When my husband called at noon, I was just about to pack our backpacks with the gear and food I had divvied up for the two of us. But, when I heard his tone, it was clear he wouldn’t be able to make the trip we’d planned to Lost Maples Natural Area to camp with our 4 and 2 year old girls. His computer had died the night before, making it impossible to finish all the preparations necessary to leave work behind. It was about time to get on the road, to secure one of the closer, 1 mile walk-in campsites—the only really feasible place the girls could walk to. I stood in the garage looking at the piles of camping gear—tent, 3 sleeping pads, 3 sleeping bags, stove, pots and plates—then the food, 2 dinners, breakfasts, lunches. Oh, and 2 3-liter bags of water, since the water purifier from the days I used to backpack—10 years ago—was broken.
“So, maybe we can book another trip soon? You know, if someone cancels.”
“Maybe.” My heart was pounding with the weight of the decision, with the weight of all the stuff I’d have to carry, the weight of being out of cell service, a mile from the car, with my two precious little people. But, it was noon on a perfect fall day, the sun warmed the bright Texas-blue sky to an enchanting 70 degrees, the leaves were just starting to turn here in the city, and I knew that the maple trees in the hill country would be on fire, the nights would be crisp, the stars would put us in our place, and the afternoons just about warm enough to brave the clear, spring-fed water of the Sabinal River. “Well, I think we’ll go ahead and go.”
“Yeah, I think I can carry all this stuff. We’ll miss you though…”
Madeleine is almost five and is a well-travelled hiker, and she had been excited about carrying her own backpack and sleeping pad for the two weeks she’d known about the trip. I loaded her bag first, several layers of clothes, about twice what she’d use at home, to prepare for any accidental wettings that happen along the way. I pack in the order that we’ll need things, with pjs then the rain jacket on top.
My sleeping bag and Catherine’s fit in the bottom compartment. Then I lowered one MSR dromedary bag of water, keeping the weight towards the center. The food was packed in two separate bags, one dry bag that could be compressed with stuff stuffed on top. I remembered it’s important to have food in bags that can be hung up overnight, and to bring a rope and carabiner to secure those in a tree. So the heavy food went in the middle, then the pots and dishes, the stove, my clothes, Catherine’s clothes, rain jackets on the top. It fit! On the outside of my pack, I strapped the tent to the bottom, as it’s heaviest. Then Catherine and my sleeping pads towards the top, Madeleine’s sleeping bag and a camp chair dangling off the side. I had another bag of food and a 3L water bag to carry by hand.
My neighbor, a 50-something landscaper and drummer was outside, chatting with the girls and peering over, trying to figure out what I was doing. “What, are you going to carry all that stuff?”
“Um, yeah, I hope so.”
I asked him to take a picture of Madeleine and I and so had the embarrassment of an audience when I tried to hoist my pack on my shoulders for the first time. My body remembered the motion—lift it halfway up your side till the bottom reaches your hip, then shift your weight underneath it, wiggle into the straps and pull it the rest of the way up. It was just at the edge of what I could lift. If I hurt myself, I’m toast. The weight was enough to speed up my heart rate and breathing just standing there. Ok, though. If I can get the pack on I can carry it a mile. It’s a just a mile. My neighbor took our picture, astounded and confused. “Man, you look like a soldier.” “I feel like one.”
On the drive through the hill country I had the sense I was moving with a river, being carried swiftly downstream by the current through the land that was simultaneously shaped by the waters. The girls both fell asleep, their excitement not powerful enough to stave off the warm sun and the car’s rocking rhythm. I felt humbled by their easy trust in me, going with me on this crazy venture, not having a choice, but gamely hopping in the car like we were just going to a playground, even though I felt secretly terrified of all the possibilities that could go wrong.
