It’s the middle of September, the world is in chaos, and I can’t stop looking at my phone.
That’s not because I’m checking my email or twitter, anxious to see the latest in the constant churn of political news or the current tropical superstorm calamities. I gaze at my phone instead because it features a photo of my daughter dancing in the woods, taken during our mid-August camping trip.
Our campsite had a semi-circle of trees and the ground in between them made for a terrible dance floor, all knotty with tree roots. And she danced in my wife’s river sandals; it doesn’t get more awkward for a young dancer training in classical ballet.
But we were outside in the woods, no connections to the outside world, a father-daughter camping trip that was quite small in scope yet amazingly successful.
When I was in my twenties and charting out how my life would proceed, I had a grand vision of raising a super-environmentally focused kid. Family trips would be long backpacking treks across the vast and beautiful wilderness in the US. Maybe we all could even ride bicycles across the country one summer.
My vision was similar to how NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has actually managed to structure his summers. For the past six years, he and his daughter hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail, all 2,650 miles up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington, Oregon, and California. The first summer they ventured out, Kristof’s daughter was 14 and they covered 200 miles.
The camping trip in late August that I took with my 12-year-old daughter, on the other hand, was barely a backpacking excursion–2.5 miles on a straight, mostly flat old logging road, then two nights in a tent sandwiching an idle day enjoying West Virginia’s Seneca Creek and the woods surrounding the tent, and then 2.5 miles back. We had tried to do this trip two years ago, but washed-out roads forced us to car camp instead.
It was her first time carrying a camping backpack into the woods. Even though her backpack during the school year weighs more (for our trip, she carried clothes and empty water bottles), if we had to cover one more mile, it might have broken both of us.
To get my daughter to accompany me, I had to watch the 1998 remake of the Parent Trap with her–twice. Somehow, seeing Lindsay Lohan insist on the annual father-daughter camping trip with Dennis Quaid motivates my daughter in a way that my love of nature doesn’t. And then, once we pitched the tent, my daughter insisted that we not venture any further into the woods. In fact, the more time spent in the tent playing cards, the better.
If Kristof had to confront such hardball negotiations, he did not reveal it. Yet the end result is the same in many ways. Father, daughter, backpacks, camping, nature.
My daughter is an indoor kid, leery of all the outdoor catastrophes that hover outside of her world. Climate change is an ominous threat. The sun is a hated enemy, in part because sunscreen has always been yucky and then there was the carcinoma I had removed from my face a few years back. Ticks, of course, are a neverending hazard. And then there’s humidity, mosquitoes, air pollution, mud, etc.
I won’t even mention the whole bathroom thing.
Indoors, everything is safe, controlled, air-conditioned, and the floor is smooth for ballet. So much less to go wrong.
In many ways, I can’t fault her for growing up with this perspective. She’s as much a product of her times as I am of mine. But the value of these trips, no matter how short, is the time spent away, unplugged from the outside and reconnecting in our own ways. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll emerge from her teenage years with an appreciation of all the gifts that the natural world still brings us.
So for those of you parents with family camping or backpacking aspirations, just do it! Don’t be intimidated by the fantastical successes of parents like Kristof, understand that any time spent outdoors with your kids helps broaden their horizons in so many ways.
And, if you’re lucky, it makes for some great photo ops as well.