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The value of loving the land, and staying calm when you feel lost

When a family adventure took a harrowing turn, my parents' quiet reassurance taught us kids several very important lessons.



A little encouragement from across the fence

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

When I was about 10 years old, my father bought a chunk of land out in the middle of nowhere — in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. I’m not sure what possessed him. Maybe it had to do with growing up in rural China, where owning land was the kind of wealth most families could only dream of.  Money might come and go, but land was something that would secure your family’s future for generations. He didn’t tell us about it until one cold day in November, when he packed us into our enormous, fake-wood-grain-paneled Chevrolet Kingswood Estate station wagon and headed for the wilds of western Massachusetts.

He drove us down a series of country roads, each more narrow and potholed than the last, until he rolled to a stop in front of a stretch of woods identical to every other stretch that had come before. He checked the hand-drawn map the realtor had given him, then pulled off the road onto a patch of gravel.

“This is it!” he proclaimed.

“Are you sure?” my mother asked. “How can you tell?” But he was already out the door and wading into the underbrush, so we piled out of the car and raced after him.

It wasn’t clear what our purpose was. I think he just wanted to get the lay of the land. Breathe the pine-scented air. Survey his estate as newly minted landed gentry. That suited my little brothers and me just fine; we dug holes, threw rocks and chased each other with pointed sticks. My mother watched us warily, warning us to settle down before someone put out an eye.

As you’d expect in November in New England, the afternoon came to an early end, and soon our parents were herding us back toward the car. At least that’s what they thought, but the road was no longer in sight, and though my dad strode through the woods as confidently as he had entered them, neither the car nor road appeared.

The light was fading quickly, and the woods and overcast made it hard to know where the sun was setting. My dad found some moss on one side of a tree, and decided to lead us off in a different direction, but soon found another tree with moss on the opposite side. Eventually, we stumbled onto an old dirt logging road, and followed it, hoping it would lead us back to civilization. It wound through the woods for a while, then petered out and disappeared.

By now it was truly dark, and we’d been bushwhacking for hours, without water or food. My brother Ken, who was only 6, started to cry, and that opened the floodgates for me and my brother Ron.

“What are you crying about?” my mother asked in a voice reassuringly familiar in its annoyed tone.

“How are we going to get home?” I sniffled. “Are we going to die here?”

My mother snorted. “Don’t be stupid. We’re going to be fine.” She opened her purse and gave each of us a cough drop to suck on. Right about then, it began to rain.

Neither of my parents was remotely outdoorsy, so there was no attempt to build any kind of shelter. We spent the night huddled together under the low branches of a spruce tree, shivering and soaking wet. My mother grew up in Brooklyn and New York’s Chinatown; she’d never slept outside in her life. But every time I woke from my fitful sleep, she smiled down at me and stroked my hair, as if I was snug in my bed, until I dozed off again.

In the morning, we heard dogs barking in the distance and followed the sound. Eventually, it led us to a house, where a middle-aged couple stared out their window in disbelief as what appeared to be a family of Asian refugees emerged from the woods and trudged into their backyard. The Tibbits took us in, dried our clothes, and fed us hot chocolate and oatmeal. It was the best meal of my life.

Had my parents shown even a hint of the panic that they must have felt — lost in the woods in November with three hypothermic little kids — it would have terrified me more than the cold and the darkness ever could. But the fear they concealed from us was fear I never had to absorb.

These days, I hike into wilderness often, unafraid and prepared — with food and water, a warm sleeping bag and a good tent. Whenever I can, I bring my kids, because a version of my father’s dream lives on in me. I want to give my children something that will last, something they can hand down to their own kids. I want to give them the land.

A few years after our adventure, my dad sold that parcel of woods at a loss.  I’m sure he thought of it as a foolish mistake: both the investment and the ill-fated expedition that followed. Parenthood doesn’t come with a map. It’s easy to get lost. Sometimes, all you can do is stay calm and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Most of the time, that’s enough.

Jeff Lee still runs around with pointed sticks in Seattle.

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