The Littlest Backpacker

A familiar fear gripped me as I paused to close the door behind me.

I feel like I’m forgetting something, I thought. What the hell did I forget? I know I forgot something. I always forget something. Run the pertinent check list: water filter, check; food, check; fire implements, check; allergy medicine, check; first aid kit, check; water, check; knives, check; map, compass, check, check … I think I’m good to go, but I forgot something; what the hell is it?

“What’s wrong?” my son asked me.

“Nothing. I just feel like I’m forgetting something. But we have to go because we’re running late and I can’t think of it. Let’s get in the car,” I said.

“OK.”

In the car, I paused again with that dread of forgetting something important, but started the car and off we went. I always forget something when I travel. That fear is only amplified when you realize that your forgetfulness might affect the comfort or safety of your 7-year-old son who is making his first attempt at a backpacking trip. Suddenly, it’s no longer goofy short-term memory loss, but a serious situation.

We stopped at my wife’s office because she printed some trail notes for us and wanted to see off her husband and first-born baby into the wild. Calming her fears is a must.

“Do you have everything?” she asked.

“I think so, but I feel like I’m forgetting something,” I said.

She ran through the checklist, too. And it didn’t take her long to kick my failure in the butt. “Do you have toilet paper?”

The most essential tool you should never forget.
The most essential tool you should never forget.

“Son of a bitch. I knew I was forgetting something important.”

So, her office was kind enough to donate about 20 feet of (thin) toilet paper to my latest outdoor adventure. NEVER FORGET THE TOILET PAPER. PACK IT FIRST. THE SOFTER THE BETTER. If you do forget it, I hope you can adequately identify your poison plants.

After saying our goodbyes to my wife and her co-workers Toadstool and I set off on our trip.

What are those strange voices?

After getting behind some of the slowest drivers in Pennsylvania, we finally

Our proposed path along the A.T. and select others in Michaux State Forest.
Our proposed path along the A.T. and select other trails in Michaux State Forest.

reached the trail head in Michaux State Forest. The Old Forge Picnic Area is a lovely little nook to start a two-day jaunt on the Appalachian Trail with a forest ranger station nearby, bathrooms, clean water and ample parking.

Toadstool was a little weary from the drive, but once he was up and moving around, his spirits picked up. His pack would be light. He carried only his clothes, a fleece sleeping bag, granola bars, beef jerky, his pocket knife, a compass (passed down from my father), a poncho, his Star Wars water bottle, and a foam sleeping pad.

“Is the pack too heavy?” I asked.

“No, it’s fine,” he said, slinging the bag onto his back.

He was still a little grumpy from the long ride, but soon I reminded him that positive mindset and attitude are important on backpacking trips. It keeps you looking for the best option, not dwelling on your discomfort with a problem.

Off we go on the Appalachian Trail with Toadstool cutting the path.
Off we go on the Appalachian Trail with Toadstool cutting the path.

Off we went, north on the A.T. with the goal of hiking the four miles to the top of Snowy Mountain before dinner. Toadstool began making voices as we trod over rocks and mossy path.

“Hey, Mario!”

“Holy cow, that’s the best Luigi voice I’ve ever heard,” I said. He laughed and soon we were making Mario Bros. voices, mimicking the cartoons from the 1990s. (He watches too much Netflix.)

The warm up stretch of the trail was a good test of Toadstool’s abilities. And he passed with flying colors. His spirits were high, his feet were dry and comfortable in his leather boots, and he was most certainly attentive to the trail.

“Dad, ssshhhhh,” he said, pointing.

I followed his finger to a nearby branch where hung a large paper wasp nest. At the size of a small soccer ball, it certainly wasn’t something we wanted to mess with. Luckily, it looked as if it was abandoned.

We passed it quickly and quietly. Soon we crossed Old Forge Road and started our up-hill climb. We were looking at 1,000 feet of elevation gain in a little more than a mile. It would be the ultimate test of Toadstool. Was he ready for it?

Name that movie …

Once the serious uphill climb started, Toadstool threw his weight into it like a seasoned trail junky. He kept pace with me for the most part and we stopped occasionally to catch our breath.

We played a game naming Mario Bros. characters.

Then we named movies: “Rush Hour … Sponge Bob Square Pants … Road Trip … Spy Kids … ”

Then we named video games: “Mario Bros. … Mariokart … Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … Mario Bros. 3 … Master Blaster … ”

Then we named families we knew: “Kennedys … Magills … Erbs … ”

And then we ran out of things to name, but by that time we had made up some ground and were getting to the home stretch of the uphill battle for our first long stop of the day: Chimney Rocks, aka Buzzard Peak, a rocky outcrop and sub-peak of Snowy Mountain.

“Let’s be quiet for a while and maybe we’ll see some animals,” I said.

“OK.”

The magic of the trail

Soon two other backpackers approached us from the north, a young couple out for a section hike I guessed, judging from the man’s face that had just a day’s worth of stubble. I said hello with a smile and they returned the gesture as we passed each other. Then, they noticed Toadstool.

“Awe! Look at this little guy,” the girl gushed at Toadstool, as her companion chuckled.

“Hello,” Toadstool said.

“He’s a real trooper,” I called back to them with a father’s pride.

Soon they were gone and we continued on. Not far up the trail, we began walking through some heavy bushes. Toadstool said something and I looked back to answer him, when in front of me something crashed through the bushes.

“WOA!” I said, coming to a halt, as two white butts bounded through the brush and up the mountain. Deer, standing on the A.T., cut a quick path away from us, but then stopped in a small clearing and looked back.

They were young doe, large, but still with their spots and curious about the two-legged

A curious fawn stares at us through the brush, only about 20 yards away.
A curious fawn stares at us through the brush, only about 20 yards away.

things that had disturbed their lunch.

“Hey, sssshhhhhh. Come on up here quickly and quietly,” I said to Toadstool.

He joined me and whispering I pointed out the deer.

“Wow…” he said as we watched them through the brush.

I started pulling out my camera when an intense buzzing appeared not far from my head. CRAP! A hornet, I thought. But then I saw it, about a yard and a half from us hovering over the bushes was a fat little hummingbird.

“Oh, wow!” Toadstool said. I fumbled quicker for my camera, but the bird darted in front of us onto the path, sat on a branch, then hovered again, looked us over and decided he wasn’t interested, buzzing off into the forest to find the nectar of some flower.

Then the deer walked away, too.

We quietly advanced to a better viewing position along the trail. And there they were. One deer bounded off into the woods, clearly frightened by our presence, but the fawn stayed, looking at us, nibbling plants. Another fawn sauntered into the small clearing and stared at us.

Toadstool and I stood transfixed, talking quietly about the deer. The entire experience can only be described as magical.

In the end, that word described our entire trip: a magical father-son bonding experience and the introduction of a boy to the wonders of the natural world around him. Toadstool is for the time-being, my littlest backpacker. Soon, his younger brother, “Chipmunk,” will follow in our footsteps and be the “littlest backpacker.” But for now, Toadstool gets that title.

This trip will live in my memory for eternity.

Here are some more photos of Toadstool and Blackbeard’s trip on the A.T. Enjoy.

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