The thick, uneven gravel crunched under the wheels of the slowly moving all-wheel-drive 1990 Toyota Camry slowly making its way from California Highway 4 just below the Ebbetts Pass. The two-year-old too-low car squeezed, bumped and spun gravel on its way up the narrow jeep trail west from Wolf Creek Road. The road is the start of a bonding father-daughter relationship.
The windows were wide open as my daughter and I headed for the adventure of a dad-daughter backpacking trip. We were 6,800 feet (2,073m) high into the Sierra Nevada mountains on the edge of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, close to where Alpine and Calaveras counties meet in heavy forests and granite slopes. The trip ahead would teach my little girl skills to build her self-esteem and confidence. The backpacking adventure was a first time for both of us.
Pulling the car into the clearing near the Toiyabe National Forest Wolf Creek campground (lat. 38.57601, long. -119.69750), we readied for the 5-mile (8.1km) trek towards Highland Peak. Backpacking was something new in my daughter’s life. I wanted to be her role model. I wanted to give her independence, an important role, and watch her move from her teen years into a young adult.
Erica recently turned 16-years-old, and this weekend was to be a bonding father-daughter experience. Neither of us was new to camping, but this was her first backpacking trip. Her first camping trip came when she was 2-years-old, and was a regular family activity until she left for college in 1994. This trip was the special one to be remembered. We always had a close relationship, but after this weekend, it would be special. Backpacking is an experience to be carried into her own life.
“Yes, I still remember the trip,” she said from her home in California. “It was a wonderful bonding experience. You showed me how to use a compass and a topo map. It’s where I really got my love of the outdoors and camping.”
A map, a compass, and no GPS
No cell phones. No GPS. It is 1994. The weekend was a map and compass trip. Rolling the quad map open on the trunk of the car, I covered the scratches she just made in the ding-free car when pulling her external frame pack over the Camry’s lid. Not even that would undermine the fun anticipated, while searching out the landmarks to orient the hike onto the map. This weekend would transform the father-daughter relationship, connecting as two adults. She would transition from my little girl, to a young woman.
“I remember we went to the store and bought that awful backpacking food,” she said. “That was horrible food.”
This backpacking experience showed her transition into a foodie. I laugh today while we’re talking and trying to recall the menu choices plucked from the rack in the local Carson City outdoors store. Now that she’s a professional chef, camp food is a more elevated experience, featuring homemade dehydrated or preserved foods, feeding her family camping along the California coast or Tomales Bay.
Father-Daughter Bonding Tip: Take a 90° Turn
Preparation is an important part of any camping trip, but it’s a checklist necessity for backpacking. Preparation is part of life. We made a list of what we needed for the length of the trip. Then it was off to the store for the “awful food” and the other things we didn’t have, or couldn’t use from the already in-house car-camping gear.
Now living with her family in San Francisco, she shows off their earthquake preparation kit.
“Looks like we’re readying a backpacking trip,” she says. “Except for the extension cord. Look at the rest, that lousy dehydrated food, water, matches, space blankets, wipes, first aid kit, more water and toilet paper.”
Erica, I explained those many years ago, we have to eat dehydrated meals because, contrary to what you want to do, hauling gear for scratch cooking adds far too much weight. It was an experience in adaptation. On the family camping trips, scratch-prepared meals were the rule. It’s a tradition both daughter and dad continue today when car camping.
“That trip instilled my love of the outdoors,” she says today. “We often go camping because of where we lived and where we camped. But, we fill the car with gear before hitting the road, today, just like you and mom used to do.”
This trip was both a new experience for dad and daughter together, but a 90-degree turn from the family car camping trips to make it stand out in our memories. All these years later, it still does. The lesson learned: For a lasting, bonding experience, it’s important to do something completely different from regular family activities.
Passing on Life Skills to Your Children
From my father, I inherited a clear sense of direction and geographic memory. Erica was not the best on directions. Before saddling up the packs, we looked at the map.
“See this dotted line?” I ask pointing to the map. “That’s the trail we’re going to follow.”
Putting the compass on the map and pointing to Highland Peak in the distance, I continue, “See that mountain? Now look at the circles, here, it’s labeled with the peak name. The tight circles indicate the mountain. Each line on this map is 20-feet (6m), You have to look at the legend to see what that number is. It’s the contour interval. Now, place the compass on the route. Set it to the direction of the mountain. Now you have your direction. Now, when looking at the compass, you want to be moving in that direction.”
We talk about how the compass and its direction can be a metaphor for life. We talk about school, about college, about her mom, boyfriend, and the future. Most important, we talk about the need to set the moral compass towards life’s destination, and to keep moving in that direction.
“It’s never a straight line,” I remember saying. “But, if you remain true to your course, you’ll arrive at your destination.” She doesn’t remember me saying that.
“You sure your memory isn’t blurring?” she asks from the other end of the call.
Crossing the Meadow
We move on to the trail. Ah, to be young again and not need trekking poles. The trail is worn, but not well-worn. No cairns or blazes are visible anywhere. We tread where it seems that animal and man has passed before. That’s when we come to the meadow.
The trail disappears into the overgrown bear clover. The land, though sloping, isn’t enough to match the trail on the topo map to the lay of the land in front. After a rest, we tromp across the meadow.
“I still remember that meadow,” she says over the phone. “It was really beautiful. We lost the trail and then found it going into the woods on the other side. I knew you would find it.”
Ah, the importance of fathers and role models.
Being the father figure, I wanted to demonstrate patience, caring, understanding and tolerance (especially after she scratched the trunk lid). It was important to give her the self-confidence to be able to make good decisions, something she could take into her future romantic relationships and good relationships with others. I wanted to keep a positive relationship throughout the adventure.
We’d stop often along the trail, unroll the map, and I’d have Erica find our location. This gives her the chance to build self-confidence and creates a strong bond between us acquiring a skill no one else could claim in the family. Being a good father, I let her try, experiment and learn how to find the trail, mark it for the return journey (especially across the meadow).
Strengthening Parent-Child Bonds: The Outcome
We worked our way higher and out of the tree-line. The shadows were growing long, and we decided to camp for the night under the stars at the edge of the forest. We pulled out two packets of dehydrated foods, boiled the water, and poured it into the “eat from the pack” packaging.
“Yuck. It was horrible,” she says on the phone. “I remember.”
Neither of us can remember what we ate, although mine was likely the beef stew. We filled our stomachs. We then made a small campfire, which was permitted since we were not in the wilderness area. We enjoyed a sense of well-being as the night filled with stars and a massive moon rose in front of us. This is the kind of relationship I wanted to enjoy with my daughter. The ability to talk, to listen, to respect and love each other.
The camping trip turned every day that followed into Father’s Day.