The dangers? Of course I went over them in my mind as I drove—someone could get hurt—I had my first aid kit. We could get attacked by some crazy—I had my pepper spray. Someone could get lost—I would not let my eyes off them, especially at night. The main perceived danger, to my generation, is the fear that we’re out of cell phone service. The very idea gives the sense of imminent catastrophe. I reminded myself as I drove, cell phones don’t keep us safe. If something happens, we’ll use the resources we have and we’ll ask for help. We’ll reach out to the people around us. Cell phones just help us reach out to people far away. Being separated from phones reminds us that we can get help from those close by. And, since it is peak season at Lost Maples—the prime place in Texas to see the Maple’s vibrant-red fall display-there will definitely be people close at hand.
In the office while we waited in line for our permit, a park ranger constantly answered the phone and had a similar conversation over and over: “yes, the trees are changing. I can’t tell you exactly. Some are yellow, some red, some have already dropped. I don’t know how long. Thank you, good bye.” I remembered that the website had an entire page for “fall color update,” which had photos of what the leaves looked like weekly. I had thought, there must be a reason for this. And here it was. Even with the “fall color update,” this woman was having this conversation all day.
We set off with all the trepidation and adrenaline of a good adventure. My shoulders sank beneath the weight of the pack, and I breathed deeply, adjusting. My hands felt the straps burrowing into my skin from the water bag and the equally heavy food bag—which would’ve certainly been better without the beer. But if I’m already carrying all this stuff, what’s a couple extra beers?
Madeleine trotted off down the trail, high on the independence of carrying her own pack, her own sleeping pad. Catherine doddled behind, looking for leaves, picking up sticks. “Come on, Catherine.” I realized, in a new way, that this was going to take a very long time.
A mile doesn’t seem like a long way, until you’ve walked it with a 2 year old. And that distance grows exponentially when you can’t pick up that 2 year old. Everything fascinates them. And you don’t want to staunch that fascination….but really, it was time to get moving. Already, the sunlight crept toward the ridge line of the eastern hills, marking its descent in the west.
The weight on my back was not too bad, totally endurable, though painful, the all-too familiar bruising on my hips and shoulder bones. But, as we crawled along, the water bag and the food bag carved deeper into my skin until I felt it would crack open. Thankfully, every 50 yards or so I had to stop to yell back at my 2-year-old, and I had time to set down the bags while I yelled. It turns out that just carrying “a few more things” grows exponentially more difficult over distance. Even so, I still think it was worth the pain to not have to hike out for it the next day. Of course, better still would be to have a partner to carry it…or a water purifier.
The trail somehow snakes over the Sabinal river eight times over the short trek to the first campsites. In warmer weather, I would have welcomed this as an interlude to cool down. But with the air cooling with each minute the sun crept higher up the hills, it became a hazard. Catherine sat down to take her shoes off at each crossing, so I was scrambling to hustle across the river, set down the food and water and hustle back to shuttle her over the creek before the shoes came off. Then I’d return for Madeleine, who thankfully waited patiently until I could either carry her or hold her hand as she navigated the bridges of rocks and fallen trees.
This kind of travel is a mental challenge—to consider all the danger and prevent it, to accomplish all the physical tasks of hauling weight and children and navigate water crossings upright, and, at the same time, to be present to the beauty that you came to see, to be with. The river crossings heightened this challenge, adding the potential dangers of the river at the same time that the beauty of the trees and light and rolling hills and limestone bluffs eroded into the drama of carved limestone arching back around the river’s curves, channeling light into the open air and reflecting off the gently cascading water. When we came to the river, the drama of the changed beauty and light would jumpstart my heart and remind me to breathe more deeply, to see more clearly, to be here while I was passing through. This simultaneity of mental and physical work, or the juxtaposition of physical pain and mental release, is one of the elements of backpacking that makes it cathartic, and in that catharsis, addictive.
Do children experience catharsis? I think they do. I think I witnessed mine experiencing it. Small as they are, 4 and 2, both of them weighing just around 30 pounds, less than half of what I had on my back, the journey was a physical struggle for them. Madeleine would stop and hitch up her pack and groan a little bit. She’d complain now and then about being tired. Catherine would eventually just sit in the trail and cry. I bribed them with chocolate—the Halloween candy I had in the bag in my right hand—to get them to continue to camp.
