MagazineDecember 2008Confessions of an Outdoor Dad

Confessions of an Outdoor Dad

by Jay Hardwig

“I’m hot, sweaty, thirsty, and smelly, but I’m having a great time.”

The pronouncement came from my eight-year-old son as we scrambled up a small summit on the Mountains-to-Sea trail late last summer. It was hardly the deep backwoods: we were a scant mile from the Folk Art Center, a fifteen-minute downhill stroll to flush toilets, station wagons, and soda pop machines. But it struck me with the force of revelation all the same. My boy loved it out here in the woods. He might grow up to run the ridges after all.

I had worried it would not be so. It’s a common concern in this modern age, filled as it is with a long list of pixelated micro-diversions and other agreeable conveniences. You know the usual suspects: the Gameboys, the Leappads, the iPods, the cell phones, the boob tube, the Internet, Club Penguin, Webkinz, ToonTown. How is it possible to raise a true nature’s child in a world of instant entertainment?

Easy enough, I’m starting to think. We imagine the seductions of our time to be stronger than they are. Give our kids a little credit: they know what is real and what is not. Their sturdy little souls are smart enough, even at a young age, to know that time spent staring at the sky can hatch more happiness than time spent staring at a screen; that a butterfly landing on one’s shoulder offers more enchantment than a plasticized pageant of Disney princesses; that a cold drink of water, well-earned, is more refreshing than the sugared siren call of yet another juice box.

Pure bunk? Perhaps. But it is worth remembering that if my kids don’t grow up to love the trees and the dirt and the chirp of birds in spring, it is more my fault than Nickelodeon’s. When I glance out the window to spy my kids lying prone in the backyard, staring at the sky and inventing worlds of bravery, battle, and whimsy, it reminds me that any failure of imagination here is mine, not theirs.

When it comes to living a more authentic outdoors existence—a life of hiking and biking, moleskin and granola—I talk a pretty good game. I keep my walking stick at the ready, trail maps in my glove box, a Whisperlite stove in good working order. I write these columns, dream of campfire nights, and speak of sore calves as a blessing and a gift. But truthfully? I don’t get around much anymore. My boots go unlaced for months at a time and my stove is (almost) always cool to the touch. I spend more time parsing online football scores than backcountry maps. My most memorable hiking experiences are a solid fifteen years in the past. My wife has told me for years that I really should be writing for Blue Ridge Indoors.

What can I say? The kids are big and time is short. There’s soccer practice, PTO potlucks, and pizza palace birthday parties to navigate. Mom’s got book club, the dog needs shots, and we all know that Dad needs to hoist a few with the boys now and then. I ain’t complainin’: like Willie Dixon before me, I live the life I love and I love the life I live. But the calendar’s not quite as free as it was when I was a 25-year-old grad-school dropout bouncing around the Smokies with an ‘84 Toyota, more time than money, and a withering disdain for convention in all its forms. (My mom will hate that sentence, by the way. She’ll point out, quite correctly, that I was never quite the vagabond boho iconoclast I sometimes like to pretend I was. My pretensions in that vein have always exasperated her. But the essential point remains the same: I’ve got less free time, and perhaps less free spirit, than I once did.)

Still, I know that if I put my mind to it, I could raise my kids as true lovers of the woods. If I put my mind to it, I could have them skinning rabbits right now, starting fires with flint, sniffing out rare truffles, and snapping off clean Eskimo rolls in their downtime. We could wake up each morning with grit in our teeth and bed down each night with sweat on our brow. (There are families out there like that, I know: I read about them sometimes on the Internet while sitting in my underwear and drinking canned beer.) But like so many things that I could do if I just put my mind to it–learning the accordion, flossing more thoroughly, composing dirty limericks for office dinner parties—the problem comes in putting my mind to it. I don’t put my mind to much these days, I’m afraid. My mind’s a stubborn and baleful thing, and doesn’t like to be put in places that require much in the way of effort or ambition. So it goes.

But next summer, by gum, we’ll get our boots dirty. There will be more camping, more canoeing, more nights spent under the stars. It won’t be a hard sell. Eli loves to hike and ramble and talk about black holes, magicians, and time travel; Isabel could play in a mountain stream all day; they both can find the fairies in a rhododendron tangle. When we camp, they choose the primitive sites over the paved ones, and can’t wait for the campfire to start. We had a taste of the woods this summer, and the children want more. They deserve no less.

And so it comes to this: after years spent thinking that I would have to push my children out of doors, I find instead they are pushing me. Keep pushing, kids. We’ll be hot, sweaty, thirsty, and smelly, and we’ll have a great time. •

Places to Go, Things to See: