Where the Air is Fresh
and the Beds are Lumpy

Why an experienced camper is scared to go into the woods with his family.

Deep in the Pennsylvania countryside, standing just a few steps away from the largest collection of taxidermied deer I had ever seen, I was trying to buy a tent. A helpful salesguy at Cabela’s, a sort of outdoors superstore, had directed me to a box containing a new Kelty Green River 6 tent. I frowned thoughtfully and nodded as he described its 79 inches of headroom, its included 83-square-foot vestibule, and the pros and cons of fiberglass vs. steel tent poles.

Frankly, it all sounded pretty good. A decade ago, I had longed so much for a tent like this that my drool would have soaked its nylon before I even got it rainproofed.

But this time, the whole idea of camping seemed a little terrifying.

I wrote down the tent’s specs and gathered up my 7-month-old, who was fussy and hungry, and my 2-year-old, who was clutching a 5-foot plush marlin from the adjacent department. We retreated past the dead deer and into the Cabela’s parking lot.

I can’t even recall my first camping trip, but I doubt I was much older than my 2-year-old. My parents packed themselves plus my brother and me into a tent for at least one camping trip nearly every summer. The first tent I remember, which I’m sure wasn’t the family’s first, was a hexagonal, olive-and-tan Coleman dome-tent that didn’t have anything so fancy as a vestibule but held up remarkably well against rain, two rambunctious kids and more than a decade of use.

I truly became a camper around sixth grade, when I joined Boy Scout Troop 944 of Ellicott City, MD. I slept in a tent roughly one weekend per month for most of the next six years. I joined my troop on hiking trips and on biking trips; we explored caves and rappelled down steep rock faces; we survived rainstorms, freezing temperatures and raids by marauding chipmunks. By the time I left Scouts, I had canoed on a lake in Canada, snorkeled off the Florida Keys and backpacked for a week through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico.

I kept on camping for a while after that, even camping across the country with my soon-to-be-fiancée en route to a summer gig working at Yellowstone National Park. But as grad school replaced college, and then work replaced grad school, the logistics of scheduling a weekend away became increasingly daunting. I’m not sure my wife and I camped at all in the year before our oldest was born, and we certainly haven’t been since.

She said I was at my best when I was out in the woods, and she was probably right. Fresh air. Gorgeous views. Life just seemed simpler when I was on a trail.

Not that there weren’t challenges, but all tasks of being outdoors have a comforting finite-ness: Reading a map, reaching the next trailhead, warming up dinner, setting up a tent in the dark. I’ve had years of practice, so I’ve gotten pretty good at skills like navigating and pacing myself on a trail or stuffing a tent into one of those tiny stuff-sacks.

And I think that’s why the idea of camping with my family scares me.

Sure, there are the obvious worries about how my oldest son will probably run off in the woods, stomp on a snake’s den and roll in some poison ivy, and about how my younger son will then probably try to eat the poison ivy. I worry about how any of us will sleep, which is hard enough now with all of us in one house, let alone in the same nylon-skinned room on thin air mattresses over rocks and bumps.

But mostly I’m scared because I’ll have to learn a new set of skills. I know how to dance with Nature — how to take care of myself and test my own limits — but adding new partners changes all the steps. It’s selfish, but I guess I’m scared of how introducing diapers and time-outs might transform what I remember as my teenage haven. I’m scared I’ll replace my confident, relaxed outdoorsman persona with that of a stressed-out, run-down Daddy.

Yeah, I know. I’m being dumb. In a year and a half, I’ll look back on this and know I was worked up over nothing — the same way I now know that changing a diaper isn’t nearly as hard as I had imagined.

Part of me has already grasped the truth. I love walking with my older son through the woods as we identify leaves and listen for birds’ songs. I love hearing my youngest snore quietly in his backpack, lulled to sleep by the rhythm of my hiking.

And someday, probably not too long from now, I’ll learn to love sleeping with my family inside a Kelty Green River 6, complete with vestibule and fiberglass poles.

Article © 2008 by Michael Duck