THE SWEETEST LEMONADE

Without warning, an enormous clap of thunder exploded, and my boys and I jumped with fear.  A dark storm was brewing, and the afternoon sky had become almost dark as night.  The campfire we were just about to start would have to wait until the downpour passed.  From the looks of it, it seemed the storm was going to linger a while as the cool mountain wind almost ushered us into our tent for protection. 

Mitch squirmed into his sleeping back and wiggled around as if to snuggle deeply into the mound of soft things that surrounded him.  I chuckled a little because I did the same thing when I was a boy, and in that moment, I remembered how fun it was to be young.  I looked upon my boys with a touch of envy. Mitch pulled his hands behind his head, his face bearing a light mustache from chocolate milk, and began to smile softly.  “We’re safe and sound, right Dad?” Mitch said with a mixture of confidence and concern.  “You bet, Mitch.  This is going to be a crazy camping adventure.”  Mitch smiled and said, “I know you’ll keep us from floating away.”

Within minutes, we could hear the intermittent pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent.  A few minutes later, a burst of raindrops assaulted the side of the tent as the wind began to pick up speed.  Soon, we were in the middle of a torrential downpour.  I worried if our tent was rated for an hurricane-like storm.  Mitch nudged my arm and said, “Doesn’t this remind you of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day?”  Mitch giggled as I peered nervously out the window, keeping an eye out for a flash flood. 

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We knew there might be bad weather, so our backup plan was to have a den party in the tent.  So, I pulled out a portable DVD player, broke out some snacks and pulled up our covers as the boys and I watched a movie under the thinly veiled safety of our tent. 

I didn’t sleep well that night.  Aside from a few breaks in the early evening, the rain never really let up.  So, I laid in the tent in a trance-like state – somewhere between sleep and wakefulness … sitting up every hour to make sure the boys were dry.  By morning the kids were rested, and I was hammered.

Of all the moments in life, the ones I remember with great fondness and nostalgia, aren’t the times things went perfectly. Instead, the moments I treasure most are when we struggled and found our way through a hard time.  Don’t get me wrong, perfect times are just that … perfect.  I love and appreciate them for what they are; honey is honey.  But the taste of lemonade is never so sweet as when you must work to make it so.  Perhaps that’s why hard times often end up becoming our best times, in the end. 

This photo of Mitch reminds me that even in our difficulties, we can make the best of what we’ve got – and somehow, some way, we’ll look back and be glad we lived the life we lived.  In every struggle, there’s a price to be paid; but in the end, that’s what makes the sweetest lemonade.

 

WHAT CHILDREN REMEMBER*

I'll never forget how startled I was when Mitch walked up to me and handed me this piece of paper whispering, "Hey Dad, I made this for you and Mom."  I smiled and said, "Awww, Mitch, I love it when you draw pictures.  Can you tell me about it?"  Mitch paused a moment and said, "Remember that night we went camping and we almost froze solid?"  I giggled, "Oh, boy do I remember that night."  Mitch then giggled and began to describe what he remembered from that camping trip. He said, “You kept waking up to check on me.” 

That was the most difficult night we’d ever had camping.  I remember calling Natalie on my way home from a meeting one wintery Friday night.  I asked her to throw our camping gear in the back of the truck and told her that me and the boys were going on an adventure.  The boys were excited and before we knew it, we were headed up a snowy canyon near Tibble Creek reservoir.  

By the time we reached our campsite the sun was all but gone and we were setting up in the dark.  My sweet wife inadvertently packed a summer tent with no wind guard - which was basically a mosquito net.  I asked the boys what they wanted to do and they said, "Let's not quit.  Let's do this."

After a few rounds of hot chocolate around a roaring campfire, we settled in for the night.  My boys were cuddled up in sleeping bags, blankets and beanies.  The canyon filled with giggles as little Mitch and Ethan shared jokes.  Then the giggles softened and the jokes became fainter. Before I knew it, the boys had drifted into a deep slumber.  I wasn’t so lucky.