But their struggle was also psychological. As we walked farther and farther from the car, I imagined they, like me, had a sense that we were going deeper into the wild. Crossing the river intensified this realization. With each crossing we encountered a power that could sweep us off our feet, that could carve limestone walls, that could chill us to the bone, that could stop us in our tracks with its glistening ramble across the rocks. We were in a wild place where we had to tread carefully and hold on to each other to stay safe. The feeling of distance, of what it means to be a mile away, sank into our bodies through our feet pounding on rocks, winding up and down the dusty trail and crossing, again and again, the threshold of the river. Distance feels so manageable when we’re rocketing along in the car, gliding along without effort. Out on the trail, we know ourselves to be very small bodies among the larger bodies of cypress, maple, limestone formations, the muscular river. We inch forward like mendicants pleading for safe passage.
We reached the primitive campsites just as the sun lit up the tops of the hills with tangerine embers. Open fields of tall, wheat-colored grass bent in a gentle breeze, nestled in a cradle of cypress-covered hills on all sides. I was expecting company out here—had been hurrying, in fact because I was afraid that the site would be full and we’d have to hike another half mile up a steep incline to get to the next site. And I didn’t think we had it in us to make it. But we were totally alone. Which was simultaneously exhilarating and troubling. I loved the idea of experiencing this field in the sunset and darkness and sunrise all by ourselves, but I had hoped there would be help close by if anything went wrong. Oh well, we’re here now. The task for the moment was to help the girls feel safe.
What is camping besides temporarily domesticating wilderness? Going into the wild and making a home there. What is the work of making a home besides making peace with our vulnerability by making a shelter and learning to breathe there? So, we set up our tent, which the girls hopped to enthusiastically, taking out all the poles and stretching them out every which way, pulling them between each other and trampling all over the tent. But we got it up and then went about filling it with the things that make us cozy—sleeping bags and pads, changes of clothes, a few books and stuffed animals. The girls jumped into that makeshift home as quickly as they could. And their relief, their sheer joy, was palpable. They screamed and rolled around and cuddled and covered themselves, smiling, in their sleeping bags. I worked on setting up the rest of camp and preparing dinner.
It’s important to keep everything orderly to avoid chaos at nightfall. Make sure your lights are accessible. Get everything out that is food or smells like food (like toothpaste) and put them in bags that will be hung up. Hang a rope on a tree away from your camp so that you can suspend your food in the air away from the reach of raccoons. We don’t have bears, so it’s not a life or death matter, but it will keep you from having to fend off raccoons from your precious food supply. A carabiner at the end of a rope helps with tossing the rope over a tree limb and with securing the food bags on multiple occasions without tying and untying knots. Hang your pack above the ground on a knot on a tree and close it all up to keep creepy crawlers out.
For dinner I had bought precut butternut squash with bacon, sautéed in a bit of olive oil. The girls and I sang the doxology and watched the sun creep behind the hills, leaving us in the shadows and cedars. We watched as stars and planets emerged, brilliant white in the sapphire sky. The girls were euphoric, astonished at their brightness and numbers. The hills grew colder as the night darkened, and with the cold, the fire of the stars rose over us like a blanket.
I tucked the girls into their sleeping bags, dismayed that Catherine’s fleece sleepsuit didn’t fit her anymore and that the zipper was broken. Her sleeping bag was not as warm as Madeleine’s, and I wasn’t sure she’d be warm enough. Warmth is something that can make or break a camping trip, in my opinion. It’s not something to skimp on. I had hurriedly tossed the sleep suit in, without checking it. Of course, I’d pay for that.
I used to hurry through the nighttime ritual of getting them comfortable in the tent so that I could retreat to the adult activity of drinking with whomever was by the fire. But I realized on a recent trip that this was one of the most precious times of a campout, being cozy together in a tent, reading stories, listening to the night emerge, getting comfortable with its wildness, praying and singing together. I took it slowly and drank deeply of the preciousness of being out in the wild with my girls. We read and cuddled and lay on our backs and looked at the stars through the mesh tent.
