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Dawn Bonker

September Sage

Chaperoning field trips was never one of Lauren’s favorite tasks. Herding students far from their familiar routines rattled the nerves and taxed one’s patience.

Crises that barely hit the radar at school escalated to calamity mode on a field trip. Bloody noses, intestinal distress, awkward bathroom visits and giant crows by the lunch tables became code-red material. Kids juiced up on field-trip adrenalin overreacted with shouts, giggles, shrieks and—if misfortune smiled—a belch or fart, prompting the whole cycle to begin anew. 

Zoos posed an additional set of issues because the animals inevitably did one of three things when field trippers arrived at their enclosures—hid, shit, or mated.

Then there was the actual fun stuff that parent chaperones didn’t dare join, lest they embarrass their own children. So, no butter churning at the historical house. Forget jumping up and down in front of the museum seismograph to jar the needle into making a squiggly mark on that giant scroll of paper turning slowly as Earth itself. And definitely no squishing in the mud to make adobe bricks at the Spanish-era mission, a weird task to get excited about anyway since it was basically a reenactment of the old padres’ dependence on forced labor.

For chaperones, relief usually arrived when it was time to go home. Not that boarding a bus full of squirmy children and inching through Orange County’s rush hour—which began at 3 p.m.—was jolly. But at least the parents didn’t have to drive.

Still, Lauren dutifully signed on because it was the right thing to do. And such trips doubled as a quick check-in on Bryce’s fourth-grade life. Who was he hanging out with? Were there bullies? Was that same little girl from third grade still queen of the cliques?

Susan was going on this one, so that would help. Lauren’s fast friendship with the fellow fourth-grade mom had been a surprising bright spot in her own routine. Susan could be a bit much—with her tie-dyed shirts and campaigns to ban plastic flatware from the cafeteria and start an organic garden at the school—but Lauren liked her.

On the night before the field trip, Susan phoned, and Lauren’s husband was first to notice the caller ID when her cell jangled on the kitchen counter as they cleaned up the dinner dishes. “The flower child,” Steven said, feigning a peace sign. Lauren playfully flicked his ear as he headed for the adjacent family room.

The field trip was in the nearby Santa Ana Mountains. Even though it was just a 25-minute drive over the hill, Lauren had never bothered to make the trip and like a good student was eager to prepare. She checked out a paperback field guide at the city library and was intrigued to learn that the hills were part of the Pacific Coast Range and home to a species of native orchids. 

Since Susan was into native plants along with her organic gardening, Lauren thought to ask her friend about them and whether they might spot any.

“Not this time,” Susan said. “They like the moist creek areas back by the falls and we won’t go that far. Plus, spring and early summer is when you find them.”

It was already September, Lauren thought a little sadly. “Still, wild orchids just over the hill.”

“Right in our backyard.”

Lauren chuckled. “You’re such a big-blue-marble hippie.”

“Stop me before I burst into a round of ‘Kumbaya.’”

Susan’s reason for calling was all business, though. She asked if Lauren could bring her good camera and take photos for the class webpage the teacher had recently rebuilt. The graphic designer in Lauren sat up a tad straighter. The class page was a mess of multiple fonts and boring photos. Students sitting at computers. The entire class crammed around the flagpole on—surprise!—Flag Day. 

“I’d love to work on the webpage, too, if it’s okay with you and her. I can add high-resolution photos and coordinate all the fonts.”

She paused. Was she overstepping?

“Whatever all that is, go for it. She asked me if I could manage the page, but that’s so not my jam. She’ll be happy for expert help.”

Lauren’s spirits lifted with that dab of acknowledgement, and she reached for a pen to jot down notes while Susan described the gist of their other field trip tasks, which amounted to making sure no one stepped in poison oak, poked sticks in the rattlesnake holes, or went to the restroom without a bathroom buddy.

“Otherwise, those nature people out there pretty much run everything. The only time they take off is during lunch. Speaking of which, please tell me you’re packing lunch.”

