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Into the Woods: A Father-Son Camping Trip Gone Awry

What's for breakfast? McCarthy's son takes in the view over a tasty meal of sardines and M&M's.

What’s for breakfast? McCarthy’s son takes in the view over a tasty meal of sardines and M&M’s.

By Andrew McCarthy

“This is the worst day of my life!” my then seven-year-old son turned and yelled at me. He dropped to the ground and hung his head to cry. And there, on a trail in the middle of the Catskill Mountains in New York State, he melted down. We were two hours into a five-mile hike to a remote lake, high on a ridge after several hundred steep feet of elevation gain. The view, when the trees broke, was expansive. None of that beauty mattered now. We still had miles to go; the afternoon was wearing down, and my son wouldn’t budge.

The idea had been simple; take my boy on a father son overnight camping trip. I’d grown up in suburban New Jersey and never spent a night outdoors until I turned thirty and decided I ought to know how to pitch a tent. I went to Wyoming and took a month long course in the Absaroka Mountains and learned to be comfortable without a roof over my head. Every year thereafter I tried to make at least one trip into the outdoors, to keep my skills up, but also because it was in the mountains where I discovered that simple connection—to not only the natural world, but also my place in it. I felt an “at homeness” in myself when I was far from home and deep in the wilderness in a way that I never had before.

I had been telling my son and his younger sister about the joys of camping for a few years, and he was keen for me to take him. I was eager for both my kids to experience at a young age what it had taken me so long to discover, yet I was apprehensive. It seemed that every time I went camping, I forgot something—the frying pan, my knife, or how exactly to tie a trucker’s hitch. These mistakes were easy enough for me to live with when on my own, but being responsible for my son’s safety?—an unacknowledged fear had been exposed, one easily masked in the comforts of daily life.

But one of the benefits of parenting is that it forces us to try and live up to the idea of our better selves, and so with fears acknowledged, supplies triple checked, and spirits high, we piled into the car and headed north.

At the trailhead my son and I hoisted our packs. He was excited and ran ahead. The late summer air was humid, the trees heavy with a full season’s growth. After twenty minutes the trail began to climb and my son asked, “How much further, Dad.”

I’d been worried that five miles might be too far for his first real hike, but on the map, the lake had seemed the perfect destination. I began to tell my son long stories to take his mind of the walk. He gave me his backpack to carry; and eventually, after the steep grade, he had enough and quit, right in the middle of the trail. The reality of his experience in direct opposition to the fantasy of my father son utopia, and I saw whatever glorious bonding I had imagined vanishing under the reality of my son’s exhaustion. I did the only thing a father could do; I reached for the secret stash of the normally forbidden M&M’s—the ones meant to be saved for after dinner, after all our work was done—and dangled them in front of his wet blue eyes.

“Really?” his voice held a glimmer of hope.

“Really.” I offered him two.

Three-dozen M&M’s later, we found the lake—our spirits soared. I showed him how to set up the tent, we unrolled our sleeping bags, then splashed in the clear water. As darkness fell, a riot of frogs began their bellowing serenade. My son found their croaking symphony hysterical, and laughed himself to sleep.

In the morning when the stove wouldn’t light (I had neglected to bring enough propane) my son had sardines and M&M’s for breakfast; he pronounced it the best meal he had ever eaten; and camping a glorious adventure. After languid hours we packed up and skipped back along the trail that had seemed endless just a day before.

The following year we were rained out of our camping trip, and last year time got away, but we’re headed back out for another overnight next weekend—and the big yellow “value size” bag of M&M’s is already in my pack.

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