There’s never time, right? Never time to pack, much less plan. But it just so happens your daughter is away. Your parents have taken her on her own trip. Which of course leaves your six year-old son asking about this injustice: Why does she get to go to you nork? His face all pinched like yours when you’re mad.
“Don’t worry Bubba, we’re gonna do something amazing.”
When you hear yourself say this, you see a flash of the forest in your mind. The two of you carrying in everything you need for a couple nights. You remember back to how old you were on your first backpacking trip (11). Going deep into the mountains is always a bit of a test. But whatever you do, now that you’ve seen it in your mind, make it happen.
Don’t wait for the weekend when everyone else is going. Just leave. A Tuesday morning when everyone’s at work is ideal. Only half-plan it out. Don’t lock down every detail. All that really matters is the weather window: Two nights of peak autumnal conditions. Highs in the mid-60’s. At dawn a chilly 40. Weather to make you appreciate stars and a good morning fire.
Throw the tent, the sleeping bags packs into the van. Let him use the same day pack he always carries. You can figure out how you’ll get it all packed later.
Contemplate a vague direction (South) and destination (somewhere with rivers and away from people). Leave room for improvisation based on how long it takes to pick up supplies.
Quick run through Trader Joe’s. Let him pick out snacks. Then onto the used gear store.
Checklist: new gas cylinder, another sleeping pad, hammock?
“What else do we need Bubba?”
He goes for a military canteen.
“What do you call this?”
“It’s a canteen, Bubba, it’s what soldiers use.” He keeps looking at it so hard you’re forced to say, “We can get it Bubba.”
Recall a day hike to the Horsepasture River from a few years back. Gorges State Park. The foothills, the steepest part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Remember the primitive sites. Places far enough back in there they’re left alone.
Quick GPS check. What was the name of that access? Frozen Creek road? Doesn’t sound right exactly. But you smile looking at where Google maps takes you: Airport Road to Brevard and then 64 West. Just an hour and almost no interstate.
Your whole plan locked in in 3 minutes.
Cross the upper French Broad River. And then GPS takes you up some random dirt road. Stop a couple miles in, drive back to the river, and call the park, feeling a strange gratitude that GPS doesn’t take you there. You can almost hear the grin in the country woman’s voice over the phone. Her sweet Western North Carolina accent: “you sure you goin’ the right way, hon?”
The early afternoon light is filtered by dense stands of white pine and hardwoods along Frozen Creek Road. In the rearview mirror you catch your son’s face: He’s gotten quiet and thoughtful looking out at the terrain.
Only one car in the parking lot. Florida plates? Resist the urge to make comments. Scan the trailhead map / directions. All campers must register before leaving the trailhead. Note the site marked down by the Toxaway River—probably the steepest and wildest, and certainly the least accessible gorge in all of the Southeast. You always like to make camp by nightfall and are mildly concerned about the late hour getting started. But then all that really matters is just getting in there. Your son’s face is all eagerness, zero hesitation.
Quickly sort packets of oatmeal, trail mix, soup mix, fruit, peanut butter, bread, cheese, lentils. Stuff it all in “Ghostie” (his new trick or treat bag, nylon and perfect size.) Strap his sleeping bag to his backpack.
He struggles getting it on.
“It’s a beast, huh?” He wobbles a bit the first few steps, stabilizes.
Cut into the woods now. After a small bridge and bit of singletrack you turn onto Auger Hole Trail. A crushed gravel road, 14 miles through the core of the park. Steep and rugged terrain but ideal footing / walking conditions. Point out the orange blazes. Walk at your normal hiking pace (fast), and then realize he’s right beside you, almost comically into it. He’s hiking hard, head down, his big pack swinging behind him. He’s showing you how he can do it now. That he’s a big guy.
It gets steep and tiring fast with the heavy packs. A solid half-mile uphill. A couple of rest stops. He pulls his canteen out of his pack, looks at you proudly.
“That canteen will last your whole life Bubba.”
“So I could give it to my kid?” he says.
Up at the ridgeline is a trail junction. You see two hikers resting there. A couple: maybe late 50’s early 60’s. Matching nylon outerwear, camelbacks, and both literally holding bear spray canisters at the ready.
But the husband has on this sweet Larry Bird era headband. And they both look at your son with the fondness of empty nesters remembering how it was like yesterday their children were still this age.
You eye the bear spray and your face stretches into a grin.
“Yeah, we saw four bears back there,” Larry Bird says, nodding towards Auger Hole Trail. “Where are you headed?”
“Um, not sure, probably up to Wintergreen,” you say.
“That’s a big hike for a little guy.”
“I know, this is actually his first backpacking trip.”
He pulls up the trail map on his phone and starts swiping around and magnifying and you almost laugh at how little you’ve prepared. Your son, meanwhile, looks at you with eyes that say “what are you waiting for, stop talking to Larry Bird and let’s go!”
Pause on the final approach to camp. The two of you cup your ears, listening out for the sound of other people: nothing but wind noise, dry fall leaves. Nobody up here.
Along the saddle of a ridgeline, abandoned logging roads drop away steeply on two sides, leaving a broad sunlit clearing to set up camp. Not much deadfall if the wind picks up. Good little stands of sourwood and tuliptree for hanging bear bags.
Find a sleeping spot in the soft forest floor. Explain the benefit of separating sleeping spaces and kitchen spaces in bear country.
He looks at you deadpan and says, “Technically, bears don’t have a country.”
