By Hal Walter
To borrow just slightly from the writer Thomas McGuane, camping in your own backyard becomes with time, if you love camping, less and less expeditionary. When summer vacation hit, the camp stove seemed more like a campfire than it ever had before, and the Suzuki hatchback more like a pack-burro.
In this case the back yard was the San Luis Valley. I’d promised my son Harrison a trip to the Hooper Pool (as it’s known by locals) and the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as a reward for his outstanding finish at the Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run, which I help organize. He placed third in his age group, and as far as I know was the only kid with autism in the race.
So one day we packed sleeping bags, pads, tents, cook kit and food for an overnight father-son excursion. Mostly the cook kit was for making coffee and snacks as I planned to eat at restaurants on this short trip.
We stopped in Salida for dinner, then drove through amazing evening light over Poncha Pass. My online scouting indicated camp sites at the dunes are difficult to get without reservations this time of year, plus camping at the Hooper Pool includes a discount on swimming. So I had decided to pitch camp there.
The Hooper Pool is fed by a very deep well – 5,400 feet. The hot water was struck during oil exploration in the 1930s and later fed a fish hatchery. In addition to the modern swimming and hot pools, there are still several fish ponds on the property. We chose a spot near one of these.
The campsite itself was pea gravel and I was surprised to find it packed so hard as to make placing a tent stake difficult. This would normally not be too much of a challenge for a camper like myself, but with a lively evening breeze, a kid who can count obsessive-compulsive issues among his neurodiversities, and no hammer, pitching two small tents seemed tantamount to setting up base camp on Everest.
During this endeavor, I heard an odd noise that stirred a dim memory from my childhood back east. I walked over to the pond and spotted a large bullfrog.
With the camp set up we decided on a swim before bed. We found the pool to be a very popular spot. Harrison wears a life jacket since he has not yet learned to swim, allowing him to confidently paddle and bob around the other swimmers even in deep water. Upon our return to the campsite I realized the bullfrog had now been joined by dozens of others and there was a major uproar going on.
Harrison would later say the frogs sang him to sleep, but I tossed and turned with their roaring all night, awakening the next morning to the sound of small footsteps running excited laps around the campground.
I made coffee and we waited for the pool restaurant to open. The breakfast burrito was quite tasty, and plenty of food for two. While we ate, Harrison threw himself inappropriately into other people’s conversations and one woman asked if I was his grandfather. Uh, no …
We packed up the camp and headed out for the Sand Dunes, finding the main parking area very crowded. To get away from the tourists, we headed upstream, jogging on the firm wet sand along Medano Creek. We climbed up the ridge of an unnamed dune and then headed back. We’d been out about two hours and a mishap crossing the creek left Harrison in meltdown mode and me with a very banged up toe. The two miles back to the car seemed like crossing the Sahara.
Then we headed back to the pool.
There were of course the usual odd interactions between Harrison and other swimmers, which gave me the excuse to strike up conversations and explain. Most people were very understanding. He glommed on to a mom with some older kids. He asked another woman, probably in her late 60s, to accompany him to the slide; she went with him and just watched. He climbed into a small raft with another family and they just went with the flow.
Finally it was time to leave. We got showers, and then oddly Harrison put his life jacket back on. I thought, well, whatever, one less thing to carry.
He had earlier spied at the pool restaurant the slushy machine, with its sugary fake blue frozen concoction. I reluctantly said he could try it. He also wanted something to eat and so I ordered the special, a grilled-cheese sandwich with bacon and granny smith apples.
We parked at a nearby picnic table and Harrison’s entire mouth was soon ghastly blue as we waited for the sandwich, which seemed to be taking a long time mainly because they had forgotten to cook it. I finally asked. The cook apologized and got it started.
After a while Harrison got up from the table and went to the counter. There was a step stool, and he climbed up to the third and top step loudly demanding, “Where’s my sandwich?” The cook said it was coming right up.
I stood watching as the cook at last handed over the sandwich. Then Harrison turned and took off running right from the top of the step stool. He had apparently forgotten he was off the ground.
He took huge strides in the air trying to land on his feet. He was outstretched when he finally hit the cement, landing primarily on his chest, padded by the life jacket but smacking his knee pretty hard. Miraculously he managed to not spill the sandwich, but he did let out an intense shrill shriek and lay there screaming and holding his knee. I was fairly certain he had not hurt himself badly, though it was a spectacular fall.
I tried calmly to help him up. People came running, and some tried to comfort him. This only made things worse. He struck out at them. I stepped up and caught him. One woman suggested ice and he went berserk spitting and yelling that he did not need “stupid ice.”
With a blue mouth from the slushy, the ugly faces and the shrieking, the trip had suddenly taken on the overtones of The Zombie Apocalypse. The mom who had previously mentioned ice came running back with a small bag, and before I could even react he slapped the ice out of her hand and it went flying. It took what felt like forever to get him calmed down, our stuff collected and to the parking lot.
As we were loading, I could see the woman who’d brought the ice packing up to leave, and I told Harrison he could apologize if he wanted to. He thought about it quietly for a moment. Then he ran over to her car and said he was sorry. They hugged.
Maybe there’s a reason I look like a grandpa.
But as we drove away from our little adventure, I thought back to the last thing he said before falling asleep to the roaring of bullfrogs the previous night.
“I like camping out at the Hooper Pool. This is the best privilege ever in my whole life.” Somehow, remembering that made the entire expedition worthwhile.?
Hal Walter’s short book, Endurance: A season in cross-country with my autistic son is now available from The Book Haven in Salida, The Village Shop in Westcliffe, and directly from him.