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Far north of his original settlement in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Nathan Cole found himself in the middle of an endless Canadian pine forest. All was quiet except for the ferocious battle-taking place on the large, gently sloped rock face. Nathan dodged the deadly paw of the grizzly bear, and stepped back to set up his attack. “Come on X! Attack! Attack!” The sweat dripped down Nathan’s face as his trembling hands commanded the video game character to throw down the final devastating blow to his foe. “Victory,” the television flashed, enabling Nathan to relax.
As Nathan snapped out of his imagination, he jumped up in the air to celebrate his victory against The Boss Bear. He had dedicated the past three weeks of his life to this conquest. Now he found himself standing in the small basement of a one-story home in the lightly populated town of Iron Wood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He felt his stomach grumble and decided that it was time to take a break; after all, he had been playing Man vs. Wild for the past five hours and had not eaten since he awoke. He gave his Playstation three a salute to promise his return.
As Nathan crunched on a bowl of Reese’s Puffs Cereal, he checked his missed text messages and finalized his plans for Friday night. A smile ran across Nathan’s face when he looked outside and noticed the weather. He had just started spring break, and life was good.
“Are you going to be able to make the family dinner tonight?” Nathan’s dad asked hopefully, but he already knew the answer.
“Sorry, Dad. I’m going to another party at a friend’s house. They’ll have something to eat there.” He hoped that by focusing on his meal, he could avoid the more obvious issue.
“Another party… another family dinner missed. This is getting old,” his dad said.
“Sorry, Dad, I will be home at eleven sharp. I promise.” Nathan made his way to the door.
“You better! And you’re going to make up for all this time lost with the family. I’ll think of something.” His father tried to squeeze in the last words before the door slammed shut.
Later that night, the clock struck eleven as Nathan walked through the door. He was tired from hanging out with all his friends but made his way to the console in an attempt to get one level further in his game. He pushed the buttons in a struggle to make it to the next level as images of collapsing on his bed flashed through his head. Gaming was like a religion to him. He worshiped his games and prided himself on being the best gamer at this school. Those video games and his friends were all that filled his life, and he was happy with that. He slipped into bed at 2:30 a.m. with fantastical thoughts of a Ranbow like character causing havoc, and his dreams were filled with the imprinted images of trees and bears from his game.
When Nathan awoke, he routinely made his way to the game console, p-jays and all, but when he landed at the bottom of the stairs, the game council was gone. “Stolen?” he asked himself. He scanned the room, but everything else was still in its original place. He needed to blame someone for this outrageous behavior, so he sprinted up stairs and screamed the first name that popped into his head.
“Dad! What did you do with my Playstation three?” He found his dad in his bedroom packing things up into a large backpack. “Well?” Nathan asked standing in the doorway.
“Oh, that thing?” his dad said calmly, “I…I hid it.”
“You what? Nathan’s voice suddenly sounded hoarse.
“I hid it; and it’s going to be hidden until you agree to make up the time you have missed with your dad.”
“No,” Nathan began walking away, still in shock.
“Well, I don’t have to work for the next two weeks, so let’s see how long you last,” his dad said. Nathan looked back to see him smiling.
Nathan ran downstairs and franticly looked in every spot any Christmas present had ever been previously hidden and found. He looked high and low for an hour and then realized how serious the situation was. He knew his dad had taken drastic measures. With a sigh of defeat, he sat down and pondered his next step. He was not going to give up this easily.
“Jimmy, what are you going today?” Nathan asked his best friend over the cell phone. He was wondering why the connection was so poor.
“Sorry Dude, but I’m in the Bahamas.”
“Do you know if anyone else is home?”
“You might be the only one, Dude. Sorry.”
His dad had hit him where it hurt most. He pulled his legs up the flight of stairs and looked down at his feet in defeat. He stood at the doorway with arms crossed. “So, what do I have to do?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
For the next few days Nathan and his father packed up their backpacks and went to the local grocery shop to supply themselves for their trip. They were going to spend five days backpacking in the Porcupine Mountain range in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Nathan had never been outside his small town and was a little sour about leaving, but he was willing to go to new heights to get his games back.
