Port-a-Path

By Katiedid Langrock

September 5, 2020 5 min read

"At the port-a-potty, go south through the sage brush."

That should've been a sign that this hike was going to be the dumps.

I read the instructions on the Utah trails pamphlet again. We are on the hunt for dinosaur tracks. Surely, something that has been preserved for 125 million years can't be that hard to find. At the port-a-potty, we reapply sunscreen, check the compass attached to my son's junior ranger backpack, and head south.

Before kids, my husband and I had the attitude that whatever goes wrong makes the best stories later. We kept this at the top of our minds when we got lost during our first night in Africa and had to set up our tent in open wilderness, only to have the thin nylon attacked by some wild animal in the middle of the night. Later, we discovered that the vicious animal had been an ostrich. When we speak of our time trekking through Namibia, that first night is often the story we share first.

We find a trail in the sage brush. That immediately splits. And splits again. I reference the trail directions. "Go south," it reads, "until you reach an old dirt road. Then head east." My son wonders aloud when the directions were written. Perhaps back in the day of the dinosaur? If there ever was a dirt road, it seems to be overgrown with sage brush now.

After having our first child, the go-with-the-flow attitude my husband and I had so frequently embraced came to an abrupt end. The first time I noticed this change was when my son was less than a year old and we decided to go to Death Valley. Arriving at our hotel 10 minutes after closing time, we were met with a tricky reality: There was nowhere to sleep in the hottest place in the United States. In the past, we would have simply slept in the car. As a new mom with an infant, I told my husband to find us a bed with air conditioning. Our GPS didn't work in the desert. Neither did our phones. So we just drove.

Looking at the pictures on the Utah trails pamphlet, two things stand out. The first is the picture of a rattlesnake sticking out from under a rock. Excellent. The second is that the tracks clearly appear atop a ridge. To get to that ridge, we need to go east — and start climbing over rocks.

When we spoke to someone smoking a cigarette outside the closed hotel in Death Valley, we were told to drive east to get to the closest hotel. It was an hour and a half away. When we arrived, it was booked. All the hotels in the area were booked. OnStar booked us at the closest hotel with vacancy — 40 miles away. We showed up at the run-down motel, which had a statue of a flying saucer out front. The bed and floor had a thick film covering them, as if whatever alien had been flying that saucer had exploded inside our room. But there was air conditioning, and my baby was safe.

My daughter is breaking down. It's nearly a hundred degrees. She is hot. She has been stabbed by multiple cacti. Where are these stupid dinosaur tracks anyway? I look down at the pamphlet again. It reads that at some point along the base of the ridge, we will see a crack where we can scramble up the rock to the top. I read these directions before we started the journey, and they seemed so ridiculous that I assumed they were supplementary to a well-marked path. These were 125 million-year-old dinosaur tracks we were going to see; of course they'd be accessible. I begin bouldering up the ridge and realize that nope, either they're not accessible or we are lost. Either way, it's time to head back.

Unlike with the case of the ostrich attacking our tent and other close calls, my husband and I started learning our lessons after post-childbearing mishaps. We learned about abiding closing times of hotels in the middle of nowhere after the brush with Death Valley. Once kids are in the picture, there's no room for repeat errors.

"It's OK," I tell my kids as we walk to the RV. "We will see other amazing things."

"Mama," my son says, "from now on, can we avoid any trail that begins with 'At the port-a-potty, go south'?"

Yes. Lesson learned.

Katiedid Langrock is author of the book "Stop Farting in the Pyramids," available at http://www.creators.com/books/stop-farting-in-the-pyramids. Follow Katiedid Langrock on Instagram, at http://www.instagram.com/writeinthewild. To find out more about her and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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