What I remember most is the rain. All day, all night, pounding down on the two-man Army-style canvas tent, leaking through the floor, running like a cold river from the head of my pathetic sleeping bag all the way down to the toe.
Wet, cold, and miserable, hour after hour, shivering there in the dark. I had dreamed of my first camping trip for so long. Now here I was.
Welcome to Boy Scouts.
Be Prepared the Scout motto insists, and though I came nowhere close on that washout weekend so many years ago, I survived, went on to learn more skills, and by the time I mustered out of the troop, I could pack a pack, pitch a tent, and outsmart the wet and the cold as well as the next guy.
And now here is my son, ready to take his first step into the great outdoors. Like his father before him, he’s a greenhorn of the first order. His new uniform still shows its crisp creases. His rank is merely Scout – the name for a troop newbie, equivalent to buck private. But with Tenderfoot rank clearly in his sights, he’s already begun memorizing the famous Scout Law that begins A Scout is trustworthy…loyal…helpful…friendly…
Lucky for Will, he’s already had a taste of time in the wild. Thanks to the YMCA’s intrepid Y-Guides program, we’ve camped together these past few years as members of the Catawba Tribe of the Navajo Nation. On those easygoing father-son longhouse outings, the two of us would stretch out in heavy sleeping bags on a queen-sized blow-up mattress inside a tent big enough for four grown men. The minivan, parked only steps away, served as storehouse for extra shoes, socks, sweaters, snacks, and sodas. The dads grilled steaks on full-sized camp stoves; the boys ate burgers and dogs.
We even brought pillows from home.
But we’re past that now. Once you become a Scout, you hike in your stuff, cook your own meals and pack out your trash. And for that you need the right equipment, available at the local outdoor outfitter. Here’s the ultra-light plate, bowl, and cup combo for fireside dinners. The 32-ounce Nalgene bottle for keeping cold things cold and hot things hot. The miner’s-style headlamp to light the way at night (regular flashlights are so last generation). The fifty feet of parachute cord for I don’t know what.
As we trekked through the store aisles loading up on gear, I could see how much had changed since my own Scout days. He would need a sleep cushion – a feather-light roll-up pad designed not for comfort but for insulating you from the cold, hard ground. Here’s his new fiberfill sleeping bag that trumps my time-honored North Face – a marvel of goose-down invention back in its day. In a fit of anxiety, I even found myself buying three different backpacks for him to test at home, unsure which one would hold the most, weigh the least, and sit just right on his 11-year-old shoulders.
And I guess I hectored him a bit as we packed his pack the night before the trip. I even thought of writing down some backcountry advice and slipping it into a pack pocket for him to find out on the trail. Keep your poncho where you can reach it in case it rains. Wear your wool socks (not cotton) when hiking to avoid blisters. Remember to shut your tent door to keep spiders and snakes from crawling in.
Would he be cold? Would he be homesick? Would the older scouts make him hunt for the elusive snipe? Or scold him for forgetting to bring the dehydrated water? Or send him all the way back down the mountain to fetch the all-important left-handed smoke shifter?
Yes, you might say I got carried away. Maybe the memory of the muck and the mud on that trip long ago made me want to make sure Will was, indeed, prepared. Still, as I lingered the next morning as he and the troop packed up and prepared to leave, I had to admit what was eating at me. He was taking his first step on a big, new adventure. But I wasn’t going with him.
He came home at the end of the weekend full of stories, of course. The boys got to cook quesadillas, eggs, and Pop-Tart pancakes all on a tiny butane stove. A football thrown too close to the campfire ignited and burned up a huge patch of grass. Two new scouts who left their tent flap open ran screaming when they found an enormous spider inside. Will learned how to identify poison ivy; whip and fuse the ends of a rope; tie a square knot, bowline, and taut-line hitch; and display, raise, lower, and properly fold the American flag. He still needs to demonstrate he knows how to care for someone who is choking, but he’s well on his way to becoming a Tenderfoot.
But the night of his campout, as the sun went down and the sky grew black and the temperature started to fall, I thought back on all the nights we’d spent out in the cold, and the campfires we’d built, and the marshmallows we’d burned, and the friends, both fathers and sons, we’d made together.
Now, under a bright, full moon, he was out there in the dark without me. The troop leaders had my number in case of an emergency, and I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I kept my phone next to the bed all night just in case. But of course it never rang.
I suppose he won’t need my list of backcountry tips, either. He’ll figure it out on his own, and that is as it should be. So hike on, my boy. No need to look back. The trail ahead is calling.