Congratulations James Sutherland! Can’t believe my nephew is graduating from Harding University. Just a few years ago he was a leaping gnome on a trampoline and a make-believe toothbrush on a crocodile in one of the first stories I ever put on paper. Carbon Canyon is a children’s story written during a vacation in 1999. It’s a silly story and bad writing, but silly works well with small children and a captive audience. And it was a jumping off place in my life when writing became a love and not just a school assignment. So this is in honor of James. Way to go Jamers, you are a big toothbrush now!
This is the story of a hike the Taylor and Sutherland children experienced one March day in the year 1999. The adventure took place in a wild, uninhabited mountainous area called Carbon Canyon in Southern California. We had been visiting Clark and Dawn Sutherland who have five children, Benjamin, James, Luc, Melita and Bethany. They live in Orange, California. This story is true, although many of the circumstances and events have been embellished.
“Carbon Canyon” by Lauren Taylor (the kids drew art work for the book but it’s missing in this copy)
The sign they read as they entered the park was the first of many they would read along the way that day. It said “Mountain Lion Country”. And in smaller print, “while mountain lion sightings are rare, lions do inhabit this canyon country and should be treated with distance and respect”. It was one of those signs that made you stop in your tracks and shudder for a moment, then realize how small the chances were of even sighting a mountain lion, mush less having one attack you. Then after a quick rationalization, you bravely press on down the path. It’s the same quick comforting assurance many airline travelers talk themselves through while walking down the aisle of a Boeing 767. Getting ready to strap themselves into an aluminum tube and hurtle through the air 33,000 feet high at almost the speed of sound. Continually repeating the fact that this is the safest and most reliable means of long distance travel. Since this is public domain it must be safe. So it was with some trepidation that I dropped off my three children, Lauren, Jenna, and Brandon, along with their five cousins, Benji, James, Luc, Melita and Bethany. It also didn’t help my nerves to see signs noting the danger of coiled rattlesnakes that habitually sun themselves along the warm open pathways, not unlike the ones our children were about to embark upon. But I was determined that day that the “letting go process” inherent along the journey of parenting, would make a giant leap of faith this particular day. Besides my wife Karen along with her sister Dawn and husband Clark, were determined to take a break from the kids and let them take a hike on their own for once while we drove down the highway a few miles for dinner at a quaint California inn followed by some horse back riding in the California hill country. We kissed the kids and gave them firm instructions to stay together and meet us back at the parking lot at four o’clock that afternoon.
The Park was called Carbon Canyon. Narrow twisting trails that traversed steep inclines and followed deep canyon depths penetrating far into the hills and scrub country of Southern California were the main park feature. The eight kids set out about nine o’clock that morning armed with backpacks brimming with supplies for the hike, the most important of which was the brown bag lunch including each childs favorite sandwich. The kids all liked to hike but liked eating lunch on the trail more than the actual hike. So at 9:15 and at subsequent fifteen minute intervals, Luc would say, “This looks like a good place to spread out our sack lunch.” Luc is five years old with whitish blond hair and a wistful yet cherubic smile. When he speaks, everyone listens, because he doesn’t speak often. But Lauren, our first-born and destined to be a diligent leader and school teacher someday, unless she decides to be an astronaut or gymnast or author, insists they press on until exactly 12 o’clock, then they would eat. Early in the hike they entered a grove of lemon trees. Brandon quickly spotted an eye level lemon dangling from a branch and plucked it. He scratched it, smelled it, and proudly proclaimed, “Yep, it’s a lemon.”
“Picking Lemons” by Jenna Taylor
Brandon is the blood hound of the family. He can detect, trace, and identify the source of just about any olfactory stimulation. So one had to be careful what one did while around him. Lemons were everywhere. There must have been twenty thousand lemon trees. At a thousand lemons per tree, twenty million lemons give or take. And it smelled like a lemonade stand as they walked under the limbs. They eventually emerged from the grove and sighted a river with only one visible means of crossing. There were some small stepping-stones which they believed they could navigate step by step to get to the other side. “Step by Step” was one of Jenna’s favorite songs and she hummed its tune as she adroitly made her way across the meandering stepping-stones, scarcely getting a drop of water on her. Brandon on the other hand made certain he contacted water with each step and was wet from shin to toe by the time he completed his crossing. And so they each made their way across and were standing on the opposite bank. Except for James who had engaged a small frog in a hop and chase contest and was now just starting across the rocks while the others waited and watched him from the other side. He was almost across and stepping on the last stone when it moved a little. He wobbled with the unexpected movement and pulled his other foot onto the rock. He now stood frozen, both feet firmly planted on the suddenly uncertain rock when it happened. The stone rose up out of the water, higher and higher. It had eyes. And a snout. Big snappy teeth! An alligator! And James was standing on its head screaming, “The rock’s alive!!” Benji shouted back instructions. “It’s an alligator, James! Act like a toothbrush!” Dawn had read the children a book the previous evening about an alligator named Bubba and his friend who was a bird. The bird friend was called the “toothbrush” because he would pick his alligator friend clean with his long pointy beak.