When I left the tent, though, they didn’t just talk and play as they usually do. Catherine would get quiet for a while then cry for me and kept crying for me. I sipped whiskey and tried to relax, looking at the jubilation of stars so densely packed that the night seemed to brighten as it darkened. But after a while I gave in to her cries, thinking that she seemed to sense the anxiety of being out a little farther from civilization than we had been whenever we camped before. Or maybe it was just me. Either way, I climbed into the tent and cuddled with her.
Just before they went to sleep, I heard a large group of voices tromping up the last hill and saw the beams of headlamps searching the woods. I hopped out to notify them that I was here with two little girls, hinting that this wasn’t the best place for them to set up camp. The group was a backpacking class from the nearby Texas State University, which has a reputation as a “party school.” I thought we were doomed to a raucous night of drunken college students. But they crept off down the trail and set up camp quietly among the trees.
In the middle of the night, Catherine woke up screaming, inconsolable. She had wriggled out of her sleeping bag, and since it was in the low 40s, she must have been freezing. I stuffed her back into her bag against her will and held her chest to my chest, rocking her back and forth. Usually when she wakes at night, she mutters requests for a multitude of unreasonable things, asking for water, toys, books. This time she wouldn’t respond at all when I asked what was wrong, just kept crying and screaming. Madeleine, mercifully, slept soundly. My head spun with late night anxieties of worst-case scenarios. What if something is really wrong with her? What if she doesn’t calm down? What if I need to get her out? My headlamp was dying (another thing you shouldn’t skimp on) and our solar lantern had already gone out. I didn’t have enough light to navigate us out of there. And how would get myself and the girls out in the dark and the cold? This is stupid. So stupid. I don’t know what I thought was potentially wrong with her. I just knew she was not acting like herself and I didn’t know what to do about, and there was no one I could ask and nothing I could do about it. We were just bodies in the woods, in the elements, with no power over the forces of cold and dark that could overwhelm us. I tried to wrap her with my body, but I was not big enough to cover her. I was just another body, after all.
So there I was, feeling foolish, utterly helpless, feeling the distance spreading out between me and my car, between my car and cell phone service, I knew myself as I really am. A body, with a racing mind reaching out in all directions, on the surface of dirt over limestone carved by a river, among the cypress trees, spinning in the enormous abyss of galaxies, spinning in the multiverse. And in that moment, I prayed aloud the psalm that the girls and I say each morning with our breakfast. “Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold O Lord, you know it altogether.” When I began praying, Catherine stopped screaming, then stopped crying. I slowed my breathing, and her breath relaxed into my rhythm. “You hem me in behind and before and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is high, I cannot attain it… If I say, surely the darkness will cover me and the light about me will be night, even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” By the end of the second time through the psalm, she was sleeping. I sat with her for a long time, breathing together in the solace of silence and warmth. While I do pray at home, I pray out of habit, often in apathy or suspended belief. In this moment prayer rose out me, out of a sense of utter precarity, reaching out into the abyss of absence to see if there was a hand there. As I sat rocking Catherine with her slow, heavy breathing, her chest warm against mine, I sensed a presence clasping back. Eventually I lay down and let her sleep on my chest, before I deemed it safe to roll her to her side, by my side.
I awoke to the sound of children cooking right outside my tent. I thought, damn, college students are getting younger and younger. I cursed them for their immaturity and their lack of consideration for the people obviously sleeping here. I waited, tense, for my girls to wake up, but, amazingly, they stayed asleep. I slept fitfully until they stirred, and then we got warm clothes on to meet the chilly morning, and the students outside.
When I emerged from the tent, I found that they were, indeed children. An entire encampment of Boy Scouts sprawled across the field behind us. A group of about 13 tussled over several camping stoves as they cooked their freeze-dried egg concoctions. Good lord, I thought, and went to get water going for coffee, hot chocolate, and oatmeal.
