We’re going camping.
There are four of us: the person I love and his son, myself and mine. We have spent the better part of a year loving each other, and this is what we’re doing to prove it, to test it, to see what the hell happens next: family vacation. We’re going camping in Hot Springs, North Carolina, in a complete and total downpour.
We’ve packed our gear in the storm, bag after bag shuttled into the back of the late-model Ford SUV borrowed from my daughter who’s away on semester abroad. This is the same daughter who said of me, upon meeting the gentleman in question: whatever you do, don’t cook for her, and don’t take her outside. So there’s a little bit of that to this family vacation, too, something to prove. I know how to go outside, dammit.
The back of the SUV is stuffed with blankets and marshmallows and sweatpants and poker sets and paperback novels, and there’s a seat-to-ceiling stack of soft things between the boys, one fifteen years old and one sixteen, full-grown boys, their backpacks jammed in around their size-twelve feet. The car hydroplanes twice on the highway from Asheville to Marshall, and we concentrate silently and mightily until we arrive at the campground, where the rain has gone, but might return.
Here are the things we’ve forgotten:
• The rain fly for the big tent, the boys’ tent, where they will sleep.
• The batteries for the pump that inflates the air mattress on which the boys will sleep.
• An operational tent pole for the tent where we will sleep.
Duct tape, which we have remembered, does not hold it.
The ballpoint pen we’ve shoved into the housing does not hold it. The boys are volunteering to sleep, upright, in the car, and the gentleman has gone to town to see what can be done.
He is a resourceful man—mentally agile, consistently positive, a teacher. He has a lot of experience camping, hiking, canoeing, backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking, zip lining, and probably field surgery, a lot more experience than I have, and so I’m not trying to figure this out. The boys fence each other with branches they’ve found in the woods. I sit on the banks of the French Broad River with gnats in my face, take out my bent ballpoint pen and write this down.
We all have our strengths.
I wanted to take this camping trip because camping is something from the gentleman’s life that he loves to do, and I wanted to write about it because that’s what I do, and also, because I chafe at the idea that I’m incapable of roughing it. But this is not the sweaty, wild adventure I imagined. So far, it’s just smart people forgetting dumb shit. Like cold beer.
The two nice guys next to us have cold beer. They have a checkered tablecloth on their picnic table, matching camp chairs, two dogs instead of two giant boys, and a neat bundle of dry firewood.
The family behind us is blaring Taylor Swift on their radio. They have an adorable blonde daughter turning walkovers in the field by the bandstand, her belly skyward until her wrists give out and she flops back in the wet grass. They have a gazebo tent over their camp stove and what looks like a soft-sided shoe rack suspended from the crossbar to hold their cooking supplies. They’ve got their set-up, their mood.
I wanted to take this camping trip because camping is something from the gentleman’s life that he loves to do, and I wanted to write about it because that’s what I do, and also, because I chafe at the idea that I’m incapable of roughing it. But this is not the sweaty, wild adventure I imagined.
The gentleman comes back from town with a tarp, a metal tent pole splint, and a satisfied kind of smile. We’ve got our mood, too.
There’s a half moon sifting through the clouds over the river, and the sun breaks occasionally hot against my back. I love how the light holds longest on the high parts of the mountains, like how light can sculpt the planes of a face. Two Canada geese fly upriver at sundown, a pair.
That night, in our tent, we have a conversation by headlamp. I confess I thought we would be doing something more daring on this trip, more outside my comfort than car camping with teenagers. Above us, the newly-leafed trees make patterns on the fabric in the starlight, the beams of our headlamps crossing.
The gentleman loves a challenge. He tells me about boards you could rent where you’re basically surfing river rapids on your belly, wearing webbed gloves for paddles. On one of our first dates, I lost my glasses falling out of a kayak; this is not the sort of risk I’m game for again. We discuss 24-hour solo hikes, moonlight hikes, naked hikes. There’s no way I’m going naked in North Carolina. And really, doing something for the drama of it feels forced and fake and orchestrated. We hear the door of the SUV open and close, one of the boys laughs.
There’s risk here. I know what the risks are.
We learn things, watching the boys together over such a long stretch, outside of their usual bedroom lairs. One of the boys sleeps with his earbuds in. One of the boys snores. One of the boys takes long walks alone by the river. One of the boys eats an entire bag of Goldfish crackers. One of the boys is reading Game of Thrones. One of the boys is pretending to read a book about David Bowie. He might actually be reading. He surprises us all the time.
One of the boys practices driving the SUV around the campground. One of the boys monitors his speed from the passenger seat. One of the boys whittles sticks with bright, dangerous-looking knives. Neither of us likes the knives, but the boys are being careful with them, and if they lose a finger, the gentleman knows what to do between here and the hospital. He once lost the tip of his finger when an old casement window slammed shut. We know the details of each other’s lives, and they bolster us like history.
We have never done this before, this bringing together of a family, and it’s not like camping. There’s not a list of stuff you can pack in with you, no specialty gear or smart hacks. What is respectful discussion about sharp objects and driver’s education when you haven’t raised a child? What is appropriate risk for a son who’s not your own?
In the afternoon, we take a walk along the Laurel River toward a ghost town. I know the names of all the blooming wildflowers from researching a novel years ago: red and white trillium, phlox, violets, wild iris. I know which flowers can be eaten, and when I feed the gentleman a sprig of chickweed, we decide it tastes like corn.
Back at the campsite, we eat corn, silked and tied back into its husks, roasted on the fire. We eat salsa and steak rolled into tortillas, eat brownies and marshmallows and bugs. I am pleased I have cooked; everyone is pleased to have eaten. There’s no food like food over a campfire. We listen to the high river, to the boys at their card game. We try to find both dippers in the starry night. Without both, which one is the small one? So much is learned in comparison