Take a Reluctant First-Timer
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