The next day they hopped in the car with nothing but some food and all their gear for the backpacking trip:
One change of cloths including one pair of socks, one pair of underwear, one shirt, and a fleece
Rain Gear including jacket, pants, and pack cover
Backpacking stove (about the size of a softball)
First aid kit
Cooking material including pots, pans, eating utensils, etc.
Directional gear including maps and compass
Everything was packed into two large backpacks weighing in at around forty pounds each. Nathan turned around and looked at the fully packed backpack. “Dad, how hard will this be?”
“It will probably be the hardest and best thing you will ever experience.”
Still staring at and feeling intimidated by the backpacks, he mumbled, “I hope we have a big enough first aid kit.”
Nathan finished munching on some crackers and as they continued down the smooth highway, Nathan’s eyes became heavy.
The jerk of the car stopping snapped Nathan out of his sleep. He focused his eyes on his surroundings and could not believe what he saw. He stepped out of the car and felt the soft earth beneath his feat. His gaze was fixed to the one hundred foot tall pine trees that surrounded him like guardians of the woods. New scents surrounded him with the overwhelming aroma of the sap on the trees and decaying pine needles that lay tan and lifeless on the ground. He opened up his lungs and inhaled the cleanest and sweetest air that he had ever tasted. Chills ran down his back while his hair follicles stood up high like they were reaching out to the wilderness that. As the wind sifted through the trees, Nathan turned his head toward the direction of the new sound. His ears perked at the cry of a highflying eagle scanning the woods for food. When he realized there was not a cloud in the sky, Nathan was convinced that nature had put on its finest show in order to impress him and make him wake up to the world he had tried to avoid. All thoughts of his video games and friends drifted away into the sound and constant flow of the nearby river.
His dad tapped him on the shoulder to snap him out of his trance. “Come on son, we have a lot of ground to cover. I promise it gets better.” Nathan’s dad shouldered his backpack, then set up a wide base with his legs and lifted the backpack up on his knee. He then effortlessly swung it on his shoulder and adjusted his straps.
Nathan had forgotten that his dad had done some serious backpacking back in the day. He had remembered flipping through the old photo albums of his previous trips. Nathan almost fell over trying to put his backpack on, making his inexperience obvious to all watching. A squirrel in the tree above mocked him with a chattering laugh. Nathan caught himself on a tree and was going to put the backpack down to try again but it immediately became weightless as his father lifted it up onto his shoulders. He looked up into the tree and shook his fist at the hysterical squirrel.
“We both won’t make it out of here alive if we don’t help each other out,” his dad said.
Nathan’s eyes began to widen, “How far are we going?”
“This is a 30 mile loop, and I would like to complete it in three days,” he said looking out at the beckoning trail.
Nathan was a pretty competitive kid and he was ready for the challenge. He had never walked this far in his life and was actually looking forward to the experience. His mood had completely changed since the time that they had left. They began their hike and both the boys were looking strong. Nathan was in a trance for a majority of the hike because of all the life that surrounded him. Within a few hours they saw deer, porcupines, Bald eagles, American Loons and a fox.
They stopped for a break and Nathan’s dad pulled out two energy bars. “We are about half way there. How do you feel?”
Nathan looked at his body and see if he felt anything that would concern him. “I’m feeling pretty good,” He didn’t even realize that he just hiked five miles. His mind was focused on the nature that covered him like a warm blanket.
Something that Nathan could not wrap his head around was how quiet it was.
The only sounds he could hear were the footsteps of his own feet and the birds chirping high in the trees. He shut his eyes for a moment to really take in the quiet that was around him. He was amazed that by emptying one sense, he could fill all the others. Nathan’s trance began to fade because of the red-hot blisters beginning to form on his feet. His shoulders and hips burned from the weight that he bore on his back. He and his Father took a quick lunch break on a large boulder that looked over a long and deep valley. They could see a river cutting through the trees and could see the mountains they would soon climb. Some of the mountains seemed impossibly far from where they were, but he knew he could do it with his dad by his side.
