A number of years ago, my wife and I were living in a suburb of Chicago and eagerly anticipating the imminent birth of our daughter, Sarah (who, now an adult, is the subject of the recent post titled Alaska Wedding). It was early morning on a Saturday in late May and I had childcare duty for my son, who was two years old at the time.
Somehow, out of the blue, I hit upon the idea that we should go camping. There was no particular reason or foresight involved in this. I was by no means an avid or experienced camper. I had been to a northwoods summer camp when I was a kid, and in high school I would take off with a friend at the end of each summer for a weeklong canoe camping trip that marked the boundary between our summer jobs and the inevitable return to school. But that was about it. I had just made partner in a major national law firm and I had not slept in a tent for at least 15 years.
I bundled Tom into the car, picked up some hot dogs, buns and other food items at the local convenience store, and drove to the only sporting goods emporium I knew, which was Sears Roebuck. There, Tom helped me pick out a Sir Edmund Hillary pup tent, two store brand sleeping bags, a couple of flashlights, and some other miscellaneous gear. Back in the car, we kept driving, heading north to Wisconsin for a grand adventure. My wife was only too happy to have some quality time by herself.
I was vaguely aware of a Wisconsin state park to the northwest of Chicago, just across the state line from Illinois. I later learned that it was part of the state’s Ice Age Trail, an interconnected series of parks, forests and trails that celebrates the most recent ice age, which is known as the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. During that era, ending when our current interglacial period began roughly 11,000 years ago, massive sheets of ice covered most of Canada, the Upper Midwest and New England. I did not think about it on our camping trip, but the drying of the oceans during the Wisconsin Glaciation revealed what we now call the Bering land bridge and enabled humans to extend their range of habitat out of Asia and into North America, occupying for the first time what is now Alaska.
Alaska was far from my mind as Tom and I set up our tent in the campground and explored the ice age visitor center and some of the well-groomed trails that crisscrossed the park. We had purchased wood from a local vendor and as evening came we made a fire in the designated metal ring, cooking the hot dogs and some marshmallows on the ends of green sticks that we harvested nearby.
We were sitting on a well-worn section of a large log, about two feet in diameter, that had been laid on end as a bench beside the fire circle. Tom was chatty for a two-year old and we had the first of what would be many fireside conversations, listening to the choral serenade of spring peepers and staring into the dying embers as the evening faded from gloaming to dark of night.
After a time, I realized that Tom had been silent for several minutes. Thinking perhaps he had fallen asleep, I turned to him and was dismayed to see that he was sitting still and quiet, big gelatinous tears rolling down his cheeks. He spoke not a word.
For me, panic almost set in. Recognizing that this was one of my son’s first nights away from his mother, which was undoubtedly the source of his distress, I began to calculate the time required to break camp, pack up the car and drive back home. I figured we could make it by shortly after midnight.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, keeping my voice as steady as possible.
A long pause. “We have to go home tomorrow,” he finally replied.
In a rare flash of parenting brilliance, I didn’t miss a beat. “No, we don’t,” I said.
And so we stayed an extra day and night, returning to Chicago around mid-afternoon on Monday, no doubt to the great consternation and inconvenience of my clients and colleagues. To fill time during our extra day, I drove Tom over to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to visit the Circus World Museum in the town where the Ringling Brothers got started.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Baraboo is also close to the land where Aldo Leopold lived, farmed and wrote A Sand County Almanac, the great work in which he articulated his vision of the land ethic. The book would later make a profound impression on me and guide the nascent stirrings of my own conservation ethics, but that was far in the future.
Later that evening, the extension of our trip provided the added bonus of introducing Tom to one of the iconic sounds of the camping experience, which is the rhythmic patter of raindrops bouncing off the fly of a tent. We would have many occasions to hear that lullaby again. I was lulled to slumber by those tapping drips and patters recently, on the banks of the Kongakut River, and they are just as soothing now as they were in 1988.
Our little weekend getaway was a first small step on what has become a long and deeply satisfying journey.