Take a Re­luc­tant First-Timer

Backpacker - - SKILLS - By Rachel Zurer

Our vet­eran hiker takes on the ul­ti­mate tricky guest: her never-been-back­pack­ing, 64-year-old fa­ther.

MY MAP OF Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park looked like it had the measles. I had drawn dots at all the des­ig­nated back­coun­try camp­sites that had pit toi­lets. This was a key el­e­ment of my elab­o­rate prepa­ra­tions for The Big Trip With Dad. Be­cause my fa­ther was 64 years old and rather stiff in the hips and I had never seen him squat, and be­cause the idea of teach­ing him how to poop in a cathole sounded more awk­ward than ev­ery sec­ond of mid­dle school com­bined, our route would connect the dots.

This whole en­deavor was my idea. The last time my dad had gone camp­ing was in 1963. Over the years, I’d dragged him on a few ma­jor day­hikes, in­clud­ing one in Hawaii on which he’d failed to drink enough wa­ter and nearly col­lapsed. He likes bi­cy­cling, soft­ball, ski­ing— and show­er­ing at the end of the day. But I love back­pack­ing, and he loves me, and we both knew he’d only started ski­ing 20 years ago be­cause I’d wanted to try it. Maybe he’d fall in love with back­pack­ing, too. At the very least, I wanted to give him a real intro to camp­ing and leave him want­ing more. His pre­dictable re­sponse: “What­ever you want, honey.”

Us­ing my trusty dots, I mapped out a horse­shoe route that had us camp­ing at three moun­tain lakes, cov­er­ing a to­tal of just 15.7 miles in four days. I’d learned over the years that with new­bies, it’s im­por­tant to keep one’s am­bi­tions in check. The stu­dents I led on fresh­men ori­en­ta­tion trips in col­lege could some­times take un­til past noon to wran­gle them­selves out of camp. A friend from high school had re­cently spent hours curled in the tent with an altitude headache on her first back­pack­ing trip. No mat­ter what kind of trou­ble we ran into, I wanted to be able to say—and mean—“No hurry! Take your time!”

I sent dad off to a spe­cialty re­tailer to get fit­ted for good boots—with plenty of time to break them in. I gave him an ex­ten­sive, de­tailed pack­ing list, which I then took com­plete con­trol of ful­fill­ing. I planned a sim­ple menu, which I would cook en­tirely my­self. I or­dered us a cus­tom-cen­tered topo map, even though I al­ready had my dot map, be­cause that seemed like a good way to Have Thought of Ev­ery­thing. I found us a book of sto­ries about camp­ing to read aloud to­gether should we have any down­time and ac­quired some crossword puzzles, so I’d have a way to re­mind Dad, if he got down on him­self, that he was in­deed more skilled than I am at many ar­eas of life.

The day ar­rived. The sun shone. Pick­ing up our per­mit, we passed a herd of elk in the park­ing lot. All went well, un­til it all went down­hill, lit­er­ally. As we crested a sad­dle and started down a steep, rocky stretch around mile 2, I watched the head of gray hair ahead of me jerk side­ways, then ca­reen to­ward the ground. I flashed to an im­age of my mother’s tear-stained, ac­cus­ing face, but luck­ily Dad quickly righted him­self with a sheep­ish shake of his head.

That night, as I cooked din­ner, a moose ran right through our camp­site. It seemed like a good omen, un­til I watched Dad try to get into our small, light­weight back­pack­ing tent. It was like try­ing to fit a lad­der into a Volk­swa­gen—he didn’t bend in the spots hu­mans nor­mally do. Af­ter much groan­ing, he set­tled in, and I de­cided I’d bet­ter pull out the cross­words.

I awoke at some point to find

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