While I’m a French press drinker when it comes to coffee in normal life, I was so pleased to have my container of Nescafé, from which I instantly had double strength coffee in my thermos to last me all morning. The girls had mugs of hot chocolate, which they cradled while they ate instant strawberries n’ cream oatmeal with dried milk and pecans on top for protein. A spill at home is an annoyance. But a spilled hot chocolate while backpacking, with no way to get more water, is a catastrophe. Catherine knocked her cup over, and I pounced over, yelling and picking it up before too much dribbled out though her lid onto our blanket. The girls looked at me like the crazy person I was. But they also, I think, got the meaning that our resources were limited. Water, and thus hot chocolate, out here, was not something that came out of a tap. It was something that mama hauled in with gnashing of teeth and much complaining and pleas for sympathy. So many times over the trip they wanted something, and I told them, we don’t have it, or we don’t have enough. We have to save some. I think this experience, of limited resources, is something all American children of privilege, and even all privileged Americans, could benefit from. Catherine, a typical American, resisted this sense of limitation. She woke up the next morning before Madeleine and told me, “I’m leavin.” “Where are you going?” “Goin’ to HEB” (our local grocery chain).
The day spooled out as dreamily idyllic as I could have imagined. The sun rose over the hills as we were finishing breakfast and warmed our faces as it splashed light and color onto the grass and trees. The girls played at cooking and hanging food and worked with the bungees to attach various sticks and clothing to the outside of the packs. The basic work of surviving out here was now part of their imaginative world. I delighted to watch the pure solemnity of their play, even more as it gave me some time to sit quietly with Mary Oliver, the one book I had deemed worthy to haul in. For my money, poetry is a good choice to carry backpacking. It is worth its weight—you can spend endless time turning a single page over in your mind. Also, I find I have a limited attention span when my body is exhausted, and short poems fit that span well. Of course, this limited time works well with the demands of children. Oliver’s poems, too, catch and hold the attention of my children, as they’re often about encounters with creatures and nature. Oliver fits and sets the tone with which I hope to encounter the natural, as a living presence with it’s own will and a mind inaccessible to us, but whose presence we can enter with reverence and watchfulness.
The main drama of the day was about excrement. It begins with a flashback to the garage, where I stood holding the potty, wondering if I should take it, and if so, how, and deciding there was no way in hell I was going to hike with a potty dangling from my pack, when I already had 5 other things dangling there. Flash forward to Catherine at camp in the morning, declaring she needed to poop. So ended the minutes of poetry and coffee and so began the first of six hikes to the composting toilet ten minutes up the trail (in toddler time). The trail was now humming with hikers arriving from the car camping and people who drove in for the day. We waited in line for ten minutes behind hip college students from the backpacking class and gaming teens who had been dragged out in the woods, waiting in line to use the toilet only to refuse to use it once they went inside and smelled what poo actually smells like. Catherine was no better. When we finally got inside, and I was even holding my breath, she said, “I don’t have to.” “You do have to,” I said, knowing it was futile to try to force a toddler, or anyone for that matter, to poo. We eventually gave up and walked back to camp, well, Catherine ran, full tilt, down the rocky path until she stopped suddenly, face first in the dirt. She recovered quickly and we went to camp to see what was in the first aid kit.
The same scene was reenacted throughout the day, until the play reached a turning point during our hike. We had arrived at the grotto, our destination, a limestone bluff at a gentle bend of the river, in a grove of maple blooming with the fiery pinks and reds and oranges of the season. The walls of the bluff dripped with spring water cascading down a decoration of maidenhair ferns. The river flowed about shin-deep and completely transparent down to the solid limestone sheet of slippery rock beneath. Catherine immediately began to get in the river, so I took off her clothes, leaving only her undies, knowing she’d quickly be wet. Sure enough, she slipped in about a minute and screamed with the cold of the spring-fed river. I grabbed her and stripped off her undies and she squiggled out to get back in the water. After a while she got out to run among and scandalize the throng of hikers enjoying the grotto. Until she repeated her refrain, “I have to poop.”
