Before you have kids, it’s tough to imagine yourself making promises you cannot possibly keep. Like assuring your 4-year-old daughter that you won’t run into any skunks in the woods on your first camping trip together. I made that guarantee to her, then immediately regretted it. After all, I don’t truly know the whereabouts – or future whereabouts – of any skunks at any given time anywhere in the world whatsoever.
You see, my daughter – we’ll call her Bear – had never been camping before, but we had read all about it in “Curious George Goes Camping.” In the story, George reaches into a bush to grab what he thinks is a kitten. Guess what? Not a kitten. Clearly, George’s traumatic (and smelly) encounter had stuck with her because, in the weeks leading up to our trip, she had asked me on more than one occasion if we would see any skunks when we went camping. And with the solemn conviction of a politician in the middle of campaign season, I had assured her we would not.
The goal was simple: get outdoors, roast a few marshmallows and spend some quality daddy-daughter time together. My wife had offered to hang back with our 22-month-old. Next time we’d have the whole gang, but this first trip would be a test-run to see how it’d be camping with a preschooler.
Finally, the day arrived. While Hurricane Matthew churned up the Atlantic in the east, we headed west to South Carolina’s Freshwater Coast. We had a campsite reserved at Calhoun Falls State Park, a beautiful park located on the shores of Lake Russell in Abbeville County.
After checking-in at the station, we pulled up to the campsite (#22), hopped out and admired the scenery. We walked down to Lake Russell and took a quick look around. The water was surprisingly calm. Then we returned to our site and setup camp. Once the tent was setup, Bear crawled inside. She looked around the tent, stuck her head out and said, “Daddy, I need you to find a flower to make our tent pretty.”
When your daughter asks for a flower to decorate the tent you’ll be taking down in less than 24 hours, it’s so unexpected, so innocent, so tender, your heart does a backflip and you immediately start scanning the forest floor for color. I returned with a bunch of tiny white and yellow flowers, made a bouquet of them with the twist-tie from the bag of hot dog buns and handed it to her. She smiled.
We had some time to kill before dinner, so we walked down to the lake and drew pictures in the sand. We explored the woods near our campsite, collecting pinecones and acorns and kindling. For dinner, we grilled hot dogs. As we ate, we watched a squirrel hop from tree to tree and saw a hawk circling in the sky above us.
The sun dropped behind the trees across the lake. It was getting dark quickly, so I hung the lantern and built a small fire. Then I taught Bear the delicate art of making S’mores while asking her to shine the flashlight toward me while wiping the melted marshmallow off her hands while snapping a picture or two while telling her that, yes, it was getting dark but everything was OK.
The darker it got the more eager she became about calling it a night and crawling inside the tent. She was afraid, all right, but she hung in there long enough to enjoy a S’more. She even managed to sneak in a few extra pieces of chocolate while I put everything away for the night.
Once inside the tent, I texted my wife to let her know that we were settled and that Bear was literally bouncing off the tent walls. Too much sugar. After we read a couple of books together, she slowly started to wind down and eventually fell asleep and so did I.
I awoke early – a little after 5 – and built a fire in the dark. The sky above me was full of stars. I thought, when was the last time I had slowed down this much to think? Besides the occasional pop and hiss of the burning wood, it was silent.
The sun rose, and Bear woke up. She was excited to get out of the tent and get the day started. I told her that she could sit by the fire and drink her apple juice while I loaded the car. My mind was already working a plan, thinking through what needed to be packed first, so I started grabbing things left and right. Bear begged me several times to come sit down beside her.
So that’s what we did. I pulled our two chairs closer to the fire and we talked. “It’s good to sit beside the fire and get warm,” she said. It sounded like a line from Hemingway or a bit of wisdom from my grandfather. But it came from my four-year-old daughter, and it was true.
We finished our breakfast, packed up the car and departed as quickly as we had arrived. The trip had been a success. No rain or strong winds. No critically important items (like her blankie or my lighter) left at home. No crying out for Mom in the middle of the night. And, most importantly, no skunks.
While driving home, we passed fields and pastures that seemed untouched by time. The sky was blue and empty, except for the moon. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Bear had already nodded off. I turned up the music a little – not too much, just enough to get me going on a sleepy Sunday morning. We rode home like that after our first camping trip together. Just Bear and me.
Cam Thomas is co-founder of Needlestack, a digital marketing company in Greenville, SC. He and his wife have two daughters.