Mountain Men: A Father-Son Backpacking Journey

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

At the moment, all my answers involve the advantages and various enrichments of modern urban life. Here, with Jack's head on my shoulder, surrounded by a ring of tawny grasses that reflect yellow firelight, they make no sense at all.


In the morning, Jack pokes his head in my tent as I'm rolling up my sleeping pad.

"Hey, Daddydaddy," he says, using the nickname that he knows is my favorite. "Can you and me spend the night in our tent tonight?"

I'm slightly perplexed. Have I missed a rift between him and his pal?

"Sure, big man," I reply. "Nothing would make me happier. But aren't you having a good time with Robbie?"

"Oh, yeah, Dad," he counters. "Robbie is awesome! But I want some time together just you and me."

Like the sudden view from an opening in the trees, the unexpected gifts from children are the sweetest.

The day's route leads across Pine Mountain, through glades of hawksbeard and hawkweed and yarrow, then turns south to lope along Wilburn Ridge, crenellated with rock outcrops that tower 50 feet above the meadows. In the same way that backpacking forces an elemental economy on what you choose to carry, it winnows away the need to fret over a clock. We hike until we tire, then take a break to snooze in the sun. We stop at a spring where the boys take turns with a pump filter, and talk about how fragile and tenuous and critical clean water is. Once, when the trail winds into the forest and plunges for a half-mile through dark, moist woods, I point out the tall hemlocks that soar overhead. We burrow under their draping boughs and breathe in the pungent, piney smell. I tell the boys that it's unlikely they'll ever be able to walk through a hemlock grove with their children; the hemlock woolly adelgid is infesting these forests up and down the Southern Appalachians. Within a few decades, scientists figure, eastern America's hemlocks could follow the chestnut into history.

Breathe deep, boys, I say. They do.

Late in the afternoon, high winds and low clouds roll across the mountain ridges, and we take shelter in the lee of a soaring fin of jagged rock. Clinging to a two-foot-wide rock perch, we scarf down trail mix as cloud shadows move like herds of dark animals across the yellow slopes below.

"Look!" Jack suddenly shouts. "It looks like a lion! Dad, do you see it?"

I see the shadow, but I can make neither a head nor a tail from its shifting shape. "There it goes," Jack says. "I wish you could have seen it, Dad."

The lion is lost on me. But not the wonder.


The next morning, I stir oatmeal on the single-burner camp stove. "That's cowboy oatmeal," Robbie announces. "Cool."

"Cowboy oatmeal?" I reply. "What's that?"

"You know. Oatmeal that's not cooked in a microwave."

Chris and I howl. Neither of these kids is coddled. Both have camped and fished and hiked and paddled all their young lives. But such trips are only temporary forays into the exotic worlds that lie beyond the sidewalk. Driving up to the trailhead, Jack and Robbie shrieked in pleasure when we let them ride up the rough woods road with their seat belts unbuckled. Their connection to technology is so insidiously wound into everyday life that the thought of cooking without the use of microwave radiation is primitive. Like something out of a Western movie.

And it's not just the kids, of course. As we shoulder our packs after breakfast, an Eastern towhee belts out its carol from maybe 30 feet away.

 "Hey, Dad," Jack sings out. "It's the drink-your-tea bird! That's my favorite!"

"That's a what?" Chris asks. So I tell him about the towhee, how its three-part song can be mnemoniced into drink-your-tea.

"I can't believe it," he says. "I hear that every single morning--they must be making a nest in the backyard--and I've never known what it was." He shakes his head and listens. "Hey, Robbie, how cool is that?"

But 15 seconds have passed, so the boys are long gone, moved on to some other discovery. We're just a few miles from the truck now, and they stride ahead, pinpricks of bright purple and green backpack cloth against the russet grasses, pulled by the promise of ice cream at the first convenience store we find on the drive home.

Last night a powerful thunderstorm moved across the Mount Rogers wilds. We'd bunked down in a three-sided log Appalachian Trail shelter, and for long hours I'd lain awake, listening to the pounding thrum of rain on the shelter roof and Jack's coarse breathing just inches from my own. In the dark my eyes could make out only the scantest details of his face--a bulge of cheekbone, the arcuate edge of forehead, the serrated outline of hair. Then lightning would flash, and for a split second I saw all of the familiar features--the curious freckles that speckle his chin, the long eyelashes, a small scar by his ear. As the dark closed over us again, I was left with the negative image of Jack's face, the way you see a bright image for a few seconds when you first close your eyes.

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