A few hours later they strolled into camp. It was a small meadow and there was flattened grass from previous campers. They set their backpacks down by a tree and pulled out the blue stuff sac that held their ten. After setting up a tent in the flattest location they could find, they each got out the cooking supplies they needed for dinner. While the water was boiling, Nathan finally had time to get out of his boots. He untied his dirty laces and slowly took off his boots. He slipped off his sweaty socks and realized that he couldn’t feel parts of his feet. He examined his sweaty and smelly right foot with a look of disgust. He counted six blisters that had formed on one foot. There was one on the pinky toe, two on the front and side of the big toe, one on the ball of his foot, and two on his heel. The ones on his heel were maybe an inch apart. One was on the upper heel and another on the lower heel. He noticed the ones on the heel looked different from the others. He realized that they had popped while he was hiking and the stretched, wrinkled, dead, white skin hung loosely onto the healthy looking skin. He touched the sides of one of the bleeding blisters and ground his teeth, inhaling with a hiss. Now examining his other foot, Nathan noticed that the wounds on the left foot were almost identical to the wounds on the right.
“Those look pretty bad,” Nathan’s dad said sitting himself down next to Nathan. “You have yet to form calluses on your feet. Here take some of this.” His dad handed him a cream that soothed the pain of the blisters almost immediately.
Nathan looked at his dad’s leathery feet and was surprised to see he had not even shown signs of any blisters.
“Jealous?” his dad laughed. “Here, feel this callus.” He forced Nathan’s hand onto his foot.
With a face of disgust Nathan unwillingly felt his dad’s foot and was surprised at the texture. He couldn’t believe it was a human foot. It felt like worn leather or the pads of a dog’s foot. Nathan was convinced that it was artificial skin.
“That’s what multiple backpacking trips do to you. I don’t have very much feeling, but it beats blisters like the ones you’ve got.”
“You’re lucky to have feet like that Dad,” Nathan sad looking at his blistered feet.
I had worse blisters than that my first backpacking trip. I had a pair that stretched across the bottom of my foot, and another pair on heels that were the size of a half dollar. The first backpacking trip is the worst, but once they heal it will be hard to get blisters there again. Comeon, let’s go sit by the fire and eat some chow.” His dad grunted while struggling to get up.
Nathan and his dad walked over to the fire and filled their bowls with cooked, freeze-dried beef stroganoff. It tasted surprisingly good given what it had looked like in the bag. The water that his dad had put on to clean the dishes was boiling. Nathan’s dad went over and turned off the gas and dipped two mugs into the steaming water. His dad placed an Earl Gray tea bag in each and handed one of the cups to Nathan. They relaxed and exchanged no words as they watched the sun set over the rolling hills. The moment would have been awkward anywhere else, but oddly, here it was full of comfort as they shared the experience together.
His dad stood up and began to walk to his backpack. The tight muscles made his walk comical, and Nathan smiled as he looked away and took a sip of tea. He looked back at his dad and saw that he had pulled something out of his backpack but he couldn’t identify what it was. His dad sat down and handed him a leather bound book. Nathan flipped through the book and saw that it was all blank pages except for one. The inside cover said To My Son Nathan, Love Dad. “What is this?” Nathan asked.
“It’s a journal. I received one just like it from my dad when he took me on my first backpacking trip. He told me to write in it after the day was finished, and I am telling you the same. After we are all done with our backpacking day, write anything that you experienced during your day, or anything that’s on your mind.”
Nathan flipped through the book and was excited to use the journal and also to participate in the tradition.
“Well, I will leave you with your journal. I’m going to bed,” Nathan’s dad got up and made his way his tent.
