Take Me (Away From) Home, Country Roads

My most treasured fall tradition has nothing to do with pumpkins or apples, Halloween or Thanksgiving, football or the World Series. Although it does involve eating a cornucopia’s worth of great food, it does feel like a festive holiday, and the subject of a certain gridiron-based game has been known to come up from time to time during this pre-Halloween holiday.

Every autumn since roughly 2003, my Messiah College buddies have organized a weekend camping trip featuring either hiking or canoeing. And every year since 2014, after I moved back east from Colorado, I have gladly taken part in this grand tradition.

Many years, we’ve canoed down the mild (and sometimes not-so-mild) rapids of various rivers of West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Or some years, we’ve hiked in the beautifully desolate wilderness of West Virginia. Including one unforgettable late October trip in 2016 when we camped atop Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state, and were pummeled by howling winds and ice-encrusted snow on our first night. I felt like I was back in Colorado (albeit at 4,800 feet rather than 2 to 3 times that altitude). It was magnificent! And even more magnificent when recollecting it from the warm confines of my home.

Another year, in honor of a few of us turning, 40, we opted to eschew physical exertions entirely and rent a double-decker houseboat on Raystown Lake. The most exercise we managed to get on that trip was walking up the stairs to the banana-shaped waterslide, hucking ourselves into the cool September water, then climbing the ladder to get back on the boat so we could go unwind in the hot tub.

We felt like kings that year. Kings eating peanut butter Oreos in wet swim trunks. (For some reason, I specifically remember those Oreos.)

Fast forward to this year, which we’ll call “Covid Year 2,” when we planned another late October camping-and-hiking trip in West Virginia. It was similar to the epic saga of 2016, but without the snow. We were still pelted with a bit of rain and some wind, but thankfully the wind was far less howling and the elements were decidedly less pummeling. What a joy it is to experience the West Virginia wilderness in the dead of (a very alive) autumn! It’s a visual, a tactile, and — given the pervasive scent of campfire — an olfactory delight beyond comparison. As far as wildernesses go, I highly recommend it.

Here’s our cast of characters:

  1. Nate from Philly, one of my dearest friends on earth and the longstanding heart and soul of the group.
  2. Josh from Harrisburg, our resident brilliant camp chef, resident group historian, and resident lovable goofball.
  3. Chris from North Carolina, our trip planner, our lead (and only) guitarist, and the ever-good-humored moral center of the group.
  4. Matt from New York, our co-group historian with an ironclad memory, and our cheeky jester who makes sure that we (maybe me most of all) don’t take ourselves too seriously.
  5. Rodney from Harrisburg, our insightful utility guy, who this year took the reins of both the trip-planning and the meal-cooking endeavors. Also a great numbers guy, when needed.
  6. George from Indiana, our lovably soft-spoken mensch and non-partisan election expert who joined our ranks last year and immediately became a permanent member of the band. (A band which, again, features only one guitarist. The rest of us are background vocalists.)
  7. And of course, me. It’s not my place to pinpoint my role in the group. That’s like coming up with your own nickname, right? Suffice it to say that I’m grateful to be in the band.
From L-R: me, George, Rodney, Josh, Nate, Chris, and Matt.

The itinerary this year was straightforward. Besides eating and conversating around the campfire for hours on end, there were only two “activities” on our 2-night, 1-day camping trip. We embarked on a hike in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, and we went hot tubbing at Canaan Valley lodge (which we could access by virtue of our campground status).

Dolly’s sod was particularly muddy this year, and the October wind made for some brisk hiking. We trekked out to Rohrbaugh Cliffs, a jagged rock outcropping that offered a stunning view of the foliage-bejeweled wilderness. En route, we stopped in a clearing to eat bagels with peanut butter and dill-pickle Pringles (which several of us agree oddly evoked a McDonald’s cheeseburger), among other satisfyingly salt-spangled snacks. Then we continued slogging through the bog of a mud-saturated trail on an overcast day in woods that felt more like an autumn-streaked rainforest. A cross between Appalachia and the Amazon.

One of the great things about hiking in a group like this one is that over the course of the journey, you end up being adjacent to every other member of the group. You stop to take a picture (or a leak) and as a result of the brief stoppage, you end up near someone different in the caravan. So when you’re