My cousin Gavin is like a little brother to me. He is twelve years my minor, so I have clear memories spanning from his first birthday to now, when he is on the cusp of earning his driver’s license. The time has gone fast, and we’ve both experienced a lot of change. For more than a decade, I’ve been blessed to have Gavin’s admiration, but I’m not sure I ever did anything to “earn” it.
As I became an adult, I always knew in the back of my head that Gavin was watching my choices, and the way I choose to live my life as a young man. I’ve been far from perfect at “making time” for him as I navigated college, getting married, starting a career, and beginning my family, but I’ve always tried to make my relationship with Gavin a priority. Gavin is a teenager who is looking forward to beginning his senior year of high school, so frankly, I take it as a huge compliment that he even wants to spend time together outside of “obligatory” family get-togethers.
As Gavin is nearing adulthood himself, I wanted to find an opportunity for us to conquer a challenge- together. So much of adulthood is conquering one unsavory challenge after another, ESPECIALLY when you would rather not have to. For months, we kicked around the idea of taking a primitive camping trip this summer.
Then, coronavirus hit, and we weren’t sure we would be able to. As things like sports and bachelor’s parties got shuffled around, we just waited to see if things would line up for our trip to become a reality. To others, our trip probably seemed like a random, poorly-defined choice to put ourselves through an ordeal. To us, this was about proving we could “survive” something (anything) difficult.
Photo Credit: Google Earth
Thanks to an old-school National Geographic map of Hoosier National Forest and the assistance of Google Maps, we settled on a promising little peninsula that Google Maps pegged as a 2.5 mile hike from where we’d have to park our car. The spot was on a peninsula in the middle of a large lake, where we should have a fighting chance at finding an accessible beach and some good fishing. We’d have a stone fire pit, but that was it. No electricity. No clean water. No bathrooms.
I debated investing in a legitimate hiking backpack for this trip, but it seemed premature since I didn’t truly know if I’d enjoy this enough to ever go backpacking again. I decided to make-do with regular back packs, army-surplus duffle bags, and my trusty gym-bag. So we made our plans, packed our fishing poles and our bags (too many bags), and set out on our trip!
We unloaded the car, enthusiastic to start our hour-long hike. Well, that’s when I caught a glimpse of the map the National Parks Service had at the trailhead. What Google Maps swore was less than a 3 mile hike was, according to this authoritative source, a full 4.7 miles. Who wants to break that news to a teenager about to undertake his first backpacking trip?! So, I kept my mouth shut and decided it was better to play “encouraging coach” on the trail, rather than “bearer of bad news” when there was still a theoretical option to turn-back and call the whole thing off.
The trail was well-marked, and we never got lost. The terrain varied from packed-dirt, to loose gravel, to chunky boulders, to gnarly tree roots, to loose muck courtesy of horse-hooves. We wound back and forth, up and down rolling hills, slowly making our way up through the forest to the lakeshore, where we’d connect to the separate trail that would take us up into the peninsula.
Our bags were far from ideal for this chore. Things slid around, and the weight wasn’t exactly distributing evenly as we walked. Still, Gavin didn’t complain much, despite both of us needing breaks from time to time to set our things down and take a breather. We passed just a few other people; actually, they passed us. With a few evening being so bold as to point out the heavy loads we were shouldering (as if somehow we didn’t realize!)
Two hours, 5 miles (thanks to some ill-advised attempts to blaze our own “short-cut” to the waterline), and two incredibly thirsty people later, we finally made it to the lakeside. There were a few kayakers who had beached, and they seemed a little surprised to see two guys come busting through the deep woods only to literally drop their bags and start chugging water straight from the lake (with the help of our trusty LifeStraw® filters!)
Once Gavin and I recovered a bit, we made the final 500 yard trek to our campsite. With respect to the campsite itself, our Google reconnaissance matched with what we found in real life. We were the only people in the immediate area- at least, for a little while. As we setup camp, other campers gradually flowed in and claimed other available spots along this section of beach.
The rest of that first day, and the next, consisted of successfully fishing for our dinner, hauling water from the lake for boiling, and gathering downed firewood. Gavin flourished camping. Gavin was self-motivated and set himself to “the next task” without needing to be asked. I think there was a deeper motivation for him doing so, as he made a few off-the-cuff comments about needing to prepare himself to be his own person and be able to do for himself soon.
We had plenty of time leftover for soaking up the sun, eating trail mix, and laughing at a few recently-graduated “philosopher kings” from the next campsite talk about how they were really going to seize their lives by the horns. Once things had slowed down, I found myself trying not to dwell on memories of camping with my dad. My Dad and his two brothers taught me and my two brothers how to camp and fish over the span of a few summers. Being in different generations, Gavin was too young to participate in any of those “O’Dell Men’s Camping Trips” from my childhood. But my dad always did his best to make sure Gavin didn’t miss out. So, he was there for Gavin’s Boy Scout camping trips as Gavin was growing up. It will be two years this July since Dad’s suicide.
I didn’t want to cast a pall over what was supposed to be a happy, fresh moment with Gavin by vocalizing my grief-tinged memories, so I tried to hold my tongue for a while. I suspect Gavin was doing the same, as we both were being pretty quiet. Finally, I started sharing stories of Dad on one of our Northern Wisconsin camping trips. After listening, Gavin took a turn telling a story about a much milder-mannered Dad on one of his Boy Scout campouts.
Gavin (like many 17 year old boys) doesn’t really jump at the opportunity for long heart-to-heart talks. But in many ways, my dad was like a dad to Gavin, too. Ever since Dad died, Gavin and I have had to become more comfortable having deep conversations with one another. So on that last night of our camp out, we were able to have some real talk: talk about Dad, and talk about Gavin’s future. Something about that raw, natural setting with all of the “extras” peeled away provided the space we needed to have those conversations.
The next morning we broke camp, and hiked out. While the bruised on my shoulders who say otherwise, the return hike passed much easier. We got to the car, changed out of our sweat-soaked shirts, and made a B-Line for the nearest fast food place.
The next day, Gavin drove us to my Dad’s hometown. Gavin had spent so many summers living at my Dad’s house, that he has a whole group of close friends he still keeps in touch with there. Before we dropped Gavin off at his friend’s house for a few days of visiting, we stopped by the cemetery. I set about my typical routine there: light a new candle in Dad’s cemetery light and replace the ‘En-Tray’ in Dad’s ‘Bird & Breakfast’ feeder. We stayed just a few moments, and then drove on to our destination, , where I said goodbye to Gavin. Our summer adventure was over.
I argue that to find serenity in today’s world requires a conscious effort; a dedicated routine requiring effort to create those nature-based escapes so necessary to keep the human psyche healthy. We need these routines, that to others probably look like the creation of unnecessary work for an unclear purpose. Whether it’s taking the effort to hike 5 miles into the wilderness to find the space for challenging experiences and challenging conversations, or taking the effort to replace a tray of seed to feed the birds, it’s worth it. It’s worth it. And only after making the effort, will one understand the purpose in doing so.