Reid Doughten | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (3,073 words)
It’s dark and I’m sitting beside the smoldering remnants of sausage fat and cocoa powder. My kids roll around noisily in a tent behind me. I can hear my son try to reason with his younger sister, a bedtime dialogue marked by grunts and half-English. She cries out every now and again, fighting the sleepiness which, by god, must surely win out.
I’ve ventured into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to go camping with my kids — ages 1 and 3 — and I elect to do this without the help of my wife. She’d started working full time as a nurse several months before, including back-to-back 12-hour shifts every other weekend, while I was working a standard Monday-to-Friday schedule. And so for the first time since my children were born, I was left to solo parent for two days every other week. How hard could it be?
After several weekends, the answer was clear enough — it can be incredibly hard. Set aside the notion of treating time off of work as time “off.” Understand that your days are no longer your own, that time is marked not by numerals on the clock face but by bouts of wakefulness and sleep, of meals, snacks, playdates, shitty diapers, baths, and bedtime stories. Of course, anyone who spends their day as the lone supervisor of small children knows this instinctively, and should probably be awarded a fucking medal. This includes my wife.
So in my naiveté, I decide hastily that on this Saturday in early September, while my wife spends her “days off” from watching the kids working the telemetry floor at the hospital, that the children and I will do something that I enjoy and that perhaps they might get a kick out of as well.
Later that night beside the fire, while we haven’t technically been out of the car for more than five or six hours I realize this is not the purposeful experience I’d imagined. I’ve spent the majority of those hours in a state of frustration as I roll back the tape in my head. I lie in the dirt, push my sleeves down, and stew on all of this — my misguided preparation, my skewed expectations, how little sound is muffled by tent walls. I wonder, What the hell was I thinking?
Back in March, after one of those first weekends my wife had worked, a friend had asked how I had fared babysitting the kids solo for two days — in those exact words. Babysitting? While it was unthinkable to have used the term when describing how my wife spent most of her days, in addition to going to school and then working, why was it when the gender roles were reversed, I was suddenly babysitting? As if to imply I was only a stopgap, a stand-in, until the return of the professional. That as one half of an ostensibly equal guardianship, it’s somehow “babysitting” even when they’re my own progeny.
Yet in some ways, the term was more appropriate than I wanted to admit. I still had to be told how much cough medicine to give, and when, what the kids would be likely to eat, which shoes my son refused to wear because the velcro straps always came undone, or the early warning signs that my daughter was about to drop a load in her diaper.
I’ve ventured into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to go camping with my kids — ages one and three — and I elect to do this without the help of my wife.
Imprecise or not, the solution to many of these problems requires the kind of foresight and knack for adaptation at which my wife excels. I might have argued that the same was true for me when it came to camping, less so when it came to the kids, and, as I would soon find, far less when it came to handling both at the same time.
While unloading the car at the trailhead, I dropped a water bottle — one of only two I’d stowed in my backpack. It cracked on a rock and emptied into the dirt. The kids played merrily at the puddle’s margins.
In few other situations would the loss of a single water bottle be a significant event. We’re not exactly stranded, but we are at least an hour’s drive, round-trip, from more fresh water. It’s already afternoon and I don’t want to risk setting up camp in the dark.
While I remember that I’ve got more water stashed in the truck — an entire gallon that I keep for emergencies — I have nothing smaller to put it in. And the thought of carrying the entire eight-pound jug in my overstuffed pack, even for a few miles, is disheartening. I can almost feel my shoulders burn in anticipation.
Back in my early 20s, hiking solo or with friends and putting in twenty-mile days on multi-day trips, it was all about high speed, low drag. I’d bring as little water as necessary to save weight, pack a filter, count on finding a river, creek, pond, spring, whatever. I could deal with the discomfort if my luck went poorly. In the end, it was simply a question of cost versus benefit, of weight versus utility, of efficiency.
Now, some 10 years later and dozens of camping trips under my belt, I still try for some level of precision. As an engineer, it is as natural to me as it is bothersome. A compulsivity. But this much I’ve learned: the arcana of the outdoors and of children is that each follows its own recipe for animation, for behavior — at varying degrees of predictability. Weather is a good example. So are tantrums. And neither demands a precise solution. My wife might have imparted this lesson based both on instinct and experience, but I’ve always been one to fail on my own.
This is because modeling complex systems, distilling them down to their component parts, is what I do. I make lists and I make spreadsheets. I weigh items to the ounce. I apply that obstinate, engineering mindset to balancing a simple equation made hopelessly complex, its dozens of variables poised and counterpoised, hinged to the predilections of an uncertain world — weather, temperature, season, wind, distance, water sources, elevation, landscape, likelihood of bear encounters, on and on. Probability is just uncertainty quantified, and everything is a probability.
