If you’re going to camp, you have to hike. That’s not a rule. That’s just the way it should be. The first time I camped in the Great Smoky Mountains,
If you’re going to camp, you have to hike. That’s not a rule. That’s just the way it should be. The first time I camped in the Great Smoky Mountains, back in the late 2000s, I chose a primitive site seven trail miles from the Big Creek ranger station. I dragged my then-girlfriend on a long backpacking trek during which we climbed up to a ridge, walked a mile along a fairly regular-looking stretch of the Appalachian Trail, then veered off to a tiny, uninteresting clearing, where we set up our tent and rolled out our sleeping bags. My girlfriend wasn’t a hiker. Or a camper. But she was a fan of overlooks and vistas, neither of which were to be found along the route I’d picked.
I’d wanted an authentic outdoor experience. I wanted to filter my own water from a creek. I wanted to eat freeze-dried Backpacker’s Pantry meals out of a pouch. I wanted to hang my backpack high in a tree so that bears couldn’t steal my food. I wanted the feeling of spending the night in a tiny tent far from civilization, following a hike that left my legs wobbly, in a spot where the stars would shine brightly. We couldn’t see the stars, though, because the thick canopy blotted out the sky. The food was meh. The long day had left us grumpy. It wasn’t a great trip, but my love of camping persisted. The relationship, however, did not.
A few years later, I was dating someone new, and we decided to go camping. This time, I picked Morrow Mountain State Park. It’s close to Albemarle, right in the middle of the state, easy to get to from Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro. There’s a little bit of topography, thanks to the park’s location at the western edge of the Uwharrie Mountains. The trails are long enough. There’s a pool that’s open in summer. Canoes for rent. The campground has showers and bathrooms. Morrow Mountain has a little bit of everything, but not too much of anything.
Instead of taking a long hike, we set up camp right behind my car. We pulled off a modest hike to the top of Morrow Mountain, which is a humble 936 feet above sea level. I chopped firewood that the campground host had dropped off for us in a golf cart. We sat next to a roaring campfire in cloth chairs. I cooked beans in the can straight over the flames. We brushed our teeth at a sink. We slept peacefully, knowing that if a wild animal arrived, we could spend the night in the car.
Reader, she married me.
• • •
Eleven years after that camping trip, I loaded up my car with a cooler, a camp stove, sleeping bags, a tent, a hammock, some granola bars, and our 7-year-old son. My wife and daughter were out of town, and I’d suggested that Charlie and I go on our first camping trip that wasn’t in the backyard. I started the car and pointed it toward the one place that made the most sense: Morrow Mountain.
I had everything worked out. We’d get there and set up camp. We’d rent a canoe. Ride bikes. We’d cook burgers over the fire. Play card games. And then, at the end, we’d hike. I wanted to take a trail to the summit. That’d be memorable, I thought.
Ten minutes into the drive, Charlie spoke up. “Dad,” he said sheepishly, “I brought the iPad.”
This would not do.
I hadn’t explicitly banned screens, but I’d assumed that my son would find them incompatible with camping. I handed down my judgment: The iPad could stay on until we got to the park. In the back seat, my son cackled with glee as he spawned loudly meowing cats in Minecraft. Up front, I plotted my next move.
Once we got to Morrow Mountain, we ordered firewood from the park office and picked up a trail map. On the walk back to the car, we passed a payphone. “Ha! A payphone! Look at that!” I said to Charlie.
No response. I was 0-for-2.
Next, we rented a canoe and paddled into the gentle current on Lake Tillery. I tried my best to make the experience seem interesting. I demonstrated how to paddle. I pointed out jumping fish. Charlie dragged his blade in the water and giggled, merely tolerating me. We canoed all the way to the Falls Reservoir Dam, where the water slowly gurgled and formed rapids around rocks.
“This is an eddy,” I told Charlie as we sat in a patch of calm water.
“OK, Dad,” he said flatly. I was striking out.
• • •
I was a cub scout when I started camping. I learned lessons that I took to heart: Leave no trace. Pack it in, pack it out. Bring only what you need. Be prepared. Of course, I was a kid, so I also learned my own lessons: Playing tag in the woods is fantastic. Igniting a pile of magnesium shavings from the fire starter you bought at the Army/Navy store is awesome. S’mores are great, but you know what’s a lot less labor-intensive? Stuffing your cheeks full of marshmallows whenever the adults aren’t looking. To understand squirrels, one must live like a squirrel.
