Jack is ahead on the trail, two winter-white legs protruding from the bottom of an oversized purple backpack, like a grape Popsicle, shouldering through the rhododendrons, leaves curled like wood shavings in the late-March cold. Only occasionally do I catch a glimpse of my 10-year-old son’s face, in silhouette, as he weaves through the 10-foot-tall thicket. Just as he disappears around a corner a thought stops me cold: My father would have seen this. He would have seen me exactly like this.
We are on a three-day backpacking trip with Jack’s pal Robbie Simmons and his dad, Chris. Our 10-mile loop will take us through the alpine meadows of Virginia’s Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a 200,000-acre chunk of Southern Appalachian splendor. It’s the boys’ first serious backpacking trip, a chance for them to sample a kind of restraint and focus that is largely missing from their day-to-day lives. Untethered to power supply or convenience store, they will learn to take what comes. If it rains, they’ll get wet. If the trail crosses a mountain, they’ll climb. There’s no quitting, no powering down. In return for a tacit agreement to work with what the land and the weather offer, we’ll have vespers of firelight and stars. We’ll be awakened by birds and warmed by the sun, tied to the rhythms of the natural world.
Yet there’s something more to this outing. In the late 1960s, when backpacking was in its infancy, my father took up the pastime with a passion. I remember riding together for an hour and a half to the nearest camping store that sold goose-down sleeping bags, German mountaineering boots, and the clunky old Svea 123 backpacking stove. I had just a few chances to backpack with my dad before he died in an airplane crash when I was 13. I was left with precious few memories of him on the trail, and a handful of topographic maps with his favorite routes marked in faint pencil. Long ago I vowed to spend as much time as possible with my kids in the woods. It’s not easy, what with soccer and swimming and church and algebra. It’s likely I push too hard, too often. You can’t make your kids carry your cross. But I have every good excuse, I tell myself, to want to write these moments in bolder strokes than the faint pencil outlines of my own memories of my father. And it’s better than parking them at the mall.
Now I watch Jack range far ahead, striding through waist-high grasses bent low by the wind. The open balds are a rare gift in the East’s forested high country. Their wide vistas afford a big view, and Jack ranges farther and farther ahead, testing his own comfort level as well as my parental oversight’s limits. I check my instinct to reign him in, curious as to how long and how far he’ll sortie ahead without me. And curious, too, as to how long a leash I’m willing to give him.
Jack climbs a long capstone of ridge rock, the wind catching his backpack like a sail, rocking him back and forth. He crests the ridge, raises his arms over his head, and lets loose a wild, primal whoop of glee. I wonder what prompts such an exultant display—the view from the mountaintop, the freedom-feel of wild wind, the panoramic sweep of a future filled with other discoveries he can’t yet fathom? Then the wind picks up the cry and sends it hurtling behind me, across the boulders, across the balds and the verdant slicks of rhododendron, carrying the young boy’s unfettered emotion to wherever it takes the thunder’s crash and the raven’s wild cackling.
Our first night’s camp is in a meadowy saddle between rocky crags that tower overhead like unruly Stonehenge figures. We arm the boys with slingshots and send them off to fire stones at tree knots and rock lichens. After promising our sons they can bunk together, Chris pulls out the tent parts—groundsheet, tent body, rainfly, poles—while I scrounge for the stove and dinner bag. From a dense warren of head-high rhododendron we hear the occasional thwack of a small stone against boulder and the shouted congratulations for a well-placed shot.
“I’m always torn,” I tell Chris, “between making the kids help with camp chores and just cutting them loose to run and play without a schedule to follow or a skill to learn or a coach to please.”
Chris is quiet for a moment, and I can hear him fitting the ferrules of the tent poles together. He is thoughtful and measured, not a big talker. “It’s nuts that we have to bring them to a place like this just to be kids,” he says, glancing toward the sound of them playing. “I know there’s an argument for putting them to work, but these guys have little time just to be boys. And to be selfish about it, I want Robbie to think that being out here with me is the best thing there is. It is for me.”
And there are always the dinner dishes. After a supper of boxed dressing, canned chicken, and smoked oysters—and Nutella for dessert, always Nutella—we pass the boys the soiled plates and bowls, a small bottle of biodegradable soap, and a canteen full of water. The campfire sputters, sending orange sparks circling skyward. Jack and Robbie finish their chores. I lie by the fire, my head on a log, as Jack burrows into my side like a cold dog.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I were home right now,” I say. “But it would definitely not involve licking Nutella off a stick and looking up at the stars.”
Chris nods as the boys ignore our fatherly musings and poke the fire with sticks.
“But why not?” Chris says. “Why don’t we do this at home?”
At the moment, all my answers involve the advantages and various enrichments of modern urban life. Here, with Jack’s head on my shoulder, surrounded by a ring of tawny grasses that reflect yellow firelight, they make no sense at all.