But here’s the rub: good preparation takes time — in advance of the trip. And once I’m in the woods, trying to adapt to changing circumstances, taking a few focused minutes to feather a stick or choose a campsite or string up a tarp in the rain, the aggregate of that time is non-trivial. Introducing the ‘Kid’ variable (denoted by a capital K, I’ve decided) and, in my case, two of them (2K), complicates the hell out of the whole calculus. And the most notable offset is that little t, that is, time.
We’ve gotten a late start. The sun is hovering a few fingers above the horizon and we’ve only covered a mile or so. The kids have slowed to a glacial pace. I prod the territory to the right, walking through high brush and eyeing the sloping ground. The trail is flat but the terrain on either side of it is not. I carry my daughter, the younger of the two, and my son follows. Immediately, he complains about the plants touching his legs. There are no viable campsites to be found and I can’t convince him to walk farther off-trail. I retreat to the path with each kid under my arm like a loaf of bread.
By the time we choose our campsite, we’re all on edge. At a time when I want only to unhitch my pack and sit for a moment, I’m faced with not one but two imminent hazards borne out of toddlerville — tired and hungry. Flustered, I start unpacking and discover almost immediately how screwed I am.
One: I haven’t brought a sleeping bag. I had decided instead to bring a large German wool blanket to save space and weight. It’s summer, right? An opportunity to test our woodland skills. Two: I did not bring my high R-value sleeping pads, having fantasized about stuffing moss and ferns and leaves and other forest fluff beneath the tent floor. Three: I abandoned the camp stove at home, envisioning us beside a small fire roasting sausages and heating cocoa and reading by the light of the flame like Jack London.
Back in March, after one of those first weekends my wife had worked, a friend had asked how I had fared babysitting the kids solo for two days — in those exact words. Babysitting?
In effect, I’ve replaced convenience and functionality with effort, with time. I’ve taken normal tasks and found creative ways to protract them, to make them take twice as long. The kids are not helpful. My daughter scatters my kindling and my son manages to hit himself in the eye with a stick. He insists on hot chocolate unrelentingly and his sister clambers up to the edge of the fire, unfazed by redirection.
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Again, I think of my wife. How the hell does she do this? How does anyone master performing an act as simple as dinner preparation while wrangling two energized masses of personified chaos whose only aim, it seems, is to interfere with that very act and whose demeanor (due to lack of dinner, of course) worsens by the minute? And why didn’t I think of this before taking them out to where the only alternative to planting them in another room with an iPad is “Why don’t you go pull leaves off of that funny looking bush way over there and, oh yeah, don’t fall in the creek on the way.”
The skewered sausages take nearly an hour to cook through and we each burn our mouths on the first bite. Half of them end up in the dirt. By dinner’s end, I accelerate the bedtime regimen (having forgotten to bring storybooks anyway) and resettle by the fire, delightfully alone, as the wind carries the scent of carbonized pork product and the sound of children’s chatter into the night.
From my childhood, I recall the old Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. It is a Sesame Street maxim, handsome in its simplicity, and as digestible to a five-year-old at the tiger level as it is to an eagle scout. Ostensibly, it has more to do with self-reliance, forethought, and competence than remembering to bring the right number of tent stakes, but I’ve always taken from it what I could, and my mileage varied.
Out here with the kids, I daydream about preparing for every contingency, packing away the contents of the dresser, the medicine cabinet, the pantry. Suddenly I’m the long-suffering Patsy with his multi-storied pack, sherpa to King Arthur in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually my wife and I resolve to prepare the best we can, trust our intuition, and walk out the door hoping that, in the very least, no one’s shoes are on the wrong feet. Raising kids can be funny that way, but it’s more serious business when I’ve dragged them someplace where the margins for error are slim and I can’t pull an extra diaper from the closet or run to the drug store for Tylenol.
And so I sit and wonder as my eyes adjust to the dull, salmon glow of the coal bed. Three years into fatherhood and sometimes I still feel as clueless as the night my son was born. I know how to camp, but not like this. I try to draw a once familiar line on the map and find that the map has changed. Often, it seems, I can’t find the map at all. And still, it’s something that my wife handled with little help, nearly every day in those early years of our marriage, while I worked and she strove toward her second degree in six years, a full-time student and, now, full-time mother.
Sometime in the middle of the night I awaken to the sound of my daughter smacking her lips. She vomits, first on herself, then on the wool blanket we’ve all been sharing. My mind struggles to emerge from the fog. She doesn’t feel warm to the touch and I consider the effects of pork and marshmallow amalgam swimming in her belly. I wipe her down with my handkerchief and change her into the only spare outfit I’ve packed, fold the wet edge of the blanket over onto itself, and go back to sleep. But, of course, each time she stirs, I sit up, and ready myself to cup a hand under her mouth or hold her upside-down outside the tent flap.
