How going camping saved my sanity – and made me a better father

For the past five years, I’ve taken my kids camping once a month. On Fridays I load our tent and gear and we drive to a nearby state park, where we fish and swim the rivers, build forts in the trees, and cook our meals over the fire. Aside from the occasional rain or freezing temperatures, there’s nothing rugged about it. For my kids, the trips have become paramount, anticipated events. And for me, they’ve become my very grip on sanity in this age of toxic politics, division and battering news cycles.

I started these trips out of an almost primal response to something not right within me. It was like when I first started running. Twelve years ago, wrestling with depression and trying to kick some bad habits, I felt a sudden panicked urgency come over me one night, as if my better self was trying to escape the body that I’d given it. This was in Providence, Rhode Island, in January. Despite an ice storm blowing outside, I put on a pair of old sneakers and ran into the frozen night until my lungs burned and I was calm. I’ve never stopped running.

Camping was the same. It came during a point, as I’ve written here, of spiritual longing, of reconstructing my faith and grasping for answers. My kids were also getting older. Trying to raise them in a society that glorifies wealth and celebrity and seems untethered from its principles, I’d started asking myself: how does one live a moral life and model it for their children?

I’d also realized, like every parent does, that the clip of time is brutal and doesn’t wait for you to dally. Your babies grow up in a blink and their experiences along this blurred continuum mold them forever, however random or planned. “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies,” Wallace Stegner wrote. So, in addition to finding a church whose Christian values didn’t offend our own, we took to the woods.

I grew up camping with my cousins, and also with the Boy Scouts. My troop in San Antonio camped once a month no matter the weather. We set up along the Guadalupe, Pedernales and Frio rivers of central Texas, erected our tents beneath colossal cypress and live oaks, and stalked the cool water for bass and channel cats. I learned to use a knife and build a fire, orient myself using a map and compass, and smoke cheap supermarket cigars out of the range of scoutmasters. During summers, my cousins and I embarked on weeks-long expeditions at our uncle’s ranch where there was a small lake, taking only basic food items and catching, trapping and shooting the rest. Oftentimes our bellies rumbled, yet we never seemed to care. At night, we smoked and sang songs around the fire while it licked against the vast, starlit sky.

As a boy, these trips had enormous influence in shaping my perceptions. They helped to illuminate my own limitations against nature, taught me how to tough it out when the nights grew cold and wet, and how to respect the land. More important, they taught me how to be alone in the universe. To find comfort in silence.

Now, as an adult in middle age, they’ve taken on greater importance. It was no coincidence that when I decided to return to faith after years of doubt and absence and seek my own connection to God (rather than my parents’), that I would return to the same forests and rivers where I grew up. Back then, before puberty spun me wild, God remained a restful, paternal presence. I have distinct memories of sitting alone on the riverbank, fishing pole in hand, praying in a way that I’ve since forgotten how.

Throughout history, from Genesis to Thoreau, the wilderness has “come to signify the environment in which to find and draw close to God”, Roderick Nash wrote in his classic work, Wilderness and the American Mind. The Exodus, he reminds us, “established a tradition of going to the wilderness for freedom and the purification of faith”. The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wasteland, and it took Jesus being driven to a mountaintop and defying Satan before he could fulfill his calling.

The wilderness can also bring clarity during times we’re feeling unmoored and adrift. During the Depression, my family fled the dead oil fields of west Texas and retreated home to the quiet forests of northern Georgia to wait out the world in crisis. I’ve been thinking of them lately, usually on the first nights of each camping trip. After the tents are set up and the kids have gone to find the river, the adults in our group tend to experience an overwhelming sense of escape.

We camped the first weekend after the 2016 election, grateful for the silence and smartphones that didn’t work. And we camped the weekends after the shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, when the sound of the rapids from where we slept helped to return some peace of mind. The trips help to reorient and draw us back from the greater wild from which we left, a moral wilderness not unlike what Hawthorne and the Puritans warned against, one dominated by avarice and greed and prone to spasms of insanity.

But I know how tenuous this sanctuary has become. Over 95% of the land in Texas is privately owned, with each year bringing fewer and fewer places to experience the outdoors. The woods around my old house in San Antonio have been replaced by strip malls and chain restaurants. Historic wildfires in 2011 destroyed Bastrop state park and its precious ecosystem of loblolly pines. Powerful floods and hurricanes, brought on by climate change, have washed out dams and park roads and eroded riverbanks. Furthermore, for decades the Texas legislature has shortchanged the struggling park system, withholding 60% – or $1.5bn – from taxes on sporting goods earmarked for its upkeep. Meanwhile, the 51 state parks require over $60m in much-needed repairs and attendance is at record levels.

I think of this after my kids run back to camp saying they’ve encountered a fox. “A red fox,” my son tells me, holding his field guide. We spot it behind a cluster of junipers and watch it for several minutes, and I’m surprised my kids can stay still for that long. I remember another trip when my friend’s 15-year-old son Jack returned from fishing and described tracking a feral hog and her piglets by the river. “They didn’t even notice me,” he said, still catching his breath.

How many similar encounters had I had as a boy – running upon a doe and her fawn, or a hawk eating a bull snake up in a cypress – suspended for a heightened moment in nature’s thin web? I’d like to think this was how I learned to pray.

One of the most unexpected rewards of these camping trips is how they’ve given me a greater sense of purpose as a father. At a time when our kids are small and tend to cling to my wife, camping is where I find my element. I feel like I’m no greater dad than when I’m baiting a hook or cooking breakfast over the coals. And it thrills me to think that in a couple of years I will teach my son how to prepare the fire and carry a knife, then do the same with my daughters.

“Car camping is like training wheels,” I tell them. “One day we’ll put on backpacks and head to the mountains, do some real camping.” This is how I want them to remember me when they’re grown, leading them up a switchback, into the wild. Seeking silence, listening.


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