After losing her father, a hiker rediscovers his vintage gear—and his inspiration
Accessing the riches of dad’s gear lending closet came with one stipulation: Lecture Time, abbreviated to “LT.” Want to borrow his vintage Sigg Tourist Cook Set? No problem, but first a long-winded lesson on how to light and care for the stove we’d been using our whole lives. After his death in August, I carried it out of his house, no LT required, confident on how to use the old fire can like I’d done all over the Southeast: Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, the Cohuttas, the Okefenokee, Cumberland Island. He rolled over in his grave a few months later when I discovered from a frigid backcountry campsite that the stove runs on white gas, not kerosene.
The gear lending closet opened for business as my brothers and I fledged into the soft opening of adulthood, college. I became a customer freshman year as I prepared for a 4-night Cumberland Island backpacking trip led by the University of Georgia. My dad was delighted to fully outfit my friend and me for what would be my first time backpacking without him. He assembled everything we needed from his stock, including external frame Kelty packs, pre-fueled Sigg stove, Backpackers Pantry meals, and assorted other essentials, like Cognac.
The first night at Yankee Paradise campsite, the trip leader barked out the rules, including the prohibition of alcohol. The second night, the flask of Cognac leaked into my friend’s backpack. We managed to clean it up undetected. Unfazed by our island mishap, and having matriculated at Emory when the drinking age was 18, my dad’s reply was that Cognac was essential to backpacking. Who were we to argue with the guy who’d just enabled us to spend an unforgettable weekend surrounded by Spanish moss and white sand beaches?
Five years later, having proved a trustworthy borrower from the gear closet, I moved to the Hudson Valley with a long-term loaner tent. It was a Barney-colored North Face from the early aughts, a replacement for the weathered dome infamous for its failure during a Tray Mountain thunderstorm. The requisite “LT” preceded my departure – don’t take anything sharp in there, reseal the seams if it leaks, practice setting it up, have fun, take pictures!
I didn’t know a soul in New York state, and Dad must have hoped that the tent would help me find a tribe of “my people,” as camping had done for my parents early in their marriage. My brothers and I grew up on their tales of rafting the Gauley and camping Kentucky’s rolling hills. That year I camped all over New York and Vermont with my new tribe of dirtbags, one of whom I married last year.
My dad loved to spin yarns from his tenure as a Boy Scout leader, where he led my brothers’ troop on hikes throughout the Southeast. He led trips under one condition, that his daughter could go too. His work schedule gave him a limited amount of time outdoors, and he wanted to make sure he shared it with all of his children. Initial pushback was overcome when other troop leaders were unwilling to lead hikes; better to let the girl go than not go at all. I was one of the scouts slogging through the North Georgia mountains, saddled in technicolor fanny packs and oversized t-shirts.
Because my dad included me on outdoor adventures, I formed a view of the outdoors as a genderless setting; a place open to all who are confident and capable. I view white blazes, muddy trails, and silent rivers without the cataracts of fear and doubt. I formed my own opinion of the outdoors, which I trust over the opinions of women who warn me of bad things that happen on the trail, or men who “mansplain” the dangers that await. I’m not naive to others’ stories, just confident in my own experiences.
The Conasauga River Trail was the last backpacking trip that my dad and I took together, along with my husband Brian and a buddy. You never know which trip will be your last with someone, but this one was memorable before its posthumous label. I took the lead in coordinating gear, arranging a shuttle, and route planning. The trip leader mantle was on my shoulders.
Shoe choice is problematic on a trail with nearly 40 river crossings, and a slippery misstep in Chacos by my dad led to a broken metatarsal in his foot. That night at camp he got an extra helping from the floppy flask, cementing our conviction that Cognac is essential to backpacking.
Backpacking the Conasauga wasn’t perfect, but as Yvon Chouinard said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Whether it’s a broken foot, illicit Cognac, or a lost trail, I’ve learned that mishaps are a stepping stone to reaching the peak, accessing the isolated wilderness, or communing with the dawn chorus.
My dad taught us everything he knew about outdoor recreation and gave us the tools we needed from his own gear closet. Sure, I could have figured these things out without his example, but would I have? It took me longer to be an independent recreator because of my reliance on the gear closet and his trail knowledge, but I don’t begrudge him that. He wanted me to love and enjoy the woods without worry.
The gear lending closet closed for business last fall, after cancer robbed us blind of our robust and charismatic dad. My brothers and I gathered to divvy up the stock. By then, much of the gear was dated and worn, with the old external frame packs and disintegrating sleeping pads sailing into a roll-off dumpster. The goodies and sentimental pieces we kept: the Barney-colored tent to Paul, a sleeping pad to Dan, the temperamental Sigg stove to me.
These items will wear out over time, but what won’t wear out is the confidence that he gave us to access the outdoors. To me, this is the most valuable inheritance of all.