“This is a very good sleeping bag,” I said to Harrison. “If I lend this to you, you must bring it back to me. Do you understand? You must bring it back to me.”
“Sure, dad,” Harrison said, prying the proffered sleeping bag from my clutching grasp. “I’ll bring it back. Don’t worry.”
When I was in middle school, my parents spent a small fortune to buy me a North Face sleeping bag. That was back in the mid-1980s when the only people who had North Face sleeping bags were people who were named Edmund Hillary and they were hiking the Himalayas. Of course I’m joking, not even Edmund Hillary had a North Face.
Inside that sleeping bag, I have slept on the side of countless mountains, the banks of countless rivers and lakes, and I’ve even spent nights in swamps in that sleeping bag. I’ve slept in thunderstorms where the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled to wake the devil. I’ve slept in snow storms in that bag. I’ve slept in some of the worst and best weather the Southeast could muster.
I’ve had that sleeping bag for more than 30 years.
Harrison and a couple of his friends decided they wanted to go to the Everglades a couple of weeks ago. I almost didn’t let him take my sleeping bag. Not because I was really worried that he would lose it, but because I was insanely jealous. I would love to be 21-years-old and go camping in the Everglades.
Harrison couldn’t find his sleeping bag (it was buried at the bottom of his closet), so I gave him mine and made him swear a blood oath that he would return it to me in good condition.
That was two or three weeks ago. Fast forward to Monday when I was getting all our gear together for a short hike along the Panther Creek trail.
The first thing I did was got the tent out of its bag. In addition to taking my sleeping bag, Harrison also took my tent. I got everything out of the bag and yelled at Harrison, “Where are the tent poles?” I asked.
I was sure the tent poles had been carelessly forgotten in the Everglades and that some alligator had come along and eaten them.
Harrison stared blankly at me and the empty tent bag.
“Are they not in the bag?” he asked.
I frowned my “dad is really pissed off” frown at Harrison and shook the empty tent bag.
“Maybe they’re in my car!” Harrison said, and he rushed outside to look.
I debated whether I would cancel our trip or go buy a new tent while he was looking through his car. In a few minutes, though, Harrison came back inside with the tent poles and a relieved grin.
“I knew I had them!” he said.
I continued to get our stuff together. Four packs. Cooking pots. All the things we would need for an overnight trip into the secluded, solitary mountains of Northeast Georgia. Four sleeping bags. One, two, three sleeping bags. “Where is my sleeping bag?” I asked Harrison.
“Oh, it’s in the car.”
But he did not rush out to get it, and I wasn’t ready to put it in my pack yet, so I didn’t press the issue. I mean, the tent poles were in the car like he said, and he knows how much it means to me, that North Face sleeping bag that not even Edmund Hillary had.
Around 9 p.m. Monday night we were packing the packs.
“Harrison, I need my sleeping bag,” I said. He went outside to his car to get it. I noted that it seemed to take longer to find a sleeping bag than it did to find tent poles. And then Harrison came in empty-handed.
“I think I left your sleeping bag in Christopher Amason’s car,” Harrison said, and I frowned my “dad’s really pissed frown,” at him.
I asked him about a thousand times if he was joking, and each time he said he was not. Jean and Harrison’s two brothers sat on me to keep me from throttling my eldest son, and when the steam eventually quit whistling out of my ears, they let me up.
The best I could find that was light weight was a fleece blanket that would cover from my toes up to my waist. I reasoned that I would wear a heavy sweatshirt and that I could sleep in that, and I convinced myself I would be fine.
Tuesday night, after hiking about four miles, the boys and I found a decent campsite by the creek and we put up the tent and collected firewood.
I cooked dinner over the campfire, and as the sun set we toasted marshmallows. This is a new thing for us. I’ve never taken marshmallows on our hikes because it’s not really something I care about. But when we were buying supplies at the grocery store Monday, Jean urged me to get the marshmallows, maybe because at 21, 17, and 15-years-old, it’s about time these boys learn how to do it right.
After dinner, Robert went after the marshmallows like a man possessed. Half the bag was gone before Nathan and Harrison even knew we had marshmallows.
The boys all fashioned themselves marshmallow roasting sticks, and each of them put their marshmallows into the flames, let the marshmallows catch fire and burn to a crisp before they at them.
I haven’t roasted marshmallows since I was Nathan’s age, but I haven’t lost the touch.
I put my marshmallow on a stick and held it near the hot coals, but not so near that it caught fire. I turned it slowly like it was on a spit. I let it get a nice even brown – no fire and not black like coal. The inside turned to liquid.
“That’s perfection in marshmallowing,” I told the boys.
And then I told them a story, borrowed from the movie Colors starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. In the movie, Penn and Duvall play cops dealing with the rise of gangs in 1980s Los Angeles. Duvall is the older, wiser cop and Penn is his partner in training, learning from the streetwise Duvall. It’s a stupid movie full of clichés and bad acting, but over the years I’ve carried with me a lesson learned from that movie. It’s a lesson about taking your time, being deliberate, and winning a better reward. I’ll clean it up for language, but the content remains the same.
In the movie, Duvall’s character says to Penn’s character something like: “Once, there was a young bull and an older bull standing on a hill side. And down in the field there were a bunch of cows. And the young bull said to the old bull, ‘Hey, let’s run down there and have sex with one of those cows.’ And the older bull said, ‘No. Let’s walk down there and have sex with all of those cows.’”
