Get Your Kids Outside and Feed Them Well

This isn’t at all what I had envisioned.

After eight miles of hiking in the mountains, with a pack as big as he is, my nine-year-old son is talking faster than a Lin Manuel breakaway about Digimon and Percy Jackson.

This is the end of day two of our first real backpacking trip. We’ve done several one-nighters since he was in kindergarten, but this is the first time he’s ever woken up on the trail and hiked all day to camp at night. There’s a certain sense of separation from civilization you get from that simple detail, even in the front country, even if it’s only three days. This is also the first time he’s been big enough and self-sufficient enough to carry a frame pack with all his own gear.

I had high hopes for this moment.

This was supposed to be a time to take in the Sun creeping toward the mountains on the horizon, a time for introspection, a time for him to open up about what he wants to do when he grows up or ask questions about God or the universe. So why am I listening to an animated lecture about Omnimon fusing with Phoenixmon, and why Grover has goat legs?

My own ability to focus is stretched to its limit, between cooking dinner sans kitchen, attempting to grab my son’s attention long enough to get him to hand me a bowl of chopped red peppers, and trying to follow his monologue. I haven’t even considered yet the disposition of the various strangers camping here, who may or may not have any interest in a chatty kid. At the moment, there’s garlic to mince and it’s tricky to keep the shallots from burning on a backpacking stove. Wait, who’s Annabeth? Right. Not a real person, and evidently a friend of goat-legs-guy.

It’s not as if he watches that much television or plays a lot of video games.

His mother and I keep that to a healthy minimum. And there’s not anything to complain about at the moment that would make him long for a vegetative state on the sofa; it’s been a good trip so far. We started in a light, cool rain that let up around midday yesterday. The weather got hot and dry, but not unpleasantly so, and we walked off the mud on our shoes before we settled in for our first stop last night. We made black bean tacos with fresh avocado and tomatoes for dinner, a trail-friendly variation on a family favorite. Earlier today, we saw two gigantic pileated woodpeckers tearing around the woods, and my son ate a couple of wild blueberries and got the giggles about it.

As I plate up (or bowl up, technically) our penne and add the shaved parmesan that I’ve been carefully guarded for two days, I realize that several other people have found a bench or a log around the fire circle. There’s a father, two middle-school sons, and a grandfather. Beside them is a young couple in their 20s hiking north for a few days, and a man who I’ll later learn is 80 and on his way to North Carolina from Massachusetts. Several young women who seem like first-timers flit in and out. And, there are thru-hikers.

Everyone seems pleasantly stunned by my son’s turbocharged and ceaseless enthusiasm.

But finally, as he starts to feed his face they way nine-year-old boys do, there’s an opportunity for others to speak. There’s a lot of talk about food at first. The boys’ father laments having packed too much and opened more than they need this evening. He’s passing around a couple of freeze-dried meals, trying to get someone in his party to finish what’s in the bag. People ask about what we cooked and how we travel with fresh produce. Everyone shares stories about favorites and the odd trail-food horror story.

Soon the topics of conversation start changing like popcorn popping. Thru-hikers have a series of absolutely true stories about a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy whose sleeping bag was stolen by a black bear, someone who Yogied half a dozen hot dogs from a family reunion at a park in Virginia, and the travails of hundreds of miles hiked with a shelter dog. Another one shows off a 10-rupee coin from back home and gets a little emotional about it. We somehow slalom through novels, pipe tobacco, graduate school, and what a 20-something is supposed to do with his life. The topics don’t really matter.

Everyone is in high spirits, and for an hour, we’re somehow all old friends.

I knew that there would be other hikers here, hopefully telling stories. This place is a draw. It’s a well-kept two-level trail shelter with a spring that flows like a fire hose, and it’s not far from a couple of popular trailheads. This also happens to be the right time of year to run into The Bubble, the big informal group of people who started trekking north around the same time in early spring. But, I didn’t anticipate the festive atmosphere or how my son would react to any of this.

There’s a lot of things I didn’t anticipate about being a father, and that I still can’t foresee, even when I plan. I do my best to give him a lot of what he needs—outside time and real food, most of it healthy, among other things. My role isn’t necessarily to always be able to predict, and it’s certainly not to dictate how he responds to things. Rather, my job is to keep helping to have these experiences, bandage him when he takes a spill, and keep learning so that I can answer his questions as best I can. What this all means to him is ultimately up to him.

These are the concepts I’ll explore in Muddy Fatherhood—getting kids outside, connecting with nature, connecting with food, why this is important for raising kids, and the futility of feeling certain about the outcomes. Along the way, I’ll delve into what this means for teaching kids about religion and science. I’ll write about practical ways to encounter the natural world at home and afield, about books of interest, and once in a while about why these things are just as significant for dad as they are for the kids.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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