The Tent of Our Dreams

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    Sleeping bag? Check. Long underwear? Check. The waterproof boots from L.L. Bean I’ve had since college? Well, in need of new laces, but also check. Now if I could only find my old tent. Must be around here someplace.

    But let’s face facts. That tent was 1970s-vintage, hung by a thread, and hadn’t seen any serious outdoor duty since the Boy Scout troop decided to take on twenty-five miles of the Appalachian Trail. Which pretty much sums up me, too. Now here I am all these years later, about as trail-hardy as the Pillsbury Dough boy, getting ready to give it another go. Because the time has finally come. I’m taking my boy on our first overnight camp out.

    No sweat, no problem, no big deal. We’ll be camping for just one night, and none of the other dads seem fazed by the sound of the wilderness calling – or the thought of half a dozen 8-year-olds let loose in the wild. We’re biting off a slice of the great outdoors. We’ll breathe in the cold night air and trace the Big Dipper just above the horizon. We’ll make camp about fifteen feet away from our minivans.

    As for a tent, my pal Jeff has one he can lend me. But it’s old and bulky and seems to have an awful lot of poles. Let’s set it up now in the back yard, just so I’ll know what I’m doing once we’re out in the woods.

    More than two hours later, the tent is still spread out on the ground, looking like an enormous squished spider. Listen, I went to college. And geometry was one of my best subjects in high school. This really shouldn’t be such a big deal. But for the life of me, I just can’t figure out how to put the darned thing together.

    And now a quiet uneasiness starts to creep in. What if Will discovers that Dad isn’t the master backpacker he’s been claiming to be all week? Or what if it dawns on him that Dad is, more likely, a camp out dork? Or worse still – and this is the ultimate humiliation – what if Dad has to ask other dads for help? They’ll see me wrestling with the tent poles and sleeves and zippers, grin their crooked grins, then amble over to lend a hand.

    I make a quick decision. Time to buy my own tent. And not because I need a new tent, but because I need the directions that will tell me exactly how A fits into B and thus connects to C. Or at least a picture of the tent fully assembled, nestled in a glen, with a mountain stream running by and a handsome couple happily drinking hot coffee in front of their perfect campfire.

    At the sporting goods store, I learn how far tents have come since I last hunkered down in the forest. They’re lighter and thinner and use special carbon-fiber poles to stand erect. They are also now made in countries where “4-man” really means They’ll comfortably sleep only Snow White and three of the dwarfs. And tents these days have mesh ceilings – separate rain-flies serve as the roofs. My neighbor, also a dad (and whose name I can’t reveal on penalty of never being able to borrow his chainsaw again), once slept in his tent without the rain-fly so he could gaze up at the stars. He woke up the next morning so covered in dew he looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower.

    I make my choice (3-season Coleman 4-man dome), then eye the equipment that fills the nearby shelves. Here are the waterproof bivy sacks, Sierra cups, Bluet propane ministoves, carabiners for rock-climbing. Do I need all this stuff? Remember: Skimp on supplies now and risk being labeled Unprepared Dad. He forgets his fleece. He’s wearing old tennis shoes. It’s 35 degrees, and his son has neither hat nor gloves (and Mom is going to be really mad when she finds out). But be careful: It only takes one or two overly enthusiastic purchases to turn you into The Dad Who Tried Too Hard. He buys way, way too many marshmallows for s’mores. Doesn’t bring a flashlight – uses a miner’s helmet instead. Lights the campsite with a deluxe lantern complete with built-in siren, ham radio, TV, and flashing red emergency beacon. Wait, I have one of those. Better put it in the van anyway.

    In the end, I buy what any wise dad long off the trail would: a queen-sized, flocked-top air mattress with rechargeable pump. Hey, I’m all for the crystalline chill of a night in the wild, but at this point in my life, I ain’t sleeping on the cold, hard ground. And I shall treasure forever the look on my wife’s face when she came home this evening to find our new tent standing tall and taut and 100 percent assembled. In the living room.

    Tonight, lying here in the tent of our dreams, my boy and I gaze into a darkness cut only by the glow of the bathroom light down the hall. Tomorrow, we’ll stake our claim on the father/son frontier. We’ll watch another dad raise a tent complete with vestibules, gear attics and a neoclassical dome reminiscent of Jefferson’s Monticello. A different dad brings a mountaineering tent that looks vaguely medieval; I half-expect King John to emerge, ready to sign the Magna Carta. And across the way, someone else struggles with a gigantic tent that makes everyone think of the circus.

    “Where are the elephants?” somebody yells.

    We laugh and grin our crooked grins. Another dad needs help. Let’s give that guy a hand.