“And you’re telling us this because cow sex is like marshmallow roasting?” Nathan asked.
“Exactly,” I said.
My sons never know what bits of wisdom I will impart on a walk through the woods.
A short while later, we turned in.
I’ll admit it. I’m older than I used to be. My knees get sore. My shoulders and leg muscles ache. It’s harder for me to walk up and down hills with a 50-pound pack on my back than it used to be. And the ground isn’t nearly as soft as it was when I was a teenager or in my 20s. Now the ground is very hard.
I had a bed roll, but it did nothing to help me. I felt like I was lying on a board.
But I wasn’t cold.
I put my sweatshirt on and wrapped that fleece blanket around my legs, and I was fine.
But I couldn’t sleep because I was so uncomfortable. Ten o’clock turned into 11 o’clock, and I still wasn’t asleep. The temperature was dropping, too, and I was starting to get cold.
At midnight I still wasn’t asleep, and I was freezing.
Nathan, in the sleeping bag beside me, had gotten too warm and he took his sweatshirt off. So I grabbed his sweatshirt. It didn’t fit me, but I put it over me like a blanket.
I was still freezing cold in that tent. And I could not sleep. I checked the clock on my phone regularly. At 2 a.m. I was beyond miserable. At 2:30 a.m., in my mind, I was cursing my own child for having left my sleeping bag. At 2:33 a.m., I was seriously considering disowning Harrison. At 2:34 a.m. I was contemplating murdering Harrison and taking his sleeping bag. At 2:42 a.m. I was wondering if Robert would notice if I dragged him and his sleeping bag over me to use them as a blanket.
At 4 a.m. I decided I would lay there until 5 a.m., and I would get up at 5 a.m. and start a fire. I was frozen, I knew there would be no sleeping in that refrigerated tent, and the only warmth and comfort I would find would be over a campfire.
Also, everyone knew bad storms were rolling in early Wednesday morning, and I promised my wife (who was at home and up all night worried about her husband and sons) that I would get her babies safely out of the woods before the bottom dropped.
At 4:11 a.m. I checked the clock on my phone and could not believe it had only been 11 minutes. I thought the hour had already passed. I laid there quietly shivering under my thin fleece blanket and Nathan’s sweatshirt until I knew it had been 45 minutes. I checked my phone again and saw that it was only 4:32.
“Close enough,” I said, and I got up and went out to the campfire.
I’ve made a million fires in my life. I’ve started morning campfires using nothing more than the coals from the previous night’s campfire. I’ve built raging inferno campfires and quick, just-enough-to-cook-dinner campfires.
I don’t think in my entire 44 years of life, all the thousands of campfires I’ve had to make, I’ve ever had a problem starting a fire.
Wednesday morning, with an entire box of matches and frozen to the bone, I couldn’t start a campfire to save my life.
The leaves and kindling I was using were wet and dirty and nothing would light. Then I knocked over the box of matches and scattered matches everywhere. I struck match after match, but I could not get my fire going.
With only two matches left, I went and got a paper plate to use as kindling. This was my ace in the hole. If you can’t get a fire to start any other way, just use a paper plate.
I ripped it into pieces and rebuilt my fire teepee around the paper plate strips. I struck my next-to-last match and – with frozen fingers – jammed the match too hard into my fire teepee and knocked the flame right out.
I laughed at myself and struck my last match. The paper plate caught fire and then fizzled out.
Defeated. Broken. Frozen. In desperate need of a cup of coffee. Fireless. Matchless.
I felt like it was not just my sleeping bag that had been lost to the Everglades but my entire self-worth. And I’ve never even been in the Everglades.
I stood up, and in the glow of my flashlight I saw beside my foot one last match, sitting in the dirt from where I’d spilled the box.
I picked it up, struck it, held it to the paper and in about two seconds I had a roaring fire.
Slowly the boys emerged from their toasty-warm sleeping bags. We watched the sun come up while standing next to our blazing campfire. I warmed up and made myself some coffee. Then I cooked breakfast while the boys broke camp.
We ate breakfast and watched the clouds roll in.
The boys, who did not want to hike in the rain, had their packs all ready to go while I was still washing pots in the creek, so I told them to go ahead. I’ve hiked in the rain a bazillion times, and I knew I would not melt. But I wasn’t sure about my sons, so I sent them on ahead. We only had about two miles to go, and they could move faster than me anyway, and I didn’t see the sense in me holding them up and potentially all of us getting soaked.
I finished packing my stuff, made sure we didn’t leave any trash at the campsite, and then about 15 minutes behind them, I started after my sons.
When I had about half a mile left to get out to the car – and I’d already been hearing thunder rolling for 10 or 15 minutes – I saw Nathan coming back down the trail. The boys had made it out, but Nathan felt bad about leaving me and so he hiked back in to find me. He thinks I’m so old and feeble that I can’t walk without someone to keep an eye on me.
With about a tenth of a mile to go, it started to sprinkle on us. When we got in the car, the bottom fell out.
“Someone send your mama a text and tell her we’re on the way home,” I said.
We don’t do it often enough, but taking my sons into the wilderness is one of my great joys of fatherhood. They’re good boys, and fun to be around, and I’m really looking forward to our next trip.
But before we make our next trip, Harrison needs to get my sleeping bag out of Christopher Amason’s car.
Rob Peecher is author of “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings” and can make a campfire despite all the evidence against him.