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The Surprising Things I Learned Camping With My Father and Son

A multigenerational family vacation in the Rockies taught a boomer lessons she never learned in Girl Scouts

By Beth Reiber | August 22, 2013

A couple of months ago, my 21-year-old son, Matthias, announced he was planning to go on a solo hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer. Normally I’m supportive of his choices, but this one didn’t sit well with me. Treacherous cliffs! Bears! Lightning! Forest fires! When I couldn’t scare him into bringing a friend, I strongly suggested that I go with him.
 
I knew I wouldn’t be able to accompany him on the actual trek — he’d have left me in the dust. My plan was to wait for him at the campsite and, if he didn’t show up at the appointed time, call in a rescue team. Matthias agreed — after I offered to buy the groceries and pay for the gas for the 1,500-mile round trip from Lawrence, Kan.
 
And knowing that Matthias would go off for a few days on his own, I invited my 81-year-old dad, who loves camping in general and Colorado in particular, to join us.
 
I knew the trip would give the three of us precious together time in the speechless beauty of Colorado’s rugged peaks and would provide my son with memories he could cherish for a lifetime — if he didn’t fall off a cliff. What I didn’t expect was the wealth of revelations that eight days together in one small, shared space would bring.
 
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A Shared Love of Camping
 
It helped that we’re all experienced campers. Dad, a retired college professor, had introduced me to the joys of sleeping in a tent on numerous childhood trips in our home state of Kansas as well as to Colorado, Florida and points in between.
 
I also enjoyed eight years as a Girl Scout and enthusiastically passed along my outdoor skills to my two sons. Throughout the decades my extended family has gone on plenty of camping vacations together, but these days my mother prefers the comfort of a bed.
 
This trip was essentially Matthias’ dream, so Dad and I let him create the itinerary. Because Rocky Mountain National Park requires permits for overnight hikes, we reserved a campsite close to his trailhead for the first four nights then planned to head to Poudre Canyon north of the park. Dad drove his own van because it’s rigged for camping, its back seats replaced with a bed he built himself. I decided to follow suit and sleep in my van, too, while Matthias brought his one-person lightweight tent. We brought enough food to feed an army.
 
The first morning I awoke to find Dad already up and dressed and settled into his camp chair. “This is my favorite time of day,” he said. “It’s quiet and peaceful. I like to drink coffee, sit and ruminate.” I glanced at the time. It was all of 6:30 a.m.
 
I knew what he meant. Looking out at the light streaking through slender trees that swayed with the wind, it struck me that what I love most about camping is being outdoors all day — in sync with the sun, stars and weather and without distractions that devour so much of our daily lives.
 
When Matthias got up, we pored over maps of Rocky Mountain National Park as he showed us where he planned to hike the next three days. Dad, who’d spent five years as a child in Colorado, talked nostalgically about the summer camp where he learned to ride horses, the cabin his family rented on Grand Lake and their long Sunday drives. And I was happy just to be with two of the most important men in my life.

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Doing Our Own Thing
 
Because I’m smack in the middle of a father and son who are 60 years apart, I knew enough to build in time for individual pursuits, which is crucial for the success of any multigenerational vacation. We quickly established a comfortable rhythm: getting up when we wanted, Matthias being responsible for campfires, me doing the cooking (because everyone agreed meals tasted better when I prepared them) and Dad quite contentedly “manning the fort” whenever Matthias and I ventured off.
 
When the day came for Matthias to set off on the first leg of his trek, we accompanied him a short distance, my heart in my throat as I took a photo and waved goodbye. Dad and I spent the rest of the day touring Rocky Mountain National Park.
 
The next morning, I drove two hours to visit a girlfriend I hadn’t seen since high school. We had so much to talk about that I hardly had time to worry about Matthias. He survived, of course, but he did say that he wished he’d taken bug repellent.
 
My favorite memory of the trip is of the long, lazy afternoon at a campsite beside the Poudre River, Dad’s tarp keeping us dry from the rain. The three of us were immersed in our own reading material: a novel for Dad, Outside magazine for Matthias and The New Yorker for me. But every once in a while, we’d look up to soak in the view or share something we’d just read.
 
Learning to Let Go
 
When it came time to head home, Dad announced that he would be staying behind to revisit some of his favorite camping spots. Although he used to take off for Colorado annually on his own, he has stuck closer to home of late. I knew he was well equipped for this, having done serious solo camping for the past several decades.
 
Still, I was a little concerned. Over the course of the week, I’d observed that he’d become less steady on his feet, the result of arthritis and a torn ACL, which he’d injured in college and that’s been taking an increasingly heavy toll in recent years. But after a week together in the woods, I understood why he, like his grandson, needed some time on his own. (As Matthias put it, he was “happiest in nature when no one else was around.”)
 
Outwardly I voiced my support, but inwardly I couldn’t help but wonder whether Dad thought of this as his farewell trip — one last chance to revisit favorite old haunts and just “ruminate.”
 
Camping Lessons
 
One of the things this trip helped me truly understand is that we can’t live for the future. From the beginning, I accepted that this trip might likely be our last together, which lent it a heightened significance. Throughout those eight days, I made a conscious effort to savor every second. Alone in the woods with just my thoughts, I had a visceral realization that we should try to bring that same level of awareness to every vacation we take, to every interaction we have with the people we love.
 
The other big gift of the trip was being forced to let go — of my fears for my father and my son. Matthias proved himself a highly competent young man, ready to forge his own place in the world. And my Dad is one of the most self-aware, self-sufficient people I’ve ever known. I now see clearly that whatever choices he makes are probably perfect for him.
 
Letting go, I learned, doesn’t mean giving up memories. The memories help us let go. “I love the mountains so much," Dad said on our first day in the Rockies. "They make me feel tingly all over.” As he spoke, I spontaneously flashed back to something he told me years ago: When he dies, he wants his ashes scattered in Colorado.
 
Someday, I will carry out his wishes. I will call upon the healing power of nature and the memory of Dad’s joy of being in the mountains. And it might just help knowing that his spirit will be forever tingly.
 
Beth Reiber is the author of more than a half-dozen travel guides, including Frommer’s Japan and Hong Kong