“The teacher’s field trip letter said we should. Must follow the rules,” Lauren joked.

“Silly girl. The skinny minnies will just bring water bottles and carry on about how they had too much brie and chardonnay at book club. I’m usually the only adult sitting at these things eating a peanut butter sandwich like a kid.”

“I’ll be there with a camera and peanut butter sandwich in tow.”

“Careful. They’ll make one of those videos about us—Field Trip Moms Gone Crazy!

After the call, Lauren was still smiling when she joined Steven in the family room. He was stretched out on the sofa, rubbing his feet together in one of those lazy self-made foot massages. Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch.

“What’s new with the flower child?” he asked.

His ribbing was getting old, but she decided to ignore it.

“She needs me to take pictures on the trip tomorrow. I get to redesign the class webpage, which will be cool. And she wants me to pack a lunch because most of the moms don’t.”

She flopped on the sofa, eager to relate the sandwich story, but he’d returned his attention to the television and the Angels’ game. She moved to the easy chair with the reading lamp and opened her field guide to the Santa Ana Mountains.

“Did you know there are wild orchids out there? Not now,” she corrected herself, “but in the spring.”

Steven grunted. “Incredible. Angels are blowing their chance at the playoffs, as usual. Guess Carlton won’t get to stay home to cover the playoffs now.”

Carlton, Susan’s husband, was a sportswriter, a seeming mismatch with a granola girl. But they were one of those couples who made marriage look easy. Recently one of the major broadcast affiliates in Seattle had started courting Carlton for a new job. He had the looks and the smarts.

“Carlton likes Seattle. Susan says it might happen.”

She glanced at the television. A pitching change was underway. Like that would help.

“I’d miss them,” she said. “Carlton’s fun, too. You seem to enjoy his company at get-togethers.” She thought of the casino night last spring where Carlton had held court with his predictions about the Angels’ season. She squinted at the television. “Looks like the wheels are coming off the bus.” Such a cliché, she knew, but she said things like that whenever she tried to chum along with her husband’s sports interests. Steven just nodded.

She curled deeper into the reading chair and flipped through the field guide, bookmarking the page with the orchid, a wild little thing characterized by a palate of yellow, green, brown, and maroon petals, as if it were indecisive about what to stick with. She talked on about searching them out in the spring and how nice it would be to hike into the hills and see a red rock formation out there that looked like a miniature Grand Canyon, and wouldn’t the kids get a kick out of that, and so forth, and so forth, until she realized that she was pretty much talking to herself.

The hiking trail was hemmed by a lot of dry scrub with an occasional patch of shade from an old sycamore. In the 45 minutes they’d been on the trail, they’d seen one turkey vulture circling overhead, a lizard on a rock, and a handful of little brown birds whose names Lauren had missed. No wonder the nature center had an opening in its September field trip calendar. It seemed like even the wildlife wanted to be somewhere else.

But under the direction of their trail guide, the chaperone moms didn’t mind too much. Their assigned naturalist from the Nature Trails Society was Randy Millerton, a part ranger, part Robert Redford kind of man. Sun-bleached golden hair peeked out from his khaki ball cap. Tan shorts revealed athletic legs and his left cheek dimpled when he smiled. Thankfully, laugh lines crinkled around his eyes and mouth, too, so the moms didn’t feel inappropriately lusty, just a little entertained.

“I could follow him all day,” one mom whispered to another.

But the kids’ attention wasn’t so rapt, especially as Randy increasingly shifted his focus to plant life, since wildlife was apparently lying low. Soon the whining, pebble kicking, and mild shoving ensued. Randy knew his crowd and suggested that they might spot tarantulas on the next crest. But they had to pay attention, or they might miss the moment. The students fell into step, eager as big-game hunters as they hoped for a tarantula sighting.

Lauren brought up the rear, sorry she’d agreed to play sheepdog to Melanie Leeton. Every field trip had a straggler kid and today Melanie was it, partly because she was a know-it-all. Everyone scurried to leave her in the dust as she spouted facts on topics that were interesting in second grade but old news to fourth grade sophisticates. Did you know a tomato is actually a fruit? Bats aren’t blind. George Washington’s teeth weren’t really made of wood. It was like hiking with a Wikipedia gnome.

