When I was 17 years old I was invited on my first backpacking trip: four days and 40 miles in the Teton’s Alaska Basin area with one of my closest girlfriends, Katie, and her great-uncle.
Yes, great. Uncle Ron was in his 70s, but could whoop trail-ass. And he’d been leading backpackers and adventurers – Boy Scouts mostly – on these trails for decades. He and Katie also had a tradition of two or three hikes each year, and that summer I was lucky enough to be invited along.
I didn’t grow up outdoorsy. My family never camped together, and rarely hiked. I have one vague hiking/berry-picking memory from before I was five. Until I was an adult and dragged her along with my kids and me, my mom claimed to not like camping in the least (she and my dad are now spending their retirement years as campground hosts).
But my parents did put my sisters and me in Girl Scouts, and make the financial sacrifices necessary to send us to Camp Ta-man-a-wis – a Girl Scout horseback-riding camp near Swan Valley, Idaho. I caught the hiking-nature-camping bug that summer, and the next at Camp Luther Heights, in Sun Valley, and the next at the LDS Girls Camp outside Soda Springs (I had a complicated theological upbringing). Every chance I had to be outdoors, I took it, even, in high school, often hiking alone when I knew it was risky and my parents had asked me not to do so.
But that backpacking trip with Katie and Uncle Ron... that was backcountry. No campground with running water. That was snow in June and learn-your-edible-plants, severe weather and bears, and 10,000 feet of elevation at the highest point. I was changed.
After that summer, I mocked all my friends who referred to nature walks as hikes, or campground camping as roughing it. I swore I would never again pitch my tent or plod my path anywhere I could still see my car, or the road, or a human dwelling. And for a long time, I didn’t.
Flash forward 19 years. I’m a divorced mom of three, struggling to work, finish school, and raise my kids alone, full-time. We do camping in a campground, but only if it has at least pit toilets, garbage service, and running water. We do hikes on maintained and well-marked trails, with distances of three miles or less one-way. The only edible plants we can identify (usually) are thimbleberries and hucks, and then we eat them as a snack between our carefully-pre-cooked tin foil dinners and s’mores.
There are times when I hear the high mountains calling and I see those Alaska Basin memories playing in my mind. And then those times are interrupted by the generator on the Winnebago in the next campsite over.
As my children grow, however, so do our adventures. My oldest is 12, a girl, followed by two boys, nine and three. Three is a tricky age for hiking; he’s nearly too big to put in a pack on my back, but not quite big enough to tromp the distance the other two can. But three is also a far cry from babyhood, and he is old enough to learn about trail safety, risks, and the reward of the journey. The older two, of course, have been raised in forests and on mountains, to the point that I hope it's a part of them now; a part they will never lose.
Taking kids camping or hiking, and taking them at their level and their pace, can be frustrating. It can be particularly frustrating for parents like me, who have seen the summits and felt the still-silence and breathed the thin air and felt alive. It can (and likely will) result in a mountain of laundry, so many Band-Aids that you think about buying stock in the company, lost water bottles, tears, and tired children who sleep through the drive home and then can’t rest that night.
But, it will also surely result in the planting of a seed – a love-of-nature seed. An I-can-do-this seed. A remember-that-time-with-my-family good memories seed. And then slowly but surely the children will grow and the seeds will grow and eventually, we’ll be in the Tetons, doing four days and 40 miles, together, as a family.
My summers at camp I learned how to pitch a tent, dig a trench, build a fire, chop wood, heat water, and cook – the same skills I use today and teach to my children. That summer with Katie and Uncle Ron, I learned things like how to safely ascend and descend a shale-covered mountain face, how to tell if the water is low-risk to drink unfiltered, or when it’s safe to eat the the pink-algae-covered snow (tastes like watermelon). I learned how much I love splashing cold stream water on my face as the sun rises, and how good freeze-dried spaghetti can be at the end of a 20-mile day.
Someday, we will get out of the campground and off the beaten path again. In the meantime, I will continue to take my children campground-camping, teaching them how to keep a clean camp, how to stay safe, and try to remember that it’s okay if we haven’t hit the trail and we’re still sitting around eating breakfast and laughing at 10 A.M.
I will continue to take them into our national parks, where we’ll mark six stops per day on the map and accomplish maybe three. Because what can seem to me like a 20-minute stroll from the parking lot to an overlook, can be to them a grand adventure. When I feel like we’re spending too much time just playing by the river and not advancing on the trail, they feel like they’re exploring every inch of that spot, carving out that moment.
I tell myself to remember that there is more than this one day, this one trail. There is life ahead of them, and each step into nature is progress on that trail, which surely has its rough terrain. We'll dawdle down the path for now, and linger at the water’s edge, so that someday we will be ready for the summits, together.