I was 10 years old, clutching the top of my sleeping bag, counting the seconds between lightning flashes and thunderclaps, when I had my first middle-of-the-night revelation about tent camping. This was my long-awaited father-daughter hiking trip along a North Carolina stretch of the Appalachian Trail, my chance to experience the wilderness peace that my dad was always talking about. We’d pitched our two-person tent in the center of a grassy meadow at the top of Big Yellow Mountain, only to find ourselves precariously perched — no, exposed — in the path of a terrific storm. Just hours earlier, the bald summit had seemed like an ideal spot, bathed in a pink and orange sunset. In 1974, there was no way to know that shortly after 2 a.m., clouds would roll in and Act Two would commence. I strained to hear my dad’s reassurances over the violent snap of nylon tent flaps, and I vowed never again to pitch a tent on top of a mountain — if I ever camped again.
Such are promises made in youth. Soon enough, I found myself in a tent with Dad again. And again. Camping was a bond that my sister and I shared with him. As soon as we got home with new stories to tell, our dad was dreaming up the next adventure. Sometimes with friends — in Nepal and Wyoming — but more often it was just us. “I wanted you to know how to cook over a fire and how to pitch a tent,” he told me recently. “And that you needn’t be afraid of the dark.”
My sister loved the dark so much, she was the first one outside on summer evenings when the neighborhood kids played Ain’t No Boogie Man Out Tonight. I, on the other hand, was afraid to get up in the night to use the bathroom. My dad knew this. Nevertheless, we camped. Our family pitched tents at bluegrass festivals, state and national parks, and even in Tanzania, where, one night, a lion chased a herd of zebras through our campsite in Ngorongoro Crater. A little bit of terror was part of the fun. On a hike at Mount Mitchell, a campfire spark burned my cheek so badly that, the next week, I had to angle my face just so for school pictures.
When we got older, a floatplane dropped us all off on a lake in the Maine wilderness. The first night we spent on a pebble-strewn beach under the stars, falling asleep to the call of loons. That trip meant so much to me that it was years before I could speak of it without getting teary-eyed.
Decades later, when my marriage failed and I found myself raising two boys, Kenan and Aslan, I wanted to replicate my adventures for them. My older son had been diagnosed with a particularly intense form of OCD, and, as I flipped through trail guidebooks, I wondered how in the world I was going to do it all myself. I’d long since overcome my fear of the dark — mostly — but I wasn’t sure that I could be the voice of reassurance if a storm pitched up. Or if a spark burned someone’s cheek. I assumed it was all about being prepared. I could do that. I had learned to expect the unexpected.
• • •
Dad had a slogan when we packed: “take care of the ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” We didn’t weigh each item, but we did keep count — 45 slices of tiny bread, two refillable squeeze tubes filled with peanut butter and jelly. Clothes: three old T-shirts, rain gear, sturdy shoes. Tent. Camera. Journal. We lined up everything on the floor and edited until we had it just right. Then we took our packs out for a practice walk.
That wasn’t going to work for me. If I was heading alone into the wilderness with two young boys, I needed provisions: a medical kit, fat pine for starting fires, flashlights, batteries for flashlights, extra flashlights, in case those flashlights got lost. I made a chart. Even after I whittled it down, it was several pages long. The Appalachian Trail would have to wait. No fancy, efficient, light-frame backpacks for us. I was going to load up my Mom Van.
I bought large plastic bins with lids and made a packing list for each. So that we’d know which was which, the boys and I named the bins for beloved family members; the items inside corresponded to things that reminded us of that person. Their Turkish grandmother, Esmehan, is a wonderful cook, so the Esmehan bin got the pots, pans, and knives. Tablecloths, lanterns, cups, and plates went into the Annie bin, named for my mother, who throws great parties. Campfire games, ENO hammocks, and nets for catching frogs went into the bin named for the boys’ cousins. No one liked the dish-washing bin, so we named it Tom Brady. (Go Panthers!) The Papa bin contained the essentials: flashlights, rope, the medical kit, matches, fire gloves, and such.
First we camped on the screened-in porch. Then the yard. Eventually nearby state parks. Each time, I refined my system. Tweezers? I packed them. We learned to bake a cake in campfire coals, and we discovered that canned frosting tastes best when smeared over a hot cake that’s eaten with your fingers. The boys and I liked the people we became when we spent time together in the woods.
• • •
Last summer, we got bold and took a three-week road trip to Maine, tent-camping our way through 11 states. By now, Kenan was 13 years old; Aslan, 10. As we drove out of Chapel Hill, the back of the van sagged from the bins, but they all fit. Perfectly, like a glorious puzzle.
We got lost the first day and didn’t pull into our campsite until dusk. Aslan, whom we call “Rabbit” for good reason, bounced off to scope things out — that’s his job. Kenan is my tent man. In the fading light, we quickly began connecting poles for our new, larger tent. To my horror, I realized that I’d forgotten the instructions.
Kenan’s face fell. Gray, low-hanging clouds shifted overhead. We spread out the tent on the ground like an embarrassed, collapsed balloon. I checked my phone for the weather. No service. It was dark by the time Kenan and I got the tent up. We felt like rock stars and crashed inside.
About 2 a.m., I woke to the sound of tent flaps snapping in the wind. No thunder or lightning, just huge gusts rolling up over the mountain, violently shaking our new tent. Were the stakes secure? Had we gotten the poles right? Wide awake, sandwiched between my sleeping boys, I wondered why I had thought I was brave enough to make this trip.
This, I realized, was how my dad must have felt that night on Big Yellow. And so it was that I had my second middle-of-the-night mountaintop revelation about camping: There is no way to be completely prepared. Camping is supposed to be an adventure, and adventure requires an acceptance of uncertainty. My dad took me into the wilderness not to cure me of fear, but to show me I could handle it. Strangely, my favorite childhood memories of camping are of things going wrong. The storm. The zebras. The burned cheek. Was this lesson intentional? Or did my dad stumble into it, like the one or two good parenting moments I give myself credit for with my own kids?
The fierce wind finally woke Aslan. “Mom,” he whispered in the dark. “Do you hear that?” Before I could offer up any of my newfound wisdom, he yelped with delight, “It’s Totoro!” That’s the name of the giant magical forest spirit in his favorite animated movie. We talked softly for a long time, marveling at the wind’s power, wondering where the forest animals were sleeping. The tent held.
We named the campsite Totoro Mountain. It’s now one of our favorites. Back home, we told my parents all of our stories: the family of mice that kept us up one night, the morning Kenan spiked a fever and we had to find an urgent care center in a torrential downpour. Afterward, my dad, now 80, reminded me of his favorite saying: No matter how bad his day has been, at the end of it, he can say to my mom, “At least we’re not camping tonight.”