But Lauren nodded along to the girl’s chatter, snapping photos while trying to follow Randy’s details about the flora around them and how Native people used them. A lemony drink from the berries of the sugar bush. A shampoo produced by crushing the leaves of white sage.

Melanie was oblivious. “Do you know what the Donner Party did?”

Lauren knew quite well what the Donner Party did. She also knew there was no stopping a nine-year-old’s inevitable fascination with the tale of the doomed wagon train and its cannibalistic turn of events. Discovering the Donner story was a fourth-grade rite of passage. The state-mandated fourth grade curriculum covered California history, and even though the school year began with stories of volcanoes, saber-toothed cats and pre-Columbian people, everyone flipped ahead in the textbooks to read about the pioneers who took the regrettable shortcut.

She smiled to herself as she remembered the high school prank of signing in on a restaurant waiting list as “Donner” just for the fun of hearing the restaurant host call out “Donner Party! Your table is ready!” Did kids still do that? Probably not. They were so serious these days.

Apparently mistaking silence for encouragement, Melanie rattled on. “They ate each other.”

Lauren focused her camera on a clutch of buckwheat, its blossoms now the color of dried blood, another sign of the dry season.

“But they waited until they were dead,” Melanie added.

Good grief, this conversation has got to change, Lauren decided. She looked out at the landscape, sweeping her arm in a wide arc like a gameshow host promising another chance at the big win. “The Spanish explorers came through here. Gaspar de Portola might have walked right where we are now. Imagine that.

Lauren enjoyed these sorts of daydreams. Portola’s expedition diaries claimed that a soldier on the trip lost his gun, or trabuco, somewhere nearby. Thus, the name Trabuco Canyon. You had to wonder what he had been up to, to go off and lose something like a gun. At least it had been the Spanish. Were it English explorers it would have been a blunderbuss and what a name that would have been.

Melanie’s voice shot through her reverie.

“It’s Por-ta-laaa,” she said, attempting a proper but still questionable Spanish pronunciation. “Not Pour-toe-luh.”

Lauren’s eyes flicked heavenward. The “toe” pronunciation was clunky and incorrect, but it was the colloquial way of referencing the explorer whose name adorned schools, a highway, and countless local businesses from dry cleaners to yogurt shops.

Mercifully, something was afoot further up the trail and Melanie and Lauren turned to listen. It seemed Randy had something interesting for everyone to see.

Melanie was doubtful. “He probably just spotted an acorn.”

Indeed, what he pointed out was ordinary. A California sage. But the story of its legendary use as “cowboy cologne” to battle cowboy stink way back in the day was a hit. Giggles and arm-pit farts ensued, the children raking their fingers through the leaves as they trooped by.

A few paces later, Randy paused the procession again.

“There’s something here I think one of the moms wanted to take a photo of on the way up, but we rushed by,” he announced.

His blue eyes sought out Lauren, still at the back of the group and he waved her over. Her cheeks flushed as she clambered up to where he stood. She hadn’t realized he’d noticed her attempt to photograph the jellybean purple blooms of coyote mint. 

“Here.” He reached over, held a bloom in his hand, and tilted it gently toward Lauren’s camera, releasing its minty aroma.

“We don’t pull anything,” he reminded the students. “I’m just holding this up a bit so you can see it.”

A few students stepped up, but most weren’t interested. It took work to see the tiny world he held in his hands.

Lauren couldn’t stop looking, though, even if it meant a slightly awkward position on the trail. She planted herself at an angle and dug her new hiking boots into the soil like she was snuffing out a cigarette. The maneuver gave her traction, but not before Randy reached out a hand to steady her as she focused the camera.

He nodded toward the flower. “A late-summer surprise.”

While she snapped several shots, he turned and explained plant biology to the students. 

“The purpose of every plant, every living thing really, is to reproduce itself. To scatter seed. Pulsing through the cells of every plant is the drive toward pollination. Without pollination there’s no bloom, no new seeds for the next generation.”

She adjusted her lens for a close up. Peering through the camera she watched Randy touch the flower’s bright center. Pollen soft as face powder clung to his fingers. He swished his fingers together and the pollen disappeared like dust.

All at once, Lauren realized she’d been holding her breath, and she nearly gasped aloud as she teetered, then regained her balance. She felt his hand alight on her sun-warmed arm before he turned to lead the students down the hill for their lunch break.

She was still mulling the sensation his fingertips had left on her skin when Susan sidled up next to her and whispered, “Pulsing? Drive toward pollination? I don’t think we’re talking about flowers anymore.”

Lauren smirked, rolled her eyes in agreement. Yes, he probably had a Just Leave Footprints bumper sticker on an old Subaru, dusty from adventure. Sage incense in a pottery dish set on a little kitchen table in one of those canyon cottages. A rock garden out front. What a cliché. But she didn’t care and let the moment rest and seal itself into her memory where it became hers only.

While the students gathered at the picnic tables to devour sandwiches, suck down juice boxes and wave their arms to repel plundering crows, the chaperones sat about twenty yards away on a low wall built from river stones. From there, they were close enough to keep an eye on things but not so near that they might overhear mild cursing or small arguments that would necessitate their intervention.

After checking in on Bryce and satisfying herself that he wasn’t hanging out with the group of boys caught jabbing sticks into snake holes, she joined Susan resting on the far end of the rock wall, shaded by the sprawling branches of a pepper tree. Dust motes floated in the air like afterthoughts. The two women quietly ate their peanut butter sandwiches while a hummingbird darted among the pepper berries above them.

Susan dangled her feet over the old stone wall. “All in all, this isn’t too bad.”

Lauren nodded like a sleepy cat. “We’re outside. We’re just sitting. I don’t care if those crows eat the children.”

She inhaled deeply. The dirt, wildflowers, shrubs with funny names. All those scents, combined to form a potion, a canyon cologne, a tonic she wished she could take home. Their botanical names had already faded from her thoughts. Oh, well. It wasn’t like she was going to deliver a riveting dissertation about the region’s flora and fauna over tonight’s meatloaf.

Except the white sage, a cousin to the common variety, but rarer. She remembered that one and Randy’s description of its use as a cleansing incense. It appealed to her. She closed her eyes and imagined returning to the trail just to touch its dusty leaves and smell once more its tangy, masculine perfume. The lull was delicious and took her mind away.

Which is why she didn’t really hear a question from fellow chaperone Candy Morgan. Something about taking a photo of the kids at the lunch tables? Lauren looked up with furrowed brows.

Candy repeated herself in that singsong speaking style that littered sentences with question marks, needed or not. “A photo at the lunch table? Cute, right? I could make prints and put one in everyone’s take-home packets?”

The dreaded take-home packets. Missed math problems, sloppy spelling sentences and slow-pokey scores on a tedious typing program the teachers loved, all stuffed into manila folders and sent home with students on Fridays. Every weekend was clouded with the homework corrections, rewrites, and more typing practice.

Lauren had already taken a photo of the students in the nature center, growling goofily alongside a stuffed mountain lion. “The group shot with the mountain lion is pretty fun.”

Candy pursed her lips. “I was just thinking something kind of nicer?”

Lauren summoned a fallback line she’d learned at her first design job when clueless clients offered suggestions. “That’s an interesting idea. Here’s another,” the designers would croon. Of course, it was just bullshitting code for “Your idea totally sucks, but I’ll humor you until you see that my idea is better and eventually think it was yours all along.” The clients never caught on.

Lauren picked up her camera and held it out to Candy. “That’s an interesting idea. Take some shots. Later I’ll get a few at the craft tables, too.”

Candy took the camera and bubbled with eagerness. “I just press here?”