I stuffed her back in her clothes and the dry undies I had brought and hiked up a hill into the trees until I couldn’t see any hikers and deemed us far enough from the river (200 ft by Leave No Trace Standards). Then I removed a large rock and used it to dig a sizeable hole (4-6 inches is the standard here). I helped Catherine squat in front of the hole and held her hands to help her relax. With no problems, she finally relieved herself. We all marveled at her work, and the girls helped me pile dirt and rocks and leaves on top of it, both so that no one would step on it and so it would decompose without contaminating any animal life. I heaped praises on Catherine, so proud of her accomplishment. “There’s not many girls who can poop in a hole, Catherine!” We ate lunch at the grotto (tortillas and hummus and carrots, oh, and Halloween chocolates) and scampered back to camp.
The nap I had planned for Catherine turned into a tickle cuddle fest between the two girls in the tent, that ended in a chapstick’s demise. The baby didn’t get a nap, which made for a volatile evening, but at least I was able to drink my afternoon coffee in solitude if not silence.
Dinner that night was another creation of easy and delicious shelf-stable fare—sautéed zucchini mixed in with premade pasta and smoked Norwegian salmon. The girls and I devoured it before I shuffled them into the tent and finally was relaxing with my bourbon under the stars, when Catherine declared she needed to pee and proceeded to unzip the tent and squat right in the entryway. Knowing it was too late, I let her finish and tried to put her back in, when she said she need to poo. Ugh. I carried her half-naked into the bushes and dug another hole while balancing her on my knee. I wasn’t about to hike to the outhouse in the dark for what was probably going to be a false alarm. When I set her down in front of the hole, she said, I don’t need to. Ok. We slunk back to the tent, where my headlamp focused in on a pile of poo right in the entryway. Catherine!!!! I wiped her, tossed her in the tent, scooped up the poo in the wipe and buried in it the hole I had already dug.
Later that night, after another bout of Catherine screaming and my reciting psalms until she fell asleep, I lowered her down to sleep when I noticed her sleeping bag was soaking wet. I got her out of her jammies in her sleep and brought her into my bag, which would only cover about half her back. I wriggled around and covered her with the bag, laying my belly on my cold sleeping pad. All night, every time she twitched I jolted awake to make sure she was covered.
All this drama about the joys of potty training leads me to two observations: 1) backpacking alone with children is not relaxing. 2) If at all possible bring the gear. A portable toilet would have changed my entire day and made it much less focused on excrement. Also, putting a diaper over a potty trained child’s underwear can be a good compromise if they don’t want to wear a diaper. It will contain the urine so that the all-important sleeping bag doesn’t get soaked.
The final morning was warmer and luxurious, as the Boy Scouts packed up and headed out. The empty field captured the sun, and I sipped coffee in its warmth as the girls pretended to cook on the stove. Eventually we started packing up, and I was delighted to find that I could fit everything in my pack this time, leaving my hands free to wrangle my toddler on the way out. The girls were in high spirits, following directions and helping each other with tasks, bickering only intermittently, instead of constantly. Madeline insisted that she carry all of the lunch stuff, and she did—even though she said her pack hurt her shoulders; she hiked it up and kept walking.
We stopped at one of the later river crossings to enjoy our lunch and finally play in the cold, clear water. Madeleine put on her swimsuit, and I stripped Catherine down to her skin. People filed by almost constantly as we dabbled in the river and dried on the rocks. Normally I would have been the one submerging myself in the cool water. But I was on the alert, making sure neither girl slipped on the rocks or got swept downstream. Many people commented as they passed, “Now she’s got the right idea.” I wholeheartedly agreed. As usual with camping, I felt like we were just adapting to truly being present to where we were, really living in the place, really seeing our surroundings—as we were on our way out.
Text and Images © Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser