First Encounters

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“There’s a bear!” This simple exclamation triggered the angriest parental outbust of my youth. At least, that’s how I remember it. I was seven years old, sitting in the backseat of our family station wagon, driving through Yellowstone for the first time. We’d set out from Boston weeks before, and for several days my parents had lured us through the hot and featureless Midwest with the promise of grizzly bears. But the Yellowstone of my parents’ imagination—the one from the fifties, when visitors watched grizzlies from bleachers at the dump—no longer existed. Bears were wild again by 1980. For my father, this must have been a tense realization; he’d overhyped the bears. So we set out on a silent drive through the park, our collective eyes peeled, and my attempt at tension relief did not go over well. There was no bear, and we never saw one. But does it matter? I’ve been back three times.

—Christopher Keyes

The first naked man I ever saw was standing in Tennessee’s Elk River, drinking Bud from a can resting on his gut. Imagine a dozen young girls, on an overnight canoe trip from Camp Riva-Lake, strung out along a mile of green water. We were 11 and 12 and canoed like silent Indians: We had wicked J-strokes and could empty a swamped boat over our heads treading water—just like our mothers and aunts could when they were girls at camp. In this very river, in fact, my mother had flicked a water moccasin from her canoe with her paddle. I’d been spooked by a different kind of snake, but I giggled and kept on paddling. Today, kids are watched so closely, there’s no room for snakes or girls alone in boats. But back then, we had sunburns and BLTs and a whole day and night of freedom ahead of us.

—Elizabeth Hightower Allen

Now and then I find myself driving across the Mississippi River. It’s happened four times, but the drive that propelled me on all subsequent journeys? I don’t remember it very well. I was six, my sister three. My father, a dancer, booked a western tour. My mother, an actress, unbooked her summer schedule. They loaded a van and drove west from Nyack, New York. I remember a great chasm in the earth in Arizona, the red emptiness of Utah. I remember watching the world move through the sepia filter of the van’s dirt-crusted windows for what felt like a year. I remember, believe it or not, the Alamo. I recently called my dad to pit my memory against the facts. “How long was that trip?” I asked. “Six, seven months?” He said, “Six weeks.” That’s all it takes. Six weeks.

—Abe Streep

When I was ten, Dad decided we should go backpacking. My brother and I didn’t know what that meant, and neither did Dad. For a two-night outing in the Sierras, we brought a set of kitchen pots and pans, a ten-pound car-camping tent, enormous sleeping bags, leaky air mattresses, books, cameras, journals, a quart of bug juice (for the bugless time of year), two cheap spincasting rods, a briefcase-size tackle box (saltwater lures, jars of bait), and one giant inflatable raft with oars. It was a longer hike than we’d thought. We dragged our overstuffed, external-frame packs to an 11,000-foot lake, puked through the night from the altitude, and stumbled down miserably at sunrise. But for a sheltered kid, that first, short glimpse of true alpine scenery—ice-carved cirques and marshy lakes, distant and enticing peaks—set the hook for good.

—Justin Nyberg

Because my parents would’ve had to eat the cost of the pre-paid trip, they let me go on a monthlong sail-and-scuba voyage along the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands despite a recent diagnosis of mononucleosis and a leprous-looking rash caused by a misappropriation of antibiotics. (Thanks, Dr. Dad!) I boarded the 50-foot catamaran, Magic, with the caveat thatI wouldn’t hit the water too hard and bust my inflamed spleen. True to myth, salt water soon cured all, and Evan, one of us nine 15-year-olds on board, offered to share his sleeping bag after mine came untethered from the trampoline and blew into the sea. We “fell in love” the way only teenagers in a tropical paradise could: navigating coral walls on night dives, picking bones out of fresh-caught fish, and brushing our teeth under a starry ceiling, all suntanned and salt-crusted.

—Jennifer L. Schwartz