I don’t think I really slept that night. Instead, I was in a constant state of worry.  On occasion, I drifted into a shallow sleep, only to jolt out of my sleeping bag to make sure my boys were still covered and warm.  Then I’d lay on my back and look through our unprotected half-tent at tree branches made bare from the winter snow.  I gazed beyond the forest trees at a million stars that shimmered like crystals of ice. I thought, “I’m pretty outer space isn’t this cold.” I wondered if the night would ever end. 

After what seemed a never-ending cycle of waking, panicking, checking, then dozing … the stars became faint and the blackness that surrounded them turned deep blue, then gradually light blue.  Before I knew it, morning had come and the stars were gone. 

We started another roaring fire to get warm and it didn’t take long before we were on our way down the canyon.  Mitch was quieter than usual that morning.  Mitch just looked out the window as if in deep thought.  Finally, I asked, “Hey Mitch, what’s on your mind?”  He said, “Dad, let’s never do that again.”  I chuckled and said, “Good idea.  I’m in.”  He smiled and we both laughed.

How often is [our children’s] mind and heart simply shown by their hand-drawn art?
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Later that night, I sat by Mitchell’s bed as he whispered a nightly prayer.  Until that point, I don’t think I’d ever heard a more genuine expression of gratitude for a bed, warm blankets and that we “didn’t have to sleep in a tent for reals.”


That camping adventure remains our most difficult one on record – which is why it surprised me little Mitch took the time to draw it.  When I asked him why, Mitch thought a moment and said, “I don’t know.  I guess it wasn’t THAT bad.  Plus, it made me grateful for what I have.” 

Mitch wasn’t the only one to draw pictures of that hard adventure.  My other boys did something similar.  In their minds, they saw the difficult experience for what it was – just momentary discomfort. What they remembered, in the end, was the good they pulled out of that experience.

In matters of parenting, I wonder sometimes who is raising who. My kids teach me in the most simple and profound ways. Yes, they may acknowledge a difficult experience, but it seems they chose to remember the better parts. How often is their mind and heart simply shown by their hand-drawn art?  And if it be our children see the good so easily, therein lies a lesson and a challenge for me.

 


Some Photos of Our Camping Adventure Mitch Crecreated

 
 

LITTLE MITCH & THE BIG UNIVERSE

It wasn't many years ago I took my boys camping high in the Uinta Mountains, far away from city lights.  It had been a long day, filled with adventures and exploration.  As we lay in our tent, tired from a long day of play, we gazed through the window of the tent into the starry expanse of the heavens.  

Mitch said softly, "Dad, how big is space?"  I remembered wondering that same thing when I was his age.

... one thing I know, I am in heaven right here with you
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 "Well," I said, "scientists have learned a lot about space since I was a kid.  So far, we can't see the end of space.  In fact, they say the universe is so big, it isn't possible for humans to comprehend it."

Mitch thought for a moment and then said, "Wow, that's amazing."  

A few minutes passed, soothed by the melodic song of crickets, then Mitch said, "So, Dad, is heaven up there?"  I paused a moment and said, "I think heaven will surprise us.  But one thing I know, I am in heaven right here with you."  Mitch smiled and snuggled up to me.  I put my arms around him as we fell asleep.

There, in my arms, was little Mitch frail and curious.  Above me, a universe so vast, my finite mind couldn't comprehend something so infinite.  Mitch and I lay on the ground, high in the mountains, less than a speck in the cosmos.  Somewhere in the middle of the finite and infinite I held the universe in my arms, grateful to be alive. 


 

Be sure to learn more about the full solar eclipse.  

It's happening in 1 week and it will never happen again.  At least in your lifetime.

 

We hope you take a moment on Monday, August 21, 2017, to experience any portion of the eclipse and look upon the sky with a child-like sense of awe.

