Mountain Men: A Father-Son Backpacking Journey

Illustration by Brian Cronin

Mountain Men: A Father-Son Backpacking Journey

In the Appalachians of Virginia, a first father-son backpacking trip reveals panoramic vistas and glimpses of discoveries yet to come.

By T. Edward Nickens/ Illustration by Brian Cronin
Published: September-October 2010

Jack is ahead on the trail, two winter-white legs protruding from the bottom of an oversized purple backpack, like a grape Popsicle, shouldering through the rhododendrons, leaves curled like wood shavings in the late-March cold. Only occasionally do I catch a glimpse of my 10-year-old son's face, in silhouette, as he weaves through the 10-foot-tall thicket. Just as he disappears around a corner a thought stops me cold: My father would have seen this. He would have seen me exactly like this.

We are on a three-day backpacking trip with Jack's pal Robbie Simmons and his dad, Chris. Our 10-mile loop will take us through the alpine meadows of Virginia's Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a 200,000-acre chunk of Southern Appalachian splendor. It's the boys' first serious backpacking trip, a chance for them to sample a kind of restraint and focus that is largely missing from their day-to-day lives. Untethered to power supply or convenience store, they will learn to take what comes. If it rains, they'll get wet. If the trail crosses a mountain, they'll climb. There's no quitting, no powering down. In return for a tacit agreement to work with what the land and the weather offer, we'll have vespers of firelight and stars. We'll be awakened by birds and warmed by the sun, tied to the rhythms of the natural world.

Yet there's something more to this outing. In the late 1960s, when backpacking was in its infancy, my father took up the pastime with a passion. I remember riding together for an hour and a half to the nearest camping store that sold goose-down sleeping bags, German mountaineering boots, and the clunky old Svea 123 backpacking stove. I had just a few chances to backpack with my dad before he died in an airplane crash when I was 13. I was left with precious few memories of him on the trail, and a handful of topographic maps with his favorite routes marked in faint pencil. Long ago I vowed to spend as much time as possible with my kids in the woods. It's not easy, what with soccer and swimming and church and algebra. It's likely I push too hard, too often. You can't make your kids carry your cross. But I have every good excuse, I tell myself, to want to write these moments in bolder strokes than the faint pencil outlines of my own memories of my father. And it's better than parking them at the mall.

Now I watch Jack range far ahead, striding through waist-high grasses bent low by the wind. The open balds are a rare gift in the East's forested high country. Their wide vistas afford a big view, and Jack ranges farther and farther ahead, testing his own comfort level as well as my parental oversight's limits. I check my instinct to reign him in, curious as to how long and how far he'll sortie ahead without me. And curious, too, as to how long a leash I'm willing to give him.

Jack climbs a long capstone of ridge rock, the wind catching his backpack like a sail, rocking him back and forth. He crests the ridge, raises his arms over his head, and lets loose a wild, primal whoop of glee. I wonder what prompts such an exultant display--the view from the mountaintop, the freedom-feel of wild wind, the panoramic sweep of a future filled with other discoveries he can't yet fathom? Then the wind picks up the cry and sends it hurtling behind me, across the boulders, across the balds and the verdant slicks of rhododendron, carrying the young boy's unfettered emotion to wherever it takes the thunder's crash and the raven's wild cackling.


Our first night's camp is in a meadowy saddle between rocky crags that tower overhead like unruly Stonehenge figures. We arm the boys with slingshots and send them off to fire stones at tree knots and rock lichens. After promising our sons they can bunk together, Chris pulls out the tent parts--groundsheet, tent body, rainfly, poles--while I scrounge for the stove and dinner bag. From a dense warren of head-high rhododendron we hear the occasional thwack of a small stone against boulder and the shouted congratulations for a well-placed shot.

"I'm always torn," I tell Chris, "between making the kids help with camp chores and just cutting them loose to run and play without a schedule to follow or a skill to learn or a coach to please."

Chris is quiet for a moment, and I can hear him fitting the ferrules of the tent poles together. He is thoughtful and measured, not a big talker. "It's nuts that we have to bring them to a place like this just to be kids," he says, glancing toward the sound of them playing. "I know there's an argument for putting them to work, but these guys have little time just to be boys. And to be selfish about it, I want Robbie to think that being out here with me is the best thing there is. It is for me."

And there are always the dinner dishes. After a supper of boxed dressing, canned chicken, and smoked oysters--and Nutella for dessert, always Nutella--we pass the boys the soiled plates and bowls, a small bottle of biodegradable soap, and a canteen full of water. The campfire sputters, sending orange sparks circling skyward. Jack and Robbie finish their chores. I lie by the fire, my head on a log, as Jack burrows into my side like a cold dog.

"I don't know what I'd be doing if I were home right now," I say. "But it would definitely not involve licking Nutella off a stick and looking up at the stars."

Chris nods as the boys ignore our fatherly musings and poke the fire with sticks.

"But why not?" Chris says. "Why don't we do this at home?"

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