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River Picnics
By: Terri Hill

Palominas, Arizona. 1964. I was twelve years old, that uncomfortable age between who I had been, and who I would be. My mother had gone off in search of the feminine mystique, leaving my father a "single dad" at a time when single parents were rare. In his attempt to fill the gap, he would invite me to ride with him down to the San Pedro River on Sunday afternoons. Looking back now, I realize there were probably a hundred other things he'd rather be doing than spending Sunday afternoon with a surly and depressed pre-teen, but those Sunday picnics by the river are some of my fondest memories. 

It was always just me and Dad. He'd saddle the horses and pack a picnic into the saddle bags. The menu was consistent: a package of hot dogs, buns, two cans of grape or orange soda, and a packet of Hostess Snowballs, those chocolate cream-filled cupcakes wrapped in marshmallow and rolled in pink coconut. He rode Rawhide, the big raw-boned buckskin, and I rode Tequila, the dainty, blaze-faced sorrel. I would follow as we loped or galloped, and where the road was wide we'd ride side by side.  He'd sing his old cowboy ballads: " I Ride Old Paint," "The Streets of Laredo," or "The Strawberry Roan." Sometimes we'd talk. Not about important stuff, like why my mom left, or growing up. My Dad wasn't that kind of guy. Instead we would talk about infinity, energy, atoms, and nature. He'd tell me about natural law, the importance of balance, and how we humans were a part of a vast universe hurtling through space on a tiny planet. We'd ponder potential and possibility.

When we got to the river we'd scratch a hole in the sandy bank and gather dry sticks and twigs to make a fire. Dad cut and whittled willow sticks, and while the horses grazed nearby, we'd sit in the sand and roast wienies. We could have as many as we wanted: there was a whole package. I can still taste that slightly burned hot dog on a smooshed bun, garnished with the fine sand of the riverbed. I can feel the sizzle and pop of the soda on my dry throat. The cupcakes were the grand finale. Gooey and warm from being in the saddle bag next to the warmth of the horse, we'd scrape the marshmallow off the cellophane wrapper and then eat the cream and chocolate mixture that had once been in cupcake form. We'd wash down the final bite with the last swig of warm soda pop. No meal was ever finer, or more delicious.

After we sated our appetites we'd cover the fire with sand and explore the river. Treasures abounded. A smooth shiny rock. A colorful bird feather.  An old coin. There was no end to the small pleasures that could be discovered along the river. Then we'd mount up and ride home, usually arriving about twilight. 

My Father is gone now, and picnics today usually consist of comfy picnic benches and tables, ice-cold sodas, and fresh, perfect, unsmooshed sandwiches from the ice chest. But oh, to have one more picnic with my dad. To hear the thud of the horse's hooves and the squeak of saddle leather; to smell the wood smoke and willows; to revel in the exhilaration of galloping along with the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin; to taste the gritty sand on a burned hot dog washed down with warm soda; to savor a special moment shared between a father and daughter. What I wouldn't give for just one more picnic.