There are certain father-son rituals you've got to observe every two years or so, simply to remind yourself why you only observe them every two years or so.
Like overnight camping trips.
The reason dads force their male progeny into going on such excursions, of course, is that they remember what the experience was like when they were young.
When I was a kid, camping meant high adventure. Exploring the wilds. Communing with nature. Receiving full parental consent to get as filthy dirty as is physically possible. Being allowed to set stuff on fire. Going to sleep knowing it's a genuine possibility that you (or even better, your little sister) might be carried off by a wolverine in the middle of the night. Eating more junk food than you're permitted to consume in your non-camping lifetime.
In other words, paradise. Eden. Shangri-La. Disneyland on a school day.
What fathers traditionally forget while in this golden-hued memory mode, however, is that overnight excursions into the great outdoors take on a whole new definition once you've matured into the role of Wilderness Leader.
From that point on, camping is Hell. The abyss of the damned. Winnemucca, Nevada. Disneyland on a Labor Day weekend.
It means packing boxes and packing the car and driving and driving and unpacking the car and unpacking boxes. Putting up the tent and cooking dinner and washing dishes and sleeping on the ground and cooking breakfast and washing dishes and taking down the tent and packing boxes and packing the car and driving and driving and unpacking the car and unpacking boxes and vowing to never go camping again until 1) you're wealthy enough to afford a luxury-model Winnebago with 24-hour maid-and-cook service, or 2) you forget.
Needless to say, when I suggested to my son that we take our first overnight camping trip in two years, I had forgotten.
If there is anything sadder than an amnesiac determined to stroll down Memory Lane, I don't remember what it is.
Something else that slipped my mind is that the boy isn't anything like me when I was his age. This lad's idea of high adventure is playing his favorite video games, talking about his favorite video games and re-enacting the noisiest battles from his favorite video games.
Plus, my son hates anything ANYTHING new. Since he possessed only a vague recollection of our last wilderness trek, the idea of going on another sounded frighteningly revolutionary.
"Dad, do we have to go camping?"
"No, We don't have to. But if we do, we'll have lots of fun and we'll get to spend time together. Just you and I."
"We can spend time together at home."
"I know. But out in the woods we'll be able to do lots of neat, exciting things we can't do here. It'll be different."
"I've got an idea! Why don't you go camping and I'll stay home! That would be different."
"We're going camping."
"Do we have to?"
"Yes we have to."
"Because you'll enjoy it, that's why."
While you can never win a debate like this, it is possible to wear your opponent down. Eventually. If you're well rested and not easily broken down by the sound of your own children begging for mercy.
Thank heavens for that. Otherwise parenthood would be one long, uninterrupted 18-year argument ... and dads would never get to remind ourselves why we go on father-son camping trips every two years or so.
Out of doors, out of mind
Ah, wilderness. Ah, fresh, pine-scented mountain air. Ah, bugs. Ah, lizards. Ah, flying vermin. Ah, children who repeat over and over, "Remember, Dad, this was your idea."
Actually, our first few hours in the woods went pretty smoothly as I set up camp and my son sat in the car playing with his Game Boy. And when I suggested that we go on a hike, the lad was genuinely excited ... for about 50 feet or so, at which point it dawned on him that the only difference between "hiking" and "walking" is that, when you're walking, you almost always have a specific destination in mind like the bathroom or McDonald's or the neighborhood video arcade.
Hiking, he quickly surmised, is walking with no payoff. And children don't like investing physical energy into anything unless there's a reward involved.
Nor do they enjoy fishing in a lake which contains less aquatic life than any tap water I've seen outside of New York City.
I tried to explain that the true joy of fishing is not catching fish, because then you have to kill them and clean them and cook them and spend the next few days enduring the humiliation of complete strangers who sniff the air around you while asking, "So, been fishing, have you?"
No. The truly wonderful thing about Man's Favorite Sport is that once you've dropped your hook in the water, all you have to do is sit there. It's legalized loitering. The most brain-twisting decision you have to make is, "Hmmm. Should I continue sitting, or should I stand up for a while?" Plus, when even the chattiest folks pass by, their most difficult question is, "Caught anything?," to which you can reply "Yes," "No" or "Hunnnnggghhh," and such responses are readily accepted as conversation.
My son doesn't understand any of this. He thinks that when you go fishing, you either catch fish or (as it happened in our case) return to camp a pitiable loser incapable of outwitting one of the dimmest species in God's creation.
Not all of nature's glory escaped the lad. As we were striking camp, a deer strolled through our campsite. My son was so awestruck by this magical, up close-and-personal wilderness encounter that he ran to a neighboring camper shouting, "We just saw a deer! A real deer! He walked right by our tent!"
"Damn," the fellow grumbled. "If I had brought my rifle, I bet I could'a plugged him with one shot."
The boy returned in tears, "Wh...wh... why would anyone want to shoot a deer?"
"Well, sweetheart," I said, "some people like to hunt deer for food, just like we were fishing for food."
"You made me go fishing!," he cried. "Besides, that guy doesn't need food! Look! He just ate a whole, big bag of Cheetohs all by himself."
Try as I might, I couldn't come up with an argument. And try as I might, I couldn't imagine ever talking the boy into another semiannual father-son overnight camping trip ... until the car was packed, it was time to go, and he commenced to sob, "I don't wanna leave! I like camping! Can't we stay one more night?"
I knew how to handle this conflict. I suggested that we take another hike.