Boy Scouts was my next move, but I quit after achieving Second Class. I liked camping, but I was selfish. I didn’t want to do the other stuff that scouting required, and I figured that I could just go camping my way. That didn’t really happen. I went camping here and there in college. I moved to West Virginia, an outdoor paradise, but continued to camp only about once a year.
After I moved to North Carolina in 2005, I tried to make up for lost time. The adventures got more ambitious. On a trip back to West Virginia, I backpacked to Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state. I camped in the Congaree Swamp down in South Carolina. I took a ferry to a small, sandy island in Dry Tortugas National Park, two hours west of Key West, and camped there. I took trips deep into the North Carolina mountains, too. A few years ago, I hiked to the most remote spot in our state, a place off the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. That trip left me soaking wet and exhausted. Each new experience felt like it had to top the one before it.
Then, before I knew it, I had a family.
We started off small, camping in the backyard inside the gargantuan eight-person tent that my wife won in a contest. It was big enough to stand in. We played card games and slept on air mattresses and pointed out Jupiter, Mars, and Venus in the night sky. When the time came to do some real camping, I thought, we’d be ready.
• • •
At Morrow Mountain with Charlie, I didn’t feel like this real camping was going well. Back at our campsite, I made the mistake of setting up the hammock before the tent. Charlie helped snap together two of the tent poles, but he decided to lie down in the hammock with one of my old Garfield comic books after that. I built the fire on my own.
One of my son’s requests had been for camp burgers. So I fished some patties out of the cooler and placed them on a foil-covered grate that hovered over red-hot coals. The cooking was excruciatingly slow. Charlie saw some kids from a nearby campsite go running by to play tag in the woods. He longingly glanced over at me. “Go have fun,” I told him. He was running off before I even got the words out. It took a full hour for the burgers to cook over the low heat. When Charlie returned, he took a big bite, and his face dropped. “I don’t like this,” he said. “It tastes like smoke.” He was used to the burgers that I grill over a propane flame at home. I ate them both.
Charlie had also wanted to stargaze. But once again, I’d foiled our plans. The tree canopy was thick, and the logs that I’d dumped on the fire after dinner threw a bright orange light on the leaves.
“Sorry, buddy,” I said. “I don’t think we can see too many stars right here.”
“That’s OK,” he said, and went back to reading.
We made s’mores. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he stuffed a large marshmallow into his mouth.
• • •
Parents know that anything involving kids won’t go according to plan. So far at Morrow Mountain, not much had. But I was frustrated for a different reason. I wanted Charlie to love camping the way that I had loved it when I was his age. I wanted him to learn how to build a fire. How to find and follow a trail. How to set up a tent. At age 7, though, he no longer wore his emotions out in the open. Sometimes happiness or frustration poured out of him loudly, but he was starting to react to certain things more subtly. It was a shift that I’d known would come. After all, children eventually age out of always shouting out their internal monologues. But when it came to stuff that I really hoped he’d enjoy, I wished for those simpler, earlier days. I kept waiting for him to say, “Dad! I love camping!”
He never did. The next morning, we woke up and made toast over a fire. This time, the smoke didn’t bother him. He ate it all. We got our campsite cleaned up and played a card game at the picnic table. Then I unfurled the paper map.
“Where do you want to hike?” I asked him.
“I don’t want to hike,” he said.
I could feel frustration welling up inside me. We had to hike! I’d been talking about it since we got here! This is why we got the map! Why else would we get a map?!
I tried different permutations: “How about a short hike?” No. “How about a hike to an exotic mountain peak?” No. “How about a super-secret path down to the river?”
“No, Dad. No.”
I readied the biggest weapon in my arsenal: The very powerful We’re going for a hike and that’s final! But Charlie didn’t want to go. And I didn’t want to escalate. After all, this was our first father-son camping trip. It shouldn’t end in angst.
So we got back in the car and drove to the summit of Morrow Mountain instead. I thought about our weekend: Charlie had giggled his way through three s’mores. He’d quietly read book after book. He’d made new friends. He hadn’t asked to go home early. He hadn’t complained. Not even once.
I’d been waiting for validation from a younger Charlie, the one who’d always told me exactly how he was feeling. I wanted him to tell me that he loved camping the way I did. But I already knew that he liked being there, even if he didn’t want to do the things that I did. With camping, we can both enjoy the same thing, even if we don’t enjoy it the same way.
We got out of the car at the summit and walked to the overlook. Charlie stood and gazed out, looking at the blue sky above, the green trees blanketing gentle hills, Lake Tillery far below. After a minute, we went back to the car. As we drove out of the park, Charlie unfolded the map and spread it across his lap. I can’t know exactly what was going through his head. But it sure felt like he was thinking about our next trip.