 

SOMETIMES*

A few years ago I took my kids camping high in the Wasatch Mountains on what turned out to be one of the coldest days that winter. The decision to go winter camping was last-minute, so I called my wife and asked her to throw our tent in my truck so we could leave the minute I got home from work. With that, my dear wife quickly gathered sleeping bags, extra blankets, dry clothes and made my famous tinfoil dinner. You can find that recipe below.

I think little Mitch was on to something; that perhaps sometimes the hard times turn out to be our happiest times. Certainly not in the moment … and maybe not all the time. But sometimes.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We raced into the mountains so we could find a camping spot before night came -but before we arrived at our destination, it was already dark and the temperature was falling rapidly. I carried Mitch on my back a few hundred yards because his legs were much too weak to walk through the snow. Within about 15 minutes we had started a roaring campfire so the kids could get warm while I set our tent. Within minutes I discovered Natalie accidentally packed what was essentially a mosquito net for summer picnics. It offered virtually no protection from the bitter cold. I told my boys it isn’t a good idea to quit at the first sign of a struggle … that we can always find a way if we look for a solution. After some discussion, my boys decided they wanted to stay anyway.

That was the longest and most difficult camping trip of my life. I didn’t sleep more than 15 minutes at a time. No sooner would I doze off that I would awake in a panic, spring from my sleeping bag and make sure my boys were covered and warm. I would then lay my head on the frozen floor and peer into the starry sky through the mosquito net thinking to myself, “What on earth are we doing?”

The next morning we awoke and started another roaring fire. A warm cup of hot chocolate was on the way when Mitch came to me and said, “Hey Dad, let’s not ever do that again.”

“Deal,” I said with a chuckle and then kissed his face, “I am sorry you were so cold.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s okay Dad. It was fun … but not that fun.” We drove down the mountainside and I took our kids to the first restaurant we saw and I ordered them each a stack of hot pancakes and scrambled eggs. As I saw my boys dig in and chuckle between themselves over the mosquito net, my heart was overflowing. I thought myself the luckiest man on earth. I was so glad to be a dad.

There have been times, in moments of parental doubt, I wondered if dragging my boys out in the cold, away from our warm home was a good idea when they were so young. But then I would find little folded pieces of paper on my nightstand addressed to me from Mitch. In each piece of childhood origami was a hand drawn picture of adventures past. Not once did he draw pictures of Disney Land or expensive vacations, instead he re-created fire pits and fellowship. He seemed to interpret struggle with a measure of fondness. He would draw pictures of our spring camping adventure when we nearly got flooded out by a torrential downpour. He made drawings of the winter camping trips we vowed to never do again. From the boiling hot deserts to the dirty, muddy hills … the things we disliked in the moment, turned out to be the things he remembered and loved the most.

In like manner, when I think of our early days raising a family … when exhaustion and discouragement nearly broke us … those are some of our sweetest memories. I think little Mitch was on to something; that perhaps sometimes the hard times turn out to be our happiest times. Certainly not in the moment … and maybe not all the time. But sometimes.

 

 

Mitchell's Favorite Recipe

Apply portions according to preference.

 
  • Lay down foil sheets to match the number of meals you want to make.  I recommend using two sheets per meal to ensure a strong seal.

  • Optional: apply a light coat of non-stick spray to one side of the foil

  • Lay a bed of tater tots on each sheet.  Two handfuls is usually sufficient.

  • Pour cream of mushroom on top of the tater tots.  Be generous with these portions as they soak into the tater tots and become like gravy.  One can per meal is usually perfect.

  • Cut chicken breasts to desired size and place on top

  • Add corn

  • Season with salt & pepper and other spices to preference

  • Wrap & freeze

 

 

Freezing foil dinners will ensure your meals stay fresh.  When you’re ready to cook it, you simply place it over hot coals and rotate every 5 minutes for about 20 minutes, or until your meal is thoroughly cooked.

There are alternative ingredients to virtually every item on this recipe, but Mitch (and our family) have found this one especially perfect.


Tip on Cooking Over Fire

Be sure to cook over hot coals, not a roaring bonfire.  

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The best time to place your foil dinners is after the flames have died down and the bed of your fire pit is filled with red hot coals.

You can also cook your foil dinners on a grill, as seen below.  We made these meals for Cousins Camp 2016:

unlike flames from a fire, hot coals create intense,  even heat

Sometimes it takes patience to wait for the fire to die down and coals to appear 

its a good idea to spread coals out evenly so heat is distributed ACROSS your cooking area

A POCKET FULL OF ROCKS

Summer, at least in my part of the world, is coming to an end. I can feel the whisper of winter on the back of my neck and the sweet smell of fall is almost in the air. While I sit on the verge of a change in seasons, I can’t help but remember a warmer time - a time before hell – when I had my son with me and we went on an adventure. 

We set camp in the west desert, far enough from city lights that you could see deep into the starry night. The heavens were almost close enough to touch. I remember talking to Mitch after we were tucked in for the night and looking through the net of the tent into the heavens, I asked, “Mitch, don’t you wish we could scoop up those beautiful stars and put them in our pockets like little glowing rocks?” Mitch smiled and said, “That way, when it is dark we could always see.” Mitch then burrowed into me and closed his eyes. He was the best at cuddling. I miss that.

Mitchell’s love of atmosphere and moods was one of the reasons he loved sunsets so much. On this evening the atmosphere was particularly beautiful because of some deep contrasts in color and light because of a passing storm. In every direction, save where the sun was setting, we found ourselves surrounded by towering clouds that stood like floating giants. They cast deep shadows beneath them and the contrast of light and color was thrilling to see. Each tower was also flashing with sheet lightening. In almost every direction these beautiful clouds stretched far into the horizon.

I remember wanting to take photos of the amazing sky and thought to myself, “I’ll take photos of the storm in a few minutes.” Before I knew it, it was dark and the beautiful sky that entranced us was forever gone. I regretted not taking that photo in the moment. Lesson learned.

With Mitch and my other sons cuddled next to me, we drifted to sleep. The next morning I awoke in tremendous pain - it felt like an elephant had stepped on my chest and broke my ribs. I had difficulty breathing and wondered if I had been stung by a scorpion (we caught one later that morning) or something else. As we broke our tent down I discovered I was sleeping on a jagged rock – which explained my sore ribs. I realized at that moment I should pay closer attention to where I set our tent. Another lesson learned.

After we arrived home, covered in desert dust and dry skin, I remember finding a pocket full of rocks in Mitchell’s pants. He had quietly collected little stones form the desert as souvenirs. I still have those little rocks in a special place. When I look at them I can’t help but wonder what he saw in each of them. I will forever wonder.

When I think back on moments like these, camping with my kids, I have the fondest of memories. Not all of them were wrapped in majestic sunsets and perfect moments cushioned in comfort. In fact, many of our camping trips were rather hard. We have camped in the bitter cold, high in the winter mountains; we've weathered torrential rainstorms, worried we would be swept away by a river of rain; and we have awoken to inches of new snow and many other surprises. Each was an adventure punctuated by difficulty and discomfort … yet is each a memory I am so grateful to have. 

I have noticed something interesting with Mitch and my other children. Often they would draw pictures of memories they had; and with their little hands they would sketch out our campsites and recreate the most difficult moments while camping … moments that were less fun while in the moment. 

I wondered why they would sketch the struggle and I asked them to tell me about their drawings. Each would say in their own way, “This was my favorite campout.” They would then explain what they loved about it. I was always surprised. These little kids with a pocket full of rocks appreciated the experience, however difficult, more than I gave them credit. I couldn't help but wonder if they were teaching me something important – that in the struggle is also the beauty.