Lucky Boy / by Brian Beck

Quimby left our hotel room at 6am on Tuesday morning to catch a taxi to the airport, and shortly after she left we got up and cleared out. We made a run to Albertsons to refill our cooler for the stay in Yellowstone and headed north past the Tetons, now visible in their full glory with the smoke of numerous western wildfires blowing north on a better jet stream.

Yellowstone is only 50 miles north of Jackson Hole, but it was a full day's drive owing to the countless snarls of four-way flashers announcing close encounters with bears, bison, elk, moose and other wildlife common to these parts but exotic to the tourists (us included) migrating through their habitat. We arrived at dinner time, set up camp and roasted the obligatory hot dogs and marshmallows as the sun fell and the temperature dropped with it.

We got an early start on Wednesday and headed west to the geyser basin and Yellowstone's main attraction--Old Faithful. The drive and the many smaller pools, fumaroles and mud pots consumed much of the day and when the kids requested their iPads, I realized that they'd reached their limit, so we pulled into Canyon Lodge for a milkshake before heading back to our camp to make dinner.

Canyon Lodge is a large complex with a hotel, gas station, general store, several restaurants and gift shops surrounding an extremely large parking lot bordered by lodgepole pine forests. For those of you who, like me, have a vision of the national parks set somewhere in the second half of the last century, this is quite a surprise. I have to give them credit though--I think the national park service has realized that campers and their bacon breakfasts and sloppy fried chicken dinners are almost solely responsible for the numerous bears that have to be put down each year for doing what hungry bears do. If they can discourage it by instead luring the campers away from their tents with some mediocre gourmet food, everybody wins.

Now at this point in the post I have to confess that what I'm about to tell you is not my proudest moment. However, my friend Danielle told me she likes the fact that I'm reporting the bad along with the good and so, as your faithful reporter of this career sabbatical adventure, I feel duty-bound to tell you this: I lost my son today.

As soon as their milkshake straws sucked air, the kids ran off to the adjacent gift shop to look at bags of gemstones and miniature license plates. I settled the bill and caught up with them at a bin of polished rocks when a baseball cap embroidered with "Yellowstone" caught my eye in the next aisle. I adjusted the size, tried it on, found a mirror and was debating whether it made my already Leno-esque face look longer when Samantha grabbed my hand and asked me whether I would pay for postcards if she found some. "Yessss," I said, noting that this was probably the thousandth time on this trip they've asked me to buy them something.

Back to the hat, I decided it was a winner and went to round up the kids. Samantha was still perusing the postcards so I lit a fire under her and then went back to where Parker had been at the rocks. He wasn't there, so I circled the gift area, then went back to the soda fountain. Still nothing. I took a quick spin through the grocery area. No Parker.

Now, just to put this in perspective, I take some pride in being calm under pressure. Panic, I've come to realize, is almost always counterproductive. On the other hand, minutes had now passed and as I urgently swept the series of stores for the third time, conscious of the ticking clock, my stomach was falling. If this had been Samantha, I would have put all fears aside and thought logically. She would probably be in the bathroom or would find an employee or something similarly predictable. However, my kids couldn't be more different and I've always harbored a fear that in a stressful situation like this, Parker would be capable of any number of baffling decisions.

Not finding him in the store, I went outside and surveyed the parking lot. I have an eccentricity when it comes to parking my car, especially a classic, in that I like to park it as far away from the other cars as possible, even if that means a long walk. I could see my chrome tail lights some 200 yards across the busy parking lot and after searching the area through squinted eyes, I concluded that Parker wasn't there either. At a loss, I went back into the store. Samantha was circling calling his name and I told her to stay there, but my gut pulled me back outside. I asked an old man with a NPS uniform if he had seen a little boy about six years old come out of the store. "No," he replied.

Just then, a family sitting on a bench about 20 feet away who had overheard my question piped up. "I saw him," the Dad said. "He headed out into the parking lot a few minutes ago." My blood turned to ice water.

I broke into a full sprint across the parking lot towards the Pontiac rueing both my choice of parking location and my purchase of cowboy boots in Jackson Hole as I realized for the first time that they make truly shitty running shoes. I urgently called his name and scanned the rows of parked cars for any sign of his little wandering figure. As the car grew closer I could see that he wasn't there and I began to wonder whether he had attempted to find his way back to our campsite another 1/2 mile up the road or if he could have even remembered where our car was parked. If he had indeed made it this far, his next move would have been anyone's guess. As I reached the car, he was nowhere to be seen and my heart practically exploded in my chest. Still calling his name, I turned to survey the rest of the lot, completing a 360 degree turn and then wheeled back to the car in time to see Parker emerge from the opposite side with a look of shock on his dirty face. He held his stoic countenance for a few seconds and as I fell to my knees in front of him, he shattered into sobs.

I scooped him up and carried him back across the lot to where the old man and the family had gathered in front of the general store, refraining from any interrogation about how his face had gotten so dirty or why he had returned to the car; we've prepped the kids many times that if they lose us, the drill is to stay put. I thanked the small crowd for the clue that had helped end this ordeal before it became a full-fledged emergency and as the people dispersed, the old timer leaned in. "You gave your Daddy an awful scare," he said as Parker buried his face into my shoulder.  "Last week we had a little boy wander off in this parking lot and we had everyone out here in a line looking for the little feller. There's bears and bison that wander across here from time to time and we finally found him over in those woods. You're a pretty lucky little boy." He gave a crusty chuckle and then looked at me with a wry smile. "You look like you could use a drink."