When I was 9, my dad decided it would be a good idea to take me and my 5-year-old sister Eve camping. He’d only gone camping once when he was 16, but suddenly it was very important that we all go on this exciting family trip to spend the night in the woods for no reason.
My dad has had many other whimsical ideas for excursions. The “scenic routes” and dorky roadside attractions he’s dragged us to include a teepee-themed gift shop with a chili cart next to it, a giant cat sculpture that you can walk into at the Catamount People’s Museum, the “World Famous” Roscoe Diner off Route 17 in Roscoe, New York, the windmills on Highway 20, and any Dairy Queen we happened to pass by.
But those trips didn’t involve walking up on a mountain and sleeping on the ground, which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Still, I live in an apartment in the Bronx, so I was excited to do something that kids in the movies did, the ones who lived in houses and had canoes tied to their cars. I was imagining something like in The Parent Trap, where we would grill burgers and play funny pranks with slimy animals and air mattresses in lakes.
On the same day he decided we should go camping, the three of us piled into a rental car and drove up to Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks. As usual, we started the drive later than planned and since there were us two kids, we had to make a million stops.
After five hours of arguing with my sister over how to play the “I Spy” road game and changing the radio station every 10 seconds, we finally reached the mountain. It was already getting dark, which is not good when you want to see where you’re going. My dad had brought one medium-sized flashlight with batteries that were not new.
He hadn’t thought through the supplies too well because he is not a seasoned camper. Plus, everyone in my family is always late and forgetting different things. It’s a gene that doesn’t skip generations.
His version of supplies was beef jerky, popcorn, and muffins that we got from the gas station. We had one sleeping bag tied to his book bag that he’d gotten for $20 at Kmart. The book bag held soap, bug spray, our last-minute food, and Pepsi bottles that we had filled with tap water. I realized we wouldn’t be grilling burgers over a campfire.
Beef Jerky and Popcorn
When we arrived, we got out of the car, stretched our legs, and loaded the tent and the sleeping bags—which had straps—and the backpack onto our backs. We walked the gravelly pathway out of the parking lot toward the trail. The openings through the trees looked more like a “Beware, Get Out” sign than a pretty nature postcard. We hiked, sometimes single file and sometimes in a scattered circle shape, for a couple of hours as the sun set. The trail was narrow and almost as steep as stairs in some parts.
“Look at those plants over there!” my dad stopped and exclaimed periodically. But I didn’t see what was so great about them. My legs were itchy and ached from walking so far. Eve was whining, “I’m cold.” “I’m tiii-red.” “I’m hungry.” “I’m thirsty.” “Are we almost there yet?”
We weren’t about to set up at an official campground, either. “There’ll be too many people, with all their noise and trash on the ground. It won’t feel like nature!” my dad said. So instead, we walked until we were halfway up the mountain and the sky was dark and the moon was out and we were too tired to keep going.
We stumbled off the path and stopped at the first place that was clear of trees. We managed to set up the tent in the dark, something none of us knew how to do. The poles of the tent had to be pulled apart and then connected in a long line. It was so dark we could hardly see; the poles jabbed my face and arms and ribs, but we got it done. In his own words, my dad “didn’t really have a headlamp or any idea what I was doing.”
We ate some beef jerky and popcorn and hung our flashlight at the top of the tent. The area we had chosen was on a slope, so we lay down slanted. I felt sticks and rocks pressing into my back from under my sleeping bag.
There was no shouting or sirens or car radios blasting like at home. When we didn’t talk, the cicadas’ high-pitched chirping was the only sound in the dark. I worried that the silence would swallow me whole. I’m a city kid and I am used to noise all around all the time. Without it, the air felt strange and lonely.
Scary Footsteps Approach
“Let’s tell ghost stories!” I said, wanting to break the eerie silence. Even as a kid I was pretty goth, and I was excited about telling creepy stories with a flashlight in my face to make the whole thing even creepier. Eve, in all her plucky intrepid 5-year-old-ness, laughed and got excited along with me.
I tried telling a story about a little girl who got lost in the woods, but it fell flat. “There was a little girl… and she… uh… was very scared! Yeah, she was super scared.” I was not the best storyteller. “OK, this is getting boring,” I complained after a while. “What else can we do?”
My dad suggested we play 20 questions, and we were in the middle of wondering what “person, place, or thing” Eve could be thinking of when– Crunch. We froze.
The noise happened again: Crunch. Again, over and over: Crunch, crunch, crunch. The sound was circling our tent, as if something or someone was walking around us in circles. As the noises that sounded like footsteps kept circling around and around us, those ghost stories ran back through my head and suddenly seemed a lot more terrifying than they had before.
Are We Going to Die?
We were pretty sure we were all going to die in those woods. My dad was trying to pretend he wasn’t freaked out, probably wanting to be a calm presence for us. He tried to keep a straight face while telling us, “It’s probably not a big deal, now get your hand away from the door zipper!” My sister and I were not buying it.
Maybe he was imagining the headlines just like we were: Man And His Kids Killed By Deranged Serial Killer (Or Possibly Bear) In The Woods During Misguided Camping Trip Gone Wrong. (Long title, I know.) I wondered what my obituary would say. “Nine-year-old girl killed because her father just had to go camping the night a crazy murderer was on the loose. She is survived by her goldfish, her pet lizard, and her other father (the one who wasn’t eaten). 2001-2010.”
Eventually, my dad reached over, unzipped the tent, and… a moth flew in. It started flying around the inside of the tent, trapped inside the plastic-y fabric walls. Each time it slammed its tiny body against the walls, it made a crunchingly sound. We stared at the moth and then at each other. We had been lying there, vividly imagining our early deaths, all because of a moth that had been flying around our tent just trying to get closer to the flashlight. We fell asleep after that. It seemed like the thing to do.
Less Scary in the Light
In the morning, with the sunlight illuminating all the places that had been dark scary corners, everything seemed less terrifying. We ate our gas station muffins, packed up the tent, and hiked the rest of the way up the mountain. I felt good. I had looked death in the face and survived, even if the face had really been a moth the whole time. I felt invincible.
When we finally got to the top of the mountain, I stood on the rocks a few feet away from the ledge that dropped off into nothing. I looked out at all the trees and hills and water that now seemed miles below us. There was green and blue and the trees were so tiny I couldn’t see their details. I had been down there, too tiny to see from the top of the mountain, only a day ago. I admit it was a pretty view.
But the charm of doing something like the kids on TV with boats on their cars had worn off. I was disillusioned with camping. I was ready to go home and stay there forever with our electric fans and mattresses and no moths except the ones that flew in during the summer, which we swatted with brooms and were not afraid of.
Still, looking back, I’m glad my dad took us with him, unlike other parents who go on trips and leave their kids at home. Being in the woods is something he really loves, so he wanted to experience it with us. So even though I didn’t end up loving nature and getting starry eyes about lots of trees like he does, it still makes me happy that I went with him.
In fact, despite my resistance, we went camping many times after that. We never once made it in time to set up a tent while it was still light out.