In the morning, I take inventory: we’re left with two baby wipes, a half-liter of water, a few bags of instant oatmeal, and a fig bar. It’s a depressing reserve. There is little sense in re-lighting the fire to heat water for the oatmeal, water that I know we’ll need for the hike out. The kids are both awake. My son is restless and chipper, his sister feverish, unmotivated even to stand.
I think of my wife. How the hell does she do this? How does anyone master performing an act as simple as dinner preparation while wrangling two energized masses of personified chaos?
With a renewed sense of urgency, I pee on the ashes, collapse the tent, and hang the wool blanket on a branch to scrape off the remnants of my daughter’s disgorging. We hightail it out, munching on the fig bar along the way. My son clutches the Tupperware holding an oakworm caterpillar he’s incarcerated. I carry his sister as she sleeps in my arms. The air is cool, the pace slower than I’d like. I have no goal but to get to the parking lot, anxious to collapse into the car seat and abide the drive home. Neither my wife nor I are alarmist parents, and while I suspect that my daughter’s condition is little more than the aftermath of an upset stomach and restless night, I find myself wishing for a mother’s opinion in that moment, my own instincts telling me to trust those of my wife.
I fend my son’s persistent questions about the nearness of the car, the appetites of his caterpillar, the shallow grade. It is a rare moment, or string of them, when in the wake of sleeplessness and the mooring of my loaded pack, I feel some level of contentment. I am surrounded, it seems, by nearly all that makes sense — the forest in exhalation and easing into morning’s rhythms, the low chomp of gravel beneath my boot, the lighter crunch beneath my son’s as he matches pace behind, my little girl folded into my chest.
And still they are thoughts diffused with the tired questions of a three-year-old losing patience, answered sparingly by a father trying not to lose his. To my son, the walk is just a walk, it seems. An intermission from the real action, from that which in his mind is less ephemeral, more memorable — the gooiness of roasted marshmallows, the softness of his blanket, the warmth of a campfire. And in between points A and B we are trying only to accelerate the impermanence. The walking is merely a stopgap it would seem, a stand-in, a way to babysit that span of time until we can embrace something more real and exciting.
In his three-year-old mind, the immediacy of the moment is king, and while usually I cannot help but ruminate on the next hour, day, year, I know that our walking is finite, and that this brief segment of time between the semi-permanence of camp and the relief of the car, while fleeting, might be just as beautiful. I’m looking through the canopy above; he’s looking at his caterpillar. I think that when the trail is mostly level and the air is cool and the trees are stirring, that when the streams of sunlight are layered between the leaves that it is good, that this is part of some greater anthology of experience. And in his own way, I imagine, he partners to a different awareness, one cast invariably on the jutting roots that trip him too easily, on the madness of walking for so long toward a destination he can’t see, on why his caterpillar refuses to eat the rest of his fig bar.
I’ve engaged in what on the surface appears to be a somewhat selfless act but is actually rather selfish, this choosing to camp in a way that demands more of them than they’re willing, or capable, of giving.
“Daddy, where is the car? I’m getting bored,” he says.
I start to realize that taking the kids backpacking like this is little more than an abbreviation of my old camping trips. And this may be the real folly in my thinking — the notion that this is based less on their idea of adventure than on my own, the whole thing rooted in my longing for cold mountain air and dark skies and the kind of exhaustion borne out from a long day’s hike.
That simple act of self-reliance, of doing what many others can’t or won’t, of putting in the work to pin my existence in a beautiful place, warm and full-bellied — this is perhaps a different measure of experience when you’re less than three feet tall and carrying only a blanket. I’ve engaged in what on the surface appears to be a somewhat selfless act — this adventuring in a far off, wild place with my toddlers — but is actually rather selfish, this choosing to camp in a way that demands more of them than they’re willing, or capable, of giving. And by extension it has demanded more than I’m willing, or capable, of providing as a parent. While my better half is working away from home, I might find that more experience as a full-time — in every sense of the word — parent might induce a sixth sense [read mother’s sense] for the needs of my children, and their notion of truth — not mine — out here in the woods.
As we drive home and I stare at the reflection of my son and daughter sleeping in the backseat, I think of that equation of mine, probably in need of revision. These notions of independence and skill-building, these imprints of mountains and trees, countered by preparation and adaptation, seem less precise, somewhat less applicable now.
My children’s equations are shorter, and likely comprise only a few variables — K for kids, t for time, and D for dad. At this, they are more intuitive than I, finding perhaps the ultimate precision in simplicity. And I’m not quite sure how they do it. But I hope we’ll all have a few more nights in the woods — or maybe just the backyard — to figure it out.
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Reid Doughten is a freelance writer living in Virginia.
Editor: Sari Botton