With his kids grown, outdoor writer T. Edward Nickens reflects on his favorite family vacations
We were quite a spectacle at the airport. You can’t fly a family of four and camping gear for 10 days from the East Coast to the Rockies without a bit of fuss. We’d show up at the ticket counter with seven big duffels, one large cooler, and eight carry-ons. We’d fly tents, bags, chairs, stoves, solar showers, and a complete kitchen kit. Those monstrous camping trips to the Grand Tetons, the Olympics, and to Yellowstone are a part of my family’s DNA, bolstered by more family camping trips close to home. We took pride in toughing it out one Thanksgiving in a tent below North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain when the eggs froze hard as granite. I reveled in scarfing down pancakes burned on the outside and gooey as curdled milk on the inside, as long as my daughter, Markie, and son, Jack, were taking turns at the griddle.
Our family camping trips ranged from easy overnighters to ridiculously orchestrated cross-country jaunts. But my wife, Julie, and I have only recently come to understand that we were making more than memories on all those trips. We were raising kids who yearned for new experiences, and who wouldn’t think twice about striking out for parts unknown. And we were setting our four-some up for a new era of family travel, an unexpected—and wholly welcomed—new way of hitting the road.
Fast-forward a few quick years, you see, and here we are: “Original nesters,” Julie says, loathe to use the term “empty nesters” with its baggage of boredom and early bird dinner specials. Both Markie and Jack are now off in college, making new friends and new plans. Everyone’s breaks are on a different schedule, so gone are our beloved spring and fall break adventures. Summers are now filled with jobs and internships and summer semesters. But just when we thought our long family vacations might be coming to a close, we’ve learned about a new phenomenon in family life: Poor students make great travel companions. “We’ve learned,” I heard Julie tell a friend, “that we can always bribe the kids with travel.” Markie and Jack may not make it home to help take the Christmas decorations down. But a freebie to the Florida Keys? A week in Glacier National Park? Sign ‘em up.
I’m convinced this slightly underhanded approach to mid-life parenting works so well because we’ve raised our family on a proactive dedication to travel. Early on, I committed myself to travel with each of my children, father and child, at least once a year. Markie and I have paddled kayaks with whales in Quebec, tracked jaguars in Costa Rica, and plunged under rainforest waterfalls in Honduras. But all those trips were rooted in the very first jaunt when she was in second grade. We took a simple canoe trip along the Dan River and an overnight at Hanging Rock State Park, two hours from home. It wasn’t a world-class adventure. But we used smooth river rocks to scratch petroglyphs in the cliffs over the river and created an all-new camping dessert—Granny Smith Apple-Milky Way bake—which we still talk about nearly 15 years later. That one trip set us on a long course of annual journeys. Where are we going next, Daddy? I always had an answer. (And fingers crossed, next could be Panama…)
Jack and I started our own traditions when he was not much older. For summer after summer we paddled a three-day section of Virginia’s New River, under soaring cliffs. A stickler for tradition, Jack insisted we camp at the same spots, year after year. He grows up in my treasured photographs of those trips, a little slip of a fellow dwarfed by the paddle, to a young man handy with a fly rod and fillet knife.
But it’s the family camping trips that have knitted us together. Our memories form a sort of shared vocabulary. When someone is “madder than Markie at Ram Head,” we know that’s not a good sign. On the hike along the soaring ocean cliff in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, Markie wilted in the Caribbean heat and put on an epic pre-adolescent pout that’s still good for laughs. There’s a lot of togetherness in a single tent with a shared solar shower. These experiences have payoffs Julie and I will enjoy for a long time to come.
So now, with our kids nearly grown and gone, Julie and I snuggle down on the playroom sofa, prop laptops on our knees, and figure out where and what it will take for another morning of pancakes on the camp stove.
“What about the Canadian Rockies?” I ask, and a big grin crosses her face. The kids will have a couple weeks between college exams and summer jobs. They’ll be poor as church mice at the end of the year. No way they’ll turn down a chance to sleep on the ground with the old folks back home.