mile we drove toward home. Housemates started to call, wanting consolation and interference in their conflicts. It felt like the weight of the world was suddenly settling back on my shoulders.

I remember during one of these trips asking my dad why he seemed distant from me as a child. I shared with him my assumption that I reminded him of himself, sensitive and always over-thinking. He was surprised by this suggestion. “No,” he said, “that wasn’t it at all. You just always had an uncanny sense of what was wrong with the world and seemed to feel that it was your responsibility to fix it. It was very intense and unsettling at times.” On a recent walkabout in Patagonian Chile, he commented that the feeling of overburden had finally left me, and a sense of ease and contentment had taken its place.

On that return from Montana, my dad was also increasingly anxious. He was very attached to only seeing sights that had been seen by Lewis and Clark. Now that we had followed their path, he wanted to go straight home. I was insisting that we needed to go to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. He kept trying to avoid it, but I said, “No. Hells Canyon.” We wove our way down the Snake River in Idaho and back up the other side into Oregon. Passing the canyon overlook, we went to a campground and set up our tents for the night. Again, there was the sweet, cool, damp air and peaceful spirit of tall trees with a rippling stream as background music. In the morning, we awoke and drove back to the overlook. The view was stunning. Wildflowers of every color covered the pale ground of the parking area, and the canyon was incredible with its rugged, sandy shrub-dotted walls, surrounding a glassy, winding river. In the distance, we could see all of the mountains we had visited on our trip, including the now-beloved Bitteroots of Montana.

“Well, Wen. You were right,” my dad said. “This was the perfect end to our trip. In fact, I think it might be the best thing we’ve seen this time. Just imagine, if we had done what I wanted and gone straight home, we never would have seen this. I think I’m going to make a special trip to just come back and stay longer.” I love those moments of connection with my dad.





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