Lauren nodded with a polite smile. After Candy bounded off and Susan went in search of a restroom, Lauren decided she would slip back to the trail. She felt a little sneaky, but it would only be for a few minutes. At a rock outcropping that jutted into the trail before it turned steep, she stopped and found a seat on a small boulder. It was just far enough that the sounds of the students dropped like a radio turned low at night. She soaked up the semi-solitude. It wasn’t a hilltop view by any means, but her roost offered a vista across the canyon to another set of foothills, tawny-brown and rippled like the haunch of a sleeping lion. And it was quiet. Until something in the nearby leaves rattled. Startled, she turned quickly.

It was Randy, smiling at her from his own rocky perch a few yards away. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to disturb you,” he said, walking over to join her. “Looks like you’re an escape artist like me. Kids are fun, but they do get noisy.” He took a swig from his water jug and grinned as if they were old friends making small talk. The smile lines again. Too much sun over the years, no doubt, but that was the sort of thing men carried off better than women.

Her shoulders relaxed as she nodded toward the hills. “This reminds me a little of where I grew up. High desert foothills. The mountains, but not quite. The desert, but not quite. Crusty survivor types live there.” She turned back to the view, embarrassed by her babbling. Why was she rambling like this?

“Foothills are interesting. They’re one of nature’s in-between places,” Randy said.

“What’s an in-between place?”

“Like intertidal zones. Coastal lagoons. The prairie before the woodlands. They’re transitional places. Wildlife crosses over to test the nearby territory.” He put the cap back on his water jug. “You could say that crusty survivor-types live there.”

It had been a while, but Lauren was fairly sure she recognized flirting when she saw it. It was a pleasant dance, a small something two people could play at without risk. She mused on, though, picturing it going further, a regular old dalliance. Of course, she would then have to tell Steven all about it. The field trip? Oh, nice, we saw some late season flowers, which was lucky for this time of year. And then while the kids ground up acorns, I flirted with this hunk of a ranger and what with the perfume of sage and mint, you know, nature took its course, as it always does. More meat loaf, Honey?

She poked her boot at the trail’s edge.

“I hope this place survives the fire season. The fires get bigger and closer every year.” Now she was one of those people who walked around starting conversations about the obvious. In a rainstorm: Wow, rain! Holding onto a hat in the wind: Windy, huh? She should stop talking.

“The houses get bigger and closer to the fires,” Randy said.

Great. A lecture. She knew it was true and their house certainly fit into that category. But the builders had assured them that a fire road, special roofing materials and something called defensible-space landscaping would negate all that risk, making danger just something of the past.

“People have to live somewhere,” she chirped.

“True. But it does complicate things.”

The clatter of empty juice boxes tossed like basketballs rose from the picnic area, signaling the end of the respite. The natives were getting restless. Lauren, teased by a taste of adult conversation, was reluctant to return. A decent conversation was no small thing. Especially when Donner Party factoids and packet-stuffing chatter was the alternative. But she knew another five minutes with the naturalist would turn her leg-stretching walk into the seeds of gossip. Better to quit while you’re ahead. So, she said the obvious.

“Guess we better get going.”

He rose, smiled, and gestured for her to lead the way, raising one hand toward the craft and activity tables, where acorn grinding was soon to commence, and offering the other to the trail with its promise of white sage and coyote mint.

“Your call,” he said.

“I wish.”

She turned away, her shoulders drooping in the increasing heat of the day and trudged down the path, back toward the tables, the children, the buses and all the rest that awaited her.

Later that evening, she tossed the meatloaf into the freezer and made her special chicken for dinner instead. Somehow, she used too much sage and pepper, and everyone complained. She shrugged them all off. Her mind was somewhere else.

About the Author | Second in Fiction | Linda Purdy Memorial Prize

Dawn Bonker wrote for the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times and had other work included in Sand in my Bra: Funny Women Write from the Road, Wild Edges: Poetry and Prose of the Mother Lode and Sierra, and Citric Acid: An Online Orange County Literary Arts Quarterly.

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