Illustration by Michael Witte

More and more I try to travel during the Christmas season. Even if it’s just a daytrip, I like to blast away from the clatter and take a few deep breaths somewhere the trees don’t have lights on them. I highly recommend any sort of outdoors getaway to urban dwellers overwhelmed by stress. A spare winter landscape regenerates the spirit like nothing else I know.

As we turned into the park we were immediately swaddled in the comforting hush of the cedar thickets, muffled relief from the hum of the road.

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I first discovered how meaningful such a journey could be on a daytrip to Meridian State Park, northwest of Waco, when my son was seven. I invited my brother Jim, whose eccentric education in anthropology, fishing, and bartending makes him an ideal camp companion. I thought Uncle Jimmy might stage a sort of wilderness workshop for Elliott in the month of too many toys.

The drive south was a gray glide through fog, then drizzle. But after crossing the Brazos and heading into the Bosque County hill country, our spirits soared. As we turned into the park we were immediately swaddled in the comforting hush of the cedar thickets, muffled relief from the hum of the road. We whooped when a shelter a few steps off the lake was available.

As we settled in I realized that I had been so fixated on keeping the planning minimal that I overlooked a few important things. I had packed no chairs, no plates, no knife. I did bring salt and pepper, a big cake of lavender soap, and one plastic fork. It was a few days after I’d hosted a Christmas open house for 50 people; I was so tired I was stupid.

Fortunately, I did bring layers and layers of clothing for Elliott. When we left home the temperature was barely hitting the 40-degree mark. Thanks to the waterside chill, within minutes of our arrival Elliott was wearing all the clothing I’d brought for him and some of mine.

My brother was undaunted. Before I had even discovered I’d forgotten the firewood, he had the chicken seasoned and cooking nicely on his portable grill — gamely making do with the plastic utensil. While Elliott sang a song about melting forks to a couple of ducks, I headed to a nearby store for firewood.

When I returned, I noticed that my son was barefoot. In the time I’d been gone he’d cast his rod into the lake, then — against Uncle Jimmy’s advice, waded in after it — soaking socks and shoes, items I had not brought along. He appeared delighted to be wearing leather work gloves on his feet, like some giant splay-footed bird cozied up to the grill. Uncle Jimmy, already steaming dry the socks under the grill, was relieved the Parental Unit was back. My plan for quality uncle-nephew time was not playing out as I’d imagined.

All this time I’d scarcely noticed that Uncle Jimmy was wearing a pink, Rastafarian-like stocking cap. The hat was familiar. And comforting. It had been knitted by our mother. In her passion for handcrafts, Mom would get stuck in loops of creativity. One year it was elf-toed crocheted slippers, but Jim was the beneficiary of the Year of the Knitted Caps.

Jim also inherited far more of Mother’s adaptability and resourcefulness than I did. We both have a heaping share of her curiosity. She taught us to pause and study stones and insects. She encouraged us to keep alligators in the backyard and hatch duck eggs in the hot water closet. She was monumentally successful in opening our eyes to the natural world.

After eating, we hiked to a spectacular scenic overlook. On the way up, Elliott had a close encounter with a cactus. He didn’t cry — not in front of Uncle Jimmy — as I plucked the spines from his hand. I distracted him during the mutually painful session with a lesson on the difference between the nopalitos in bean soup and truly prickly pears.

But by the time we stepped up to gasp at the view I was again absorbed with my brother. Elliott goat-footed his way to the edge of a broad-backed and sloping stone to dangle his legs above the precipitous drop. Jim directed my gaze to my son. Stunned, I encouraged him to shimmy backwards on his bottom and tried to calmly impress upon him that rubble, even leaves, can mean a slip. We began exploring less treacherous stretches.

Keeping a close eye now on Elliott, I realized it was I who most needed the lessons of this day. Bobbing through the woods in his pink hat, sharing happy memories over coyote scat—that was my little brother’s Christmas gift to me, along with the reminder to be the mother to my son that our mom had been to us.

From the December 2014 issue

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