Stone Mountain, North Carolina
A mile into the woods, I am always slightly afraid. Fear’s lace knots the cuff of an otherwise lovely afternoon. Nights, when I peek out of the tent, the moon is a bright friend too far away to help.
My husband Adam doesn’t have this fear. He grew up going to the woods, not doing what my family did, which he calls “car camping”—cooler in the station wagon, toothpaste spit into the bathhouse sink, moths beating against chipped mirrors under fluorescent lights. His family filtered water. They read topography maps. They strapped everything to their backs, securing extras to their packs with carabiners like so many clanking ornaments.
Camping, I thought as we embarked on the first family backpacking trip, was about compression. Not just ratchetting down the stuff sacks for the sleeping bags or emptying Easy Mac containers into one Ziploc to save a few cubic inches, though these acts were pleasing to me. No, in my mind, the camping trip became a mechanism to compress time, to find a purer version of ourselves in the woods—more distilled.
On Friday afternoon the children were happy to leave school early, and the sunshine so luminous that even I-40 westbound seemed, briefly, like a reasonable endeavor, purposeful and benevolent, instead of just more human destruction. We parked the van on the edge of the Appalachian range and dropped the fee into the trailhead lockbox. Without complaint our three kids shouldered packs and bounded down the sandy trail, counting bridges.
“Even on a mountain you still can’t touch the sky,” the four-year-old announced right before he handed me his backpack—containing socks, a granola bar, and two hardback books he’d deemed essential—to run ahead.
The tent of my childhood was a relic from the 1970s, the decade to which I belong but cannot remember. It had faded mustard-and-mauve flaps, dented poles, and a pervasive must that I long mistook for the smell of camping, but which was actually the smell of our garage, and silverfish, and rot. Mostly, I recall it being set up in the backyard. My brother and I loved the light it brewed mid-afternoon, the way it made a world out of a patch of weedy lawn.
All the kids wanted to sleep in the zippy, snappy purple dome bought at REI the previous month. No one wanted to sleep in the two-person tent with light green fly that Adam and I toted from Nepal to Botswana twenty years ago. One dusky evening outside Gaborone, I set up the camera’s self-timer and raced back to the front of the tent to crouch beside him. That framed photo hangs in our stairwell, capturing the way I still think of us, and the tent: new, just setting out.
Our kids, though, know it as the old tent, as archaic and musty to them as my parents dilapidated tent was to me, as much an artifact of their childhoods as my parents’ cassette tapes were of mine, Peter, Paul, and Mary scrawled in loopy cursive. Even the handwriting seemed old.
In my desire to compress time, I’d forgotten parenthood renders time a double helix. The woman packing the extra marshmallows is also the child begging for them; the parent scolding children about dirt in the tent is also the girl pressing her fingertips to its side, waiting to see the ovals of rain her father warned would seep through. In the woods, I found not compression, but expansion: not a return to childhood’s finitude but a reminder of adulthood’s gaseousness, the way time and memory expand like the arms of a nebula stretching into space, bright but indistinct.
The woods are big enough to contain our expansion. Before I fall asleep, with the tent mesh a scrim between me and the stars, the fireflies blink their morse code, now a foot away, now thirty feet above. When I wake in the throat of the wild, the creek a dark growl beyond, the woods are not just alive but aloud. It’s easy to imagine each twig snapping is a bear brushing its way through our campsite, though I know black bears have been hemmed in and displaced, though I know a bear might be silent, moving on pads nicked and rough over the moss. I try to imagine both of us—me and the theoretical bear—safe. Fear compresses, and I don’t want to live in that bounded world.
Mornings at the campsite, the kids collect young walnuts, lime-sharp and chartreuse, each curve a hard prayer in their palms. Then they throw them. The game is to see how far they can go.
Anne P. Beatty is a nonfiction writer whose work has recently been published or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Longreads, The Rumpus, and Copper Nickel. Her work has also been listed as notable in the Best American Essays series, and two of her essays have won prizes from Hunger Mountain and Creative Nonfiction. She lives with her family in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she teaches high school English.