One day in eighth grade, when my mother was out of town, my dad picked me up to school. At this point in my life, all I wanted to do after 3:30 p.m. was get home and fry my brain with hours and hours of video games (I think it was Starcraft at that point), but when my dad picked me up, there was always something that we had to do first. Trips to the hardware store, plant nursery, or office were always exciting detours to look forward to.
This particular day, we drove to the outskirts of town, to a strip mine where human ingenuity and modern technology were being used to tear down a volcano. My dad was looking to pick up some cinders, I think, for some landscaping project on which I would invariably be forced to work on the following Saturday morning (I would, once again, have preferred to be playing Starcraft). My dad chattered with some sort of a salesman, who walked into his trailer to get a price quote on something. As we waited, gazing over the desolate moon-scape, I turned to my dad and, in the charming sarcasm of an obnoxious fourteen year old, told him “Dad, I’m so glad we can share these father-son bonding experiences together.”
Our trip that afternoon has earned a place in family lore, but it’s not the only quality time we spent together in my youth. There were also Boy Scout backpacking trips, in which we together learned such useful skills as tomahawk throwing and spar-pole climbing, as well as sniggered at my Scoutmaster’s lingering anger over Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi (which happened in 1969) and fear that the federal government might restrict his assault rifle ownership. For a mountain of reasons, though, the last two weeks I have spent with my dad travelling Latin America take the take for the best days I have ever spent with my father (and not just because there are no pit mines or black powder shooting ranges involved).
My dad has a pretty deep connection to Latin America, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and another year doing conservation work in Costa Rica. When I was really young, I used to tell me teachers that my had two jobs: one where he sat in an office in Washington D.C., and another where he went to the rainforest to save monkeys. Precocious as I was, within a few years I figured out that it was actually the same job: director of The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America program. Still, though, not until this trip did I have any idea how far-reaching—and fascinating—his roots in Latin America were. Who knew that I spent an entire year backpacking across the continent, anyway?
It seems every place we visited triggered another memory: “Oh, yeah, I think maybe I was involved in the creation of that park.” Sometimes, though, his footprints were not so larger, but they were always interested; on this trip, he finally opened up and told me tales of hitchhiking through Argentina, or taking wood-powered paddle boats through the Amazon. The best part of it, though, is the sense that I am starting to trace my father’s footprints. Long hours spent winding along Andean highways have given me plenty of time to imagine my dad, at the same age, doing the same. My father, too, arrived in Latin America with only a bit of Spanish and not one bit of experience, and a few decades later retired with a trail of protected areas and national parks in his wake. Spending time with him makes me realize that I could be very content with my life if only I could do the same.