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The Birth of a Backpacker

by Paul Dockery

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As the date of departure for our trip drew closer, I could tell that he had some reservations about this excursion. "What do you do there? Is it steep?" But the lure of missing 2 days of school, his second ever airplane ride, and sleeping in a hammock were enough to push the misgivings aside and to get up at 4:30 am to go get on said airplane.

We were on our way from our home in San Antonio to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. It is a place I had been to before. And to be honest, after my last trip there, and the descriptions I had given, I could kind of understand why an 11-year-old would be concerned. While thoroughly enjoyable, my previous packing trip to the Gorge had been somewhat grueling. But that story will wait for another time. Braden was in for the time of his here to for short life, and would get many years of living in a short 4-day period.

While this was only my third backpacking trip, the group of men that I go with has been packing in the Gorge for over 20 years. With this kind experience to rely on, I felt it was time for my son to experience the joy of eating food cooked on a microstove and pumping water through a purifier. Of discovering what lies just around the next bend in the trail, or what you can find if you crawl through that rock arch and look out the other side.

After the planes, trains and automobiles part of our journey, we strapped on our packs and headed to that special place deep in one of the canyons of the Gorge area. A place with a small stream of crystal water that flows gently to "The Pond" where only the bravest of souls dare jump in and become "Mountain Men." If the water is above 40 degrees, it isn't by much. This ritual, this rite of passage has only been accomplished by a few, and those who have completed it carry themselves a little differently… The tents were up, the hammocks were strung, and dinner was in the skillet as darkness enveloped our campsite. Dinner that evening was jalapeno and cheese sausage from Dziuk's Meat Market in South San Antonio. Heated up in the mess kit skillet and served in warmed tortillas with rice and beans, this meal was nearly as memorable as the pizza we had the next night.

A late September cool front left us chilled at night with our breath hanging eerily in the air. Daytime was as pleasant as on could hope for. The next group of our comrades arrived in the middle of the next morning, and after they were settled it was decided that a "walk-about" was in order. We struck out the opposite direction of our arrival and soon were confronted with a steep ascent through a crevice in one of the many rock cliffs that make the Red River Gorge both beautiful and dangerous. Climbing and struggling around, sometimes through, Magnolia thickets and Briar patches we finally reached the top of the ridge.

It was at this point that we saw the awesome power of a lightening strike, and the devastation it can have on a drought ridden forestry. The smoldering fire that ensued had hollowed out the very large pine tree that the lightening struck. Hungry flames had spread across the kindling-dry ridge top scorching several acres and the smell of charred wood still hung in the air as we hiked along in search of "Harry's Arch."

This obscure hole in a rock formation, while not even being on the Forest Service topographical map, is a place where 11 year olds of all ages can let their imaginations run wild. The perfect little cave with the perfect view of the canyon below, "Harry's Arch" is the perfect place to pretend you are Jeremiah Johnson or some other character of lore. It also happens to be a great place to shelter in an emergency. The trip back down to base camp was as challenging as the ascent, but confidence had taken over Braden, and he scampered down carefully but quickly.

As a father, it is always a joy to see your children grow and learn. But this trip in particular was cause for a special kind of joy. In a few days, he grew in experience and wisdom. For the first time in his life he saw the tops of clouds from an airplane window. He climbed the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He ate his first White Castle hamburgers and pizza cooked in an oven made of aluminum foil and a microstove. He learned that a hiking stick is more than just a cool thing to have; that it is a tool that can be invaluable in a steep climb. He saw the factory where his toothpaste is made, and hot air balloons over New Albany Indiana. He saw the Ohio River and the largest baseball bat in the world at the Louisville Slugger Museum. He saw the leaves of early autumn already turning with the promise of even greater splendor. He took a nap in a hammock stretched between 2 trees in the middle of nowhere, and jumped in a pool of water that is way beyond brisk. He became a "Mountain Man." He saw a group of men telling stories and reading poetry by candlelight. A group that included a superior court judge, a carpenter, a construction foreman, a computer genius, printing industry workers and a salesman. Some of these things made a great impression on him, and some made less of one. I pray it will all be with him as long as he hikes this planet.

He calls me his best buddy. He says that I am the best dad in the world. He can't wait to go backpacking again. Neither can I. But it would never be the same again if he were not there.
I love you Braden.

About the Author

Paul Dockery (Soapeddler@aol.com) trail name "Omar the Hammock Mender" lives in San Antonio with his beautiful wife Kathy, and 2 children Braden and Shelby. A h


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