The late afternoon sun is warm enough to set up camp in just a flannel shirt, and there’s still a solid couple hours of light to explore. Break out the hammock. The webbing. The hatchet. “We got a good firewood walk ahead of us Bubba.”
He starts answering everything with mi captain. “What do I do mi captain? I don’t know what to do mi captain.”
Your grandfather, your dad’s dad, the one who all of y’all look like—the one who first came to North Carolina as a boy, the one who could do all the jokes and the Yiddish accents—what would he think of his jokester great grandson born in Patagonia, and now here in the Blue Ridge mixing Argentine Spanish and some crazy British accent?
Gathering firewood is a zen practice. As long as conditions are good, it should be an easy undertaking, a small hatchet in your belt loop and mug of red wine in hand if possible. It’s also a counterintuitive process: the best firewood is found up in the trees, not down on the ground. Point out the dry hemlock branches. Start him on little trips back up to camp, the branches over his shoulder. Find little treasures: A huge cache of Virginia Pine. Chunks of fatwood. Logs covered in half-moons of lichen. Tunnels in the rhododrendon and mountain laurel.
The joy of firewood gathering is how it takes you off the map. By sunset you’re far off-trail. But you’ve traversed the mountainside enough times that you easily find your way.
Along the way, point out the faint traces of logging roads. “What era were these roads built?” he asks. (Different “eras” have become his latest fixation.)
“The 30’s Bubba, maybe the 40’s.”
“When grandpa was a little boy?”
“Even before that, I think. I’m not sure really. People just came and cut all the forests down.”
Work together to build the fire. Split the bigger pieces of fatwood into kindling. Let him use the hatchet a bit. It doesn’t matter that he’s six, or any age. What matters is that he’s in control.
If you’ve timed it all correctly, light it right at sunset.
For dinner, melt cubes of sharp cheddar in the lentils. Eat straight from the pot. Food always tastes revolutionary after carrying it into the woods.
“Try to keep your hands clean Bubba. We want to have as little food smell on us as possible.”
He looks at his hands, which are caked black with ash and food.
“Camping is actually kind of disgusting!”
“It’s just because we don’t have water up here,” you say. “It’s different when you camp by water. Tomorrow we’ll find some. Now go on and get in your sleeping clothes.”
Clean up his face and hands with a tiny bit of water poured onto his dirty shirt. Gather all food and trash back into Ghostie and then hold it over the smoke for a while.
“Check it out bud: smoking the food bag. I don’t know if it really works or not, but it seems to
help cover the smell of food.”
Throw a carabiner with 50 feet of paracord over as high a limb as you can find. Clip on the food bag and then raise it up together.
Sleep without the rainfly on the tent. Look at the stars for a minute before your eyes close. With your daughter there always has to be a story, a whole ritual.
You’re like your son. You just get in and sleep.
It’s cold enough the next morning that your hands sting making the morning fire. Share a sip of coffee with him. Cook cinnamon oatmeal. Then start breaking camp. Show him how to stuff his sleeping bag, draped over his shoulder so it doesn’t touch the ground. Explain how it’s not just learning to camp on perfect days like this, but building habits for when conditions are cold and wet and it really counts.
As you finish packing up, point out how all your gear is tighter, more organized than how you packed in. Find little opportunities to fix or improve whatever needs fixing. Cut a length of paracord to make a chest strap for his backpack. Cut another with the 1/4 inch rope to make a strap for his canteen. Melt the ends of the nylon rope so they don’t fray. Show him it’s not just about having all the gear, but improvising with what you have. Not buying a new groundcloth but cutting a piece of building wrap left over from a remodel project. Less important: the latest backpack. More important: a coil of paracord, an extra couple of carabiners.
Once everything is tight, pause for a moment. Let your son just play. He keeps pulling out smoking sticks from the fire that he calls “Smokey Joes.”
“Hey Papi,” he says, “Has anyone ever just fallen straight into lava?”
“I dunno Bubba, probably.”
“What’s hotter, this fire or lava?”
“Lava! It’s way hotter. It’s like the heat from the center of the earth.”
“Isn’t it weird papi, underneath the floor here, right under there’s lava!”
Now he’s got the hatchet and is trying to use it to cut a log in half.
He can tell from your voice that you’re about to tell him he’s doing something wrong.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making a boat.”
“You’re trying to shorten that stick, right?”
“What tool do you need to shorten it? Remember we talked about it yesterday.”
“That’s right. So what happens if you use the wrong tool for a job?”
“It doesn’t come out right,” he says. He’s got the hatchet held up in mid-chop.
“That’s right Bubba. That’s the first thing that happens. What else?”
His voice gets softer now: “You get hurt.”
“That’s right. You can get hurt. Listen, I didn’t bring a saw, ok? But there are ways we can shorten that with the knife—if we whittle it down.”
“But Papi, I’m doing it really gently.” He gives a demonstration, and it’s true.
He wants to do it his way, just like you.
So often you’re lost in your own thoughts and worries. The world is like a movie in which you’re constantly acting and directing.
But being in the mountains with him helps that drop away for a while. And that’s the art of the of the father-son backpacking trip. It doesn’t matter if it’s a son or a daughter, or if you’re a father or a mother. And it doesn’t matter how far you go. Life is short. What matters is just getting out there with them. It gives you a glimpse of the future adult they’ll become. And it gives them a glimpse of the child you still carry inside of you.
Words, video, and music by David Miller