“Dad, wait!” Nathan said. So much was going through his head. He wanted to say more than thank you to his dad. He wanted to say it was great to finally spend quality time with his dad and he wanted to say he was sorry for not being closer to the family. But for some reason Nathan felt that his dad knew all of that even though he hadn’t said anything.
“Yeah?” he said looking back to his son.
Nathan took in air expecting to say a lot but exhaled and said, “Thank You.”
His dad gave him a smile and continued his walk towards his tent. Nathan sat down next to the fire and opened his leather bound book. He passed his fingers over the writing his dad had written on the inside cover. There was a pen tucked in the pages and Nathan took off the cap. He began on the first page and dated it just like his dad had said. He spent an hour writing down all the significant events that had happened throughout the day. It felt good, almost natural, to write his feelings down on a piece of paper. All the bottled up thoughts felt like weight on his brain and writing the feelings down was like releasing the weight from his head. When he was satisfied with what was in the book, he closed it up and climbed into the tent. His dad was fast asleep when he slipped into his sleeping bag. Once his head hit the pillow he fell asleep.
The new day came with the sounds of morning birds singing and a young golden sun just about to rise. Nathan and his father climbed out of the tent and took out some breakfast. Granola bars, beef jerky and trail mix was on the menu solely for their convenience. It was a quick breakfast and as soon as they were finished eating and packing everything up, they were on their way.
“Another ten miles to our camp, Nathan. Can you make it?” Nathan’s dad asked while setting a quick pace.
“Can I!” Nathan said while staying right on his dads heels.
“How are those feet doing?”
“Fine, actually,” Nathan said after realizing that the pain on his feet from yesterday’s hike had faded. It must have been that cream that his dad had given him earlier.
Even though parts of Nathan’s body were sore, the scenery around him demanded the pain. Nothing was the same as they climbed higher to the next mountaintop. He had thought earlier about how things might get boring after three days of woods, but nothing stayed the same and there were new adventures every step of the way. All the quiet and hiking gave Nathan a lot of time to think. All the insignificant thoughts that filled his head before had disappeared.. He thought about how wonderful his family and friends were to him and how fortunate he was to have great support from both of them. He thought about things that didn’t even matter and things that did. All the simple demands in backpacking: hike, eat, set up camp, sleep, and hike some more, made him realize how simple life could be. He found happiness in the wilderness and that would never leave him.
When they arrived at camp that evening, they set up everything and made some dinner. After their meal they sat around the fire again while drinking tea. Nathan’s dad was submerged in a book and Nathan wrote down all his shifting thoughts in his leather bound journal. Nathan’s dad put down his book and stared across the meadow. His face showed that he had many thoughts on his mind. Nathan could only guess, but as soon as he looked back into his journal his dad asked him, “Have I been a good father to you?
Gulping at the surprise of the question, “Yes, you have.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts and think about what his dad was asking. “The problem is, I haven’t been the greatest son.” Shifting uneasily, Nathan searched for more sincere words to say, but only three words made sense. “I’m sorry Dad,” head down and shoulders hutched.
Bringing some light to the situation, “Oh Nathan, don’t be so hard on your self.” They locked eyes for a moment, “Truthfully Nathan, you are one of the reasons why my life as been meaningful.” Nathan’s dad looked back out into the meadow. Nathan had never heard his dad talk like that and assumed that he was just opening up because of all the time they were spending with each other and open up was exactly what he did. “Nathan, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I’ve been searching or the best time to tell you some hard new. I guess this as good a time as I could have asked for. Nathan I have cancer.” He left the words sit a while as he looked out into the valley. “The bad kind that is incredibly hard to cure. The doctor said I would have a year or so and I wanted to do things like this to live as much as I could before I am gone.”
Nathan looked into his journal and the only thing that ran through his head was, “Why?” Why did he have to realize this now, after really getting to know his father and appreciate his love? He had just decided that he would spend more time with him and try to fix their relationship. Why did he have to say this now? Why? There were so many questions and things that Nathan wanted to ask but nothing made sense when he tried to speak it. The only thing that did make sense was his tears. He embraced his father and said, “Dad I am so sorry! Sorry for everything. From now on I will make sure that our relationship has no regrets. I love you, Dad.”
