An Essay by Andrew Miller
The boys sat in a tight cluster around the campfire. I stood with several other fathers a short distance away. When the chatter subsided, the scoutmaster gave instructions for the next day: breakfast at eight; a ten-mile hike starting at nine-thirty; some fathers walking with the boys, and the rest transporting sandwiches, chips, and sodas to the picnic area.
He gestured toward the adults, then looked at the boys and clasped his hands together. “Your fathers had plenty to do this weekend besides going on a Boy Scout trip. Instead, they came out here to be with you.”
He stopped for a moment, gazed at their upturned faces. Some of the boys shifted uncomfortably; others cleared their throats and coughed. When he resumed speaking, his voice was soft, more measured. “Before you go to sleep tonight, I want each of you to thank your fathers for coming on this trip.”
Later that evening, after the fire had reduced to embers, my son and I crept back to our tent. Neither of us spoke as we undressed and slipped into our sleeping bags. A few minutes later, a small voice drifted across the night air. “Dad, thank you for coming with me.”
This took place more than 35 years ago, on a father-son camping trip at Camp Kickapoo, a 193-acre tract of land in Hinds County, Mississippi. Even now, the scoutmaster’s words, and my son’s response, are as fresh in my mind as what I ate for breakfast this morning.
I appreciated being thanked by my son and told him so. Of course, the scoutmaster played an important role with the boys, especially as an authority figure who was not their father. In just a few words, he imparted two valuable life lessons. The first was obvious: thank people when they do something for you. And equally important, life is a series of gives and takes. As a youngster, you receive. As an adult, you give back. On that trip, I was giving back from what I had received, many years earlier.
While growing up in the 1950s, I took many camping trips with my parents. Every October, we drove from our home in Pittsburgh to northern Virginia. We parked on Skyline Drive and hiked one and a half miles to Corbin Cabin, a primitive log structure near the Appalachian Trail, the 2,200-mile footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine. I can still hear the leaves crunching underfoot, smell bacon frying in an iron pan over the wood fire, and picture my father sipping coffee from an aluminum cup.
On our very first trip, we arrived at Corbin Cabin after dark. My father, who was in his fifties, had to hike back to the car to get more food and supplies we couldn’t carry the first time. Did I thank him for making that extra trip? Probably not. It’s ironic, but we don’t appreciate our parents until we have our own children.
When my son and daughter were young, my wife and I took them back to Corbin Cabin. We wanted them to learn to cook, eat outdoors, and spend a few days without running water and electricity. We hiked the same trail from Skyline Drive to the cabin that I had taken with my parents. The stinging nettles, the outhouse, the firepit had not changed.
I had wanted this to be an exciting and memorable experience—and it stirred deep memories in me.
Several years ago, my adult son and I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. We carried our food and possessions and slept in lean-tos with other hikers. Another year we climbed Katahdin, where the trail ends. When my legs started to give out on the return trip, my son made a couple of walking sticks for me and shouldered my pack.
Last fall, my son and his children stayed at Lambert Cabin near Luray, Virginia. He sent pictures of them collecting morel mushrooms, which they later cooked and ate. A few weeks later, my daughter took her children to Cunningham State Forest near Washington, DC. She sent pictures of her children collecting tadpoles in ankle-deep water. My daughter also accompanies her son on Boy Scout trips (how things have changed!). She knows the importance of learning to build a fire, cook a meal, and pitch a tent.
Those pictures make me think of my father and how he led us down the trail to Corbin Cabin. I am sure it would please him to know his great-grandchildren are following in those footsteps.
Andrew Miller retired in 2013 from a career that included research in aquatic systems and university teaching. Now he lives in Tallahassee, Florida, does volunteer work in prisons, restores stained glass windows, and writes. His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com/.