In the morning, Jack pokes his head in my tent as I’m rolling up my sleeping pad.
“Hey, Daddydaddy,” he says, using the nickname that he knows is my favorite. “Can you and me spend the night in our tent tonight?”
I’m slightly perplexed. Have I missed a rift between him and his pal?
“Sure, big man,” I reply. “Nothing would make me happier. But aren’t you having a good time with Robbie?”
“Oh, yeah, Dad,” he counters. “Robbie is awesome! But I want some time together just you and me.”
Like the sudden view from an opening in the trees, the unexpected gifts from children are the sweetest.
The day’s route leads across Pine Mountain, through glades of hawksbeard and hawkweed and yarrow, then turns south to lope along Wilburn Ridge, crenellated with rock outcrops that tower 50 feet above the meadows. In the same way that backpacking forces an elemental economy on what you choose to carry, it winnows away the need to fret over a clock. We hike until we tire, then take a break to snooze in the sun. We stop at a spring where the boys take turns with a pump filter, and talk about how fragile and tenuous and critical clean water is. Once, when the trail winds into the forest and plunges for a half-mile through dark, moist woods, I point out the tall hemlocks that soar overhead. We burrow under their draping boughs and breathe in the pungent, piney smell. I tell the boys that it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to walk through a hemlock grove with their children; the hemlock woolly adelgid is infesting these forests up and down the Southern Appalachians. Within a few decades, scientists figure, eastern America’s hemlocks could follow the chestnut into history.
Breathe deep, boys, I say. They do.
Late in the afternoon, high winds and low clouds roll across the mountain ridges, and we take shelter in the lee of a soaring fin of jagged rock. Clinging to a two-foot-wide rock perch, we scarf down trail mix as cloud shadows move like herds of dark animals across the yellow slopes below.
“Look!” Jack suddenly shouts. “It looks like a lion! Dad, do you see it?”
I see the shadow, but I can make neither a head nor a tail from its shifting shape. “There it goes,” Jack says. “I wish you could have seen it, Dad.”
The lion is lost on me. But not the wonder.
The next morning, I stir oatmeal on the single-burner camp stove. “That’s cowboy oatmeal,” Robbie announces. “Cool.”
“Cowboy oatmeal?” I reply. “What’s that?”
“You know. Oatmeal that’s not cooked in a microwave.”
Chris and I howl. Neither of these kids is coddled. Both have camped and fished and hiked and paddled all their young lives. But such trips are only temporary forays into the exotic worlds that lie beyond the sidewalk. Driving up to the trailhead, Jack and Robbie shrieked in pleasure when we let them ride up the rough woods road with their seat belts unbuckled. Their connection to technology is so insidiously wound into everyday life that the thought of cooking without the use of microwave radiation is primitive. Like something out of a Western movie.
And it’s not just the kids, of course. As we shoulder our packs after breakfast, an Eastern towhee belts out its carol from maybe 30 feet away.
“Hey, Dad,” Jack sings out. “It’s the drink-your-tea bird! That’s my favorite!”
“That’s a what?” Chris asks. So I tell him about the towhee, how its three-part song can be mnemoniced into drink-your-tea.
“I can’t believe it,” he says. “I hear that every single morning—they must be making a nest in the backyard—and I’ve never known what it was.” He shakes his head and listens. “Hey, Robbie, how cool is that?”
But 15 seconds have passed, so the boys are long gone, moved on to some other discovery. We’re just a few miles from the truck now, and they stride ahead, pinpricks of bright purple and green backpack cloth against the russet grasses, pulled by the promise of ice cream at the first convenience store we find on the drive home.
Last night a powerful thunderstorm moved across the Mount Rogers wilds. We’d bunked down in a three-sided log Appalachian Trail shelter, and for long hours I’d lain awake, listening to the pounding thrum of rain on the shelter roof and Jack’s coarse breathing just inches from my own. In the dark my eyes could make out only the scantest details of his face—a bulge of cheekbone, the arcuate edge of forehead, the serrated outline of hair. Then lightning would flash, and for a split second I saw all of the familiar features—the curious freckles that speckle his chin, the long eyelashes, a small scar by his ear. As the dark closed over us again, I was left with the negative image of Jack’s face, the way you see a bright image for a few seconds when you first close your eyes.
Now I hear Jack’s cackling laugh again, the joyous sound of unbridled freedom in the unshackled wild. I could not count the number of times I have heard that sound, ringing from mountains and swamps and deep woods and wild beaches. Each time I hear it I resolve to hear it again, make a promise to myself and to my children to never stop bringing them to the places where my father took me, to places where birdsong greets them in the morning and we eat cowboy oatmeal for breakfast and lick dessert off a stick. Now the wind picks up his wild laughter and drives it across the mountain and into my heart, like the seed that finds soil in the cleft of a rock.