They hugged and cried with each other for a moment, and then pulling away, they looked at each other and smiled at all the drama they were causing. Nathan and his father sat bag down on their logs and ignored their books and looked out at the meadow until the sun had set. Sighing in relief that the news was out Nathan’s dad whispered “good night.
“Good night Dad.” Nathan picked up his journal and wrote everything that had happened and everything they he wished he had said. When he couldn’t see what he was writing due to the lack of light. He made his way to the tent and once again his father was fast asleep. Still letting the situation sink in, Nathan was sure he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
The next morning they ate the same breakfast they’d had the day before and packed everything up into their backpacks. The first portion of the hike was awkwardly silent. But as time passed and miles were clocked, Nathan realized that this behavior was the last thing that his dad would want. He decided to make the most out of their last hike of the trip.
Nathan and his father set their backpacks down and took a sip of water. Nathan’s dad pulled out another piece of equipment “The altimeter says we are at the highest point on our trip. Now according to this map we should be at Shafer’s Cliff.” Nathan’s dad put the compass down and went off the beaten path to search for the drop off. Close behind, Nathan pushed his way through thick bushes and found his dad standing at the edge of a cliff looking out over the valley. Nathan could tell his dad was deep in thought when we noticed his focused face and still body. As much as Nathan did not want to interrupt his dad’s stare, he felt uneasy to see his father’s toes right on the edge of the two hundred foot drop.
Nathan’s dad was still in a trance over the majestic view that lay before him. Since he was on the edge of the cliff his view was not obstructed by local earth. He felt as if he was soaring effortlessly over the valley. A young hand interrupted his imagination. It was guiding him away from the cliff’s edge. “Come on Dad, you are making me nervous. We don’t have much longer.”
They gossiped all day only to stop and appreciate a great view. The hills were starting to descend as they neared their final destination. Nathan dragged his feet and kicked stones in frustration. He didn’t want to go. He was having the time of his life out here in the wilderness with his father, but he knew, as well as his father did, that there were things back at home that needed to be taken care of. So they took off their boots and through their backpacks in the car.
Nathan fell asleep just like he had done on the way there only this time his dreams were of all the great experiences they had on the backpacking trip. Nathan was upset to be awakened from his dreams and even more upset to see nothing but homes and concrete. They unpacked all the stuff from the car and put it away in the appropriate spot in the shed. Nathan’s dad went inside while Nathan finished shelving the last piece of equipment. When Nathan walked inside, his dad was there with his Playstation 3. “Here, thank you for doing this backpacking trip with me. It really meant a lot.”
Nathan took the game consul and gave his dad a hug to say he was more than happy to have done the trip. Nathan climbed up to the attic and slid the Playstation 3 next to the other dusty boxes. He would not let anything stand in his way of spending time with his father. Nathan was a changed man in every way.
While sitting on the summit of Andes peak ten years later, Nathan stared out over the jagged mountain range. A warm tear ran down his cold and rosy cheek. “This is my dad’s one seventieth birthday. If only he could see me now,” he said to himself aloud. Nathan snapped a photograph on his professional camera and wrote his description of the vast mountain range in front of him for his magazine. After finishing his notes he closed the black journal and ran his fingers over the cover. It was the same black journal his father had given him a year before he died, almost thirty-two years earlier. Nathan made sure he took good care of it and had it repapered every now and then.
Nathan’s wife rounded up to the summit of the mountain and called out to Nathan, “Let’s get back to camp; we have a lot to pack up before going home.” They both had to get back to watch their son’s soccer game, and to see their daughter’s piano recital. Nathan took pride that they were so involved in activities. It made him feel good that the kids never had time for video games. Nathan made sure he took his son and daughter camping every chance he could. Every day Nathan thanked his father for giving him the fantastic life he had today. All thanks to that first backpacking trip his father blackmailed him into taking.