It’s been 21 years since Robin Phillips’ son suffered from heat exhaustion during a Varsity Scout expedition and passed away.
The group was in a rough wilderness area on the north ridge of the Grand Canyon when its water supply ran out, according to the Deseret News. It was June 1996, on a day temperatures reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the day progressed, a few of the Scout leaders and youths were too fatigued to continue the journey. Fifteen-year-old David Phillips and two other boys continued on toward the Colorado River where they sought to refill the water supply. Phillips was about 100 yards shy of the river when he collapsed.
Now, years later, there is a picture of his son that Robin Phillips cherishes. It shows the father and son fishing against the backdrop of Christmas Meadows, a spot tucked away deep in the Uinta Mountains. It’s a beautiful place with colorful foliage and a clear lake that often reflects the peaks of the mountains. But more importantly, this is a place that has created a tight multigenerational bond for the Phillips family.
“My grandfather was a backpacker in the 1940s before anybody did those kinds of things,” Phillips said. “When I first went with him (to Christmas Meadows) when I turned 12 in 1965, he didn’t have a sleeping bag. He had a bedroll that he saved from the army. It was just a wool blanket that he would lay out, and that’s what he slept in.”
It was also in this area where Phillips first learned how to fly-fish.
“When we went for the first time, we came back with 60 fish and it was this great expedition. But when we go now we hardly catch any fish,” he said with a laugh. “The fishing is just an excuse to go and see the beauty of what’s around. My grandfather called it ‘God’s country’ and always told us that he felt closer to God there than he did anywhere else. So it kind of made the place almost sacred for our family.”
Phillips recently decided it was time to take a high-quality picture of the place that has given his family so many valuable memories. He drove up to the spot and spent an entire evening waiting for the perfect light to try to capture the beauty of Christmas Meadows.
Now the scenic location is the cover for the upcoming issue of Reader’s Digest magazine that will be available starting June 20. The magazine launched a photo contest titled “Your America,” asking readers to submit images of the nation’s waterways and shorelines. Phillips’ shot of Christmas Meadows was selected from nearly 1,000 entries, and as the grand prize winner, his image will be the magazine’s first reader-photographed cover in its 95-year history, according to a news release.
Phillips was shocked when he learned that his photo had been selected for the magazine cover — especially since he found out about the contest from his wife on the very last day of submissions.
“I didn’t really expect it to be on the cover,” he said. ”I kind of feel like it’s a little bit like Heavenly Father’s hand is in this, in allowing me to tell other people about my love for the place, and our family’s connection to the place. Family is the most important part of all of this, and our family has a huge connection there.”
After his grandfather’s health began deteriorating, Phillips’ father continued the tradition of taking him on hikes to Christmas Meadows and other surrounding areas. It’s a tradition Phillips passed down to his children, including his son before he passed away.
“(David) just loved the outdoors,” Phillips said. “The year before he died, I got to spend a whole summer with him because I got laid off from work. And it was a great blessing to be able to hike the trails up there with him so that when he did die, sure we had the hurt and the pain, but no regrets.”
And even though it was hard for Phillips to go up to Christmas Meadows once his grandfather died, the arrival of grandkids — of which he now has more than 20 — made the excursion even more meaningful.
“I’ve gone up into that area hiking, and I’ve taken all my kids and grandkids there,” he said. “They all get just as excited about seeing the place as I did when I was their age. Hopefully, I’ll get to take my great-grandkids there.”
Phillips’ latest excursion to Christmas Meadows took place earlier this week. When he showed his father, whose health is starting to fail, the soon-to-be Reader’s Digest cover, his dad expressed the desire to see the family's favorite place once again.
His father couldn’t do the backpacking or other activities the father and son had enjoyed together in the past at Christmas Meadows, but he was able to make the drive up with his family to see the places that carry so much meaning for the Phillips family.
“We couldn’t get all the way there because it snowed up there,” Phillips said. “But we got close. We got to places that are close to (my dad) and my mom, who’s passed away. And when we got home he said, ‘Thank you for taking me there.’ We really enjoyed that time together.”