The Shorthand of Shared History

Icicle Canyon

The sun is setting over the evergreen spiked canyon as we drive west of Leavenworth, Washington in the North Cascade Mountains. We’ve been climbing–my brother, sister, sister’s boyfriend, brother’s friend and I–for most of the afternoon, and now three of us are searching for a place to camp.

“Couldn’t we just light it with toilet paper?” Noah’s friend suggests, pointing to an outhouse full–as he sees is–of possible kindling.

“No, it won’t work,” Noah and I reply, almost in unison.

“What do you mean, it won’t work? Have you tried it?” he asks, incredulous.

“There’s nothing to it,” Noah explains. “It just burns too fast.”

“I can’t believe you’ve tried to burn toilet paper. I mean, who does that?”

“You don’t understand,” I laugh. “We grew up in the woods. We’ve tried to burn almost everything.”

Climbing in the North Cascades. This is summer.

It’s true. My siblings and I share a childhood in these same North Cascade Mountains, summers spent camping every other night, bashing around the forest without much destination in mind, and lighting fires with just about anything we could find to burn. This moment, driving to a campsite slightly sunburned after a day climbing on baked granite and basalt, feels sweetly familiar, all the sounds and smells of this valley pointing to childhood and, more importantly, to summer.

I realize–as we try to explain that purchasing firewood is a rather excessive measure, when we’re in a perfectly good forest (“On the dry side of the mountains!”)–that Noah and I operate with a sort of shorthand, a secret language built on a common history. We know this will work, because we’ve done it before, dozens of times. Drive, hike, climb, rappel, belay? Build a fire with found wood? Fall asleep outside, when it’s dark, and wake up when we feel like it? Easy. It’s why we don’t run away from mice or snakes, why it takes a giant aerie of bald eagles to awake our fascination, why we decide not to set up a tent when it’s not raining. We’ve been doing this all our lives.

It’s an experience I share with my students at Black Forest Academy. Not the climbing and camping and Cascades, but the sense of bondedness that comes from a shared history, from someone else understanding where you come from, even if where you come from is fairly unusual. Our missionary kids, those of the unique heritages and indefinable origins, find this in each other, resting in this sense that a lot of their childhood is a little bizarre, but thankful to know that even this they are known and understood by others who’ve been there, too.

We arrive at our campsite, a titanic boulder overlooking roaring creek and sunset-stained valley. It takes only a few minutes to collect enough dry wood for a fire, only a few minutes more for Noah to transform them into a cheery blaze. We make smores as the sky turns from azure to royal to navy, falling silent as the fire stars appear and the coals burn low. I burrow deeply down into my sleeping bag, closing two myopic eyes one last time on blurry frost of a streetlight-less sky. My arms are sore, the wind is freezing my exposed nose, and what feels like the whole dusty mountain is braided into my tangled hair. Yet I fall asleep, at the end of this perfect summer day, thankful for such a place, such a childhood, such a brother.

Noah and his campfire.

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