“Alligator and Toothbrush” by Lauren Taylor
So James acted like a bird and began pecking the alligator like he was cleaning it. The alligator moved toward the shore and James nimbly jumped to safety. The other seven who had been watching bug-eyed, jumped out of the way and ran on up the trail lickety-split.
They continued on down the trail, walking for about thirty minutes. They had found a small turn out beside the path and they were taking a rest break. Clouds had begun gathering in the sky and it was growing cooler now. It was during this water break, sitting by the trails edge that Luc said, “Quiet, listen!” Luc was the best trail scout of the bunch. Luc kneeled down and placed his ear against the ground. He slowly stood up and said, “A horse is coming.” Brandon said, “How do you know? I don’t smell anything.”
But sure enough, a moment later they heard the distinctive clippity-clop of horse hoofs drumming against the dirt trail. The horse came into view as it rounded the corner ahead. The horse had no rider, which was odd because it did have a saddle. The riderless horse was now galloping toward the kids and they scattered into the brush and watched the beautiful chestnut horse pass by them. They all looked at one another wondering where the rider might be. It was a mystery that would be solved sooner than they realized.
The kids resumed the hike, traveling deeper and deeper into the wild canyon country. The trail had grown steeper. They were walking up a hill now, and came to a small cluster of bushes next to the trail. That’s when Jenna heard him. Slumped in the bushes, crying, was a boy not much older than they were. He was maybe ten years old. Jenna ran over to him and asked if he was okay. He had a few bumps and scratches but otherwise he was fine. His name was Ponyboy and he lived near the mouth of the canyon. His birthday was yesterday and his father had given him a horse. This was the first long ride he had taken on the horse, that is until he lost him. Ponyboy called his horse Socks. He was a reddish- brown color over most of his body, except for the feet and ankles which were white. He told his Dad that it looked like he was wearing socks, so they called him Socks. That was yesterday.
Now he had no horse. Only a sad story.
He had been riding Socks on the canyon trails when they stopped to look up in the sky at some crows chasing an eagle in mid-flight. While Ponyboy was looking up, Socks bucked him high in the air and into the bushes. His back and side ached from the fall. Ponyboy told them that Socks had stepped near a coiled rattlesnake which caused him to spook.
“Coiled Rattlesnake in Canyon” by Brandon Taylor
That’s when he bucked Ponyboy and ran down the trail. Ponyboy said, “Have ya’ll seen a horse lookin’ like heeza wearin’ socks?” Lauren excitedly told Ponyboy about the riderless horse they had seen gallop past them just a few minutes earlier. Melita piped up and said, “If we help you find your horse, will you bounce me on the trampoline.?” They all laughed. Little Melita loved being bounced on the trampoline by someone bigger than her. So it was agreed by all. They would help him find Socks, the horse.
The first thing they had to do was develop a plan. Brandon spoke first, “Let’s eat lunch.” And Bethany mumbled, “My tumbly is rumbly.” So they decided to eat first. They opened their backpacks and ate sandwiches, fruit, and cookies. They all pitched in a little from each lunch to share with Ponyboy. Then it was down to business. It had been about an hour since they had seen Socks. They knew he could be anywhere in the canyon, but Lauren had an idea. They would split into two teams so they could cover more ground during the search. Lauren would lead one team down the north side of the canyon. James, Luc, Melita and Ponyboy went with her. Benji led the other group down the south side of the canyon. Brandon, Jenna and Bethany went with him. The plan was to make large arrows in the dirt trail every hundred steps to show that they had already covered that area of the canyon. They would meet back at the river crossing at three thirty. So everything was set: they had a plan, they had two teams, and they had a horse named Socks to find. So they set out on their search for Socks.
