This past year, my youngest daughter has vacationed in Paris, Florida, the Bahamas, Cape Cod, Alaska and Lake George. When I was her age (15), I went on one memorable vacation, probably one of the best vacations we ever had growing up. We went to Death Valley.

When I was in high school, my family lived in the California desert; actually, we are just finding out now that most of California is a desert. But this was real desert. It was called the high desert, but it apparently was not desert enough for my father, so for vacation we went to Death Valley. It is like elephants going to vacations at an elephant’s graveyard. The first word is Death. Who thinks that’s going to be fun?

We asked our dad beforehand what there was to do in Death Valley, except the obvious. He said, “We can go hiking.” Really? I had seen some TV shows on that. None of the shows ended well for the hikers in Death Valley. Why do you think Death Valley has so many sun-bleached skulls?

My dad liked to go for a “hike” wherever we went. We did not walk. We hiked. First thing we did, when we would get to a new place, He would make this trail mix he called “gorp,” which contained peanuts, raisins and other things that made you thirsty, and off trudging we would go. We climbed hills and mountains, forged rivers all of us following dad, with only gorp to support us. We also brought lots and lots of water. If we had time ahead, we would freeze the water into a solid block of ice, so then we got to our first break on the hike, it still wasn’t melted and we each just slobbered at the water bottles’ opening. It was disgusting. Sometimes on longer trips, we would have heavy frozen gallon milk jugs strapped to your back. They were cold and heavy. And yet they never seemed to melt into refreshing water.

Right before we left, a friend of my mother’s gave us hundreds of comic books that her son had outgrown. Never mind that we were older than her son. My mother justified it by stating that we were much more immature. This was the days before screens in the car. We were driving for hours through the desert to even get to Death Valley. There were two things to do on the long car trip — punch each other or read comic books.

We got to our motel at Death Valley and it looked like a poorer cousin to the Bates Motel. Dad got sidetracked with something right away and he told us to go on the hike without him. We grabbed some comic books, our gorp, strapped on a frozen gallon of water onto my back and headed out in to the heat. Without dad leading us, we were much less ambitious. We looked at the hill behind us. It looked high and hot. Was that a skull halfway up? We looked down the road and saw another hotel.

This one looked like a much better version of our hotel. It had trees around it. Was that a mirage or did it have a pool? We had been out in the heat for 45 to 50 seconds, was the sun starting to play tricks on us? My back was freezing. The fence to the pool looked short. I am not sure it was even up to code. That fence could easily be jumped over; maybe if one of us boosted the other over, they could get over the fence.

We jumped the fence, and eventually joined another family lounging at the pool. The family didn’t legally adopt us, but they let us stay with them at the pool. That day and then the following day. In return, we gave them gorp, comic books and a frozen gallons of water.

It was the best vacation ever.

Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Friday. Email him at