They had been walking and searching and calling for a long time. Brandon was drawing marks in the trail for his team and Luc for his team. It wouldn’t be long before they would have covered every single inch of trail in the canyon. But still no Socks. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and the wind was cold and blustery. The sky looked dark and mean, like it would spit rain in their faces at any time. They knew it would get dark in the canyon very quickly and they were running out of time. They also knew it was about time to return to the park entrance to meet their parents. They sure didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of the dark canyon at night. Both groups made their way towards the river crossing since it was getting close to three thirty. Ponyboy’s face showed the pain and weariness of the days events. They apparently wouldn’t find his horse today. Maybe never.
Lauren’s group met Benji’s group about a stones throw away from the river crossing which was just around the bend in the trail. They all compared notes and talked about what they saw during the search and they all tried to make Ponyboy feel better though nothing they said seemed to help much. They were sitting on the ground by the trail’s edge when Luc heard something. It almost sounded like a horse whinney. But it was different than any whinney they had heard before. It was the sound of an animal cornered and in trouble. Could it be a frightened horse? Ponyboy’s horse? Was Socks in trouble?
All of these questions were racing through their minds as they sprinted down the trail and around the bend and came into view of the crossing. What they saw caused them to stop cold in their tracks and sent shivers down their spines. It was the beautiful chestnut horse, Socks, right at the edge of the water. One leg half underwater and the other three legs flailing and straining while trying to pull himself out and onto the riverbank. He was stuck! Right near the stone crossing. His foot had gotten stuck between two rocks underneath the water. That’s when they remembered their alligator friend, Bubba. He was in the neighborhood and acting hungry. He was watching from the other side and upstream a ways. His eyes and snout were sticking out of the water and he was eyeing the struggling horse. Alligators are attracted not only by what they see, but by sounds in the water. Like the sound of a horse, splashing and jumping around. And this alligator heard the sounds of his next meal. He began swimming towards Socks. Socks sensed this and began to really go crazy in the water now. Lauren and Benji ran to the waters edge and saw that Sock’s foot was stuck. Luc, Brandon, and James ran to the shore, grabbed handfuls of rocks ,and pelted the alligator right in the jaw. Meanwhile, Jenna dove in the water and went under to move the rock. She scooted one rock over so Socks could pull his out foot. Just in time. Brandon smacked the alligator with one final rock shot right between the eyes and Bubba the alligator swam away beaten and with lots of knots on his head.
They quickly crossed over on the stones and headed for the park entrance. Ponyboy crossed the river with them on Socks and the triumphant group then made their way to the parking area. They were tired, hungry, cold and a little scared but happy. They were safe. And Ponyboy had found his horse.
They said goodbye to Ponyboy and Socks. Ponyboy thanked them for helping him find his horse. They even exchanged email addresses so they could stay in touch with one another. What an incredible day! They were happy to be going home though and it was great to see their parents in the parking lot. The kids piled in the van and they were on the highway for home. Uncle Clark asked, “Well, how was the day? Anything exciting happen?” Everyone looked at each other and they smiled. Lauren answered knowing how upset parents can get, “It was just another fun walk in the park. An adventure in Carbon Canyon.”
In the interest of full disclosure, here is a list of the things that really did happen and are woven into the narrative.
1. We really did hike in Carbon Canyon, although the parents went also.
2. There were signs that said “Mountain Lion Country” along with warnings.
3. Signs warned of coiled rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the dirt trails. (I walked like a bobbing fool the whole time, head up, head down, head up, head down, Mountain Lion, rattlesnake, Mountain Lion, rattlesnake)
4. We really did pack their favorite sandwiches along with other favorite goodies in a brown bag.
5. The kids really did want to stop and eat every five minutes or so.
6. Brandon really did snag lemons and smell them. Then hurl them.
7. There were at least 20 million lemons.
8. We did cross a creek on stepping stones.
9. I read the kids the story that talked about Bubba the alligator and his toothbrush friend.
10. We saw only one person on the trail just like the story, but he was riding a bike.
11. We did walk up a hill and get tired.
12. We did see an eagle (or so says James) chased by what looked like the two crows.
13. Melita was constantly saying, “Will you bounce me on the trampoline?”
14. The kids exchanged email addresses.
15. Grandpa Taylor once had a horse named Socks, just like in the story. Socks was about a year older than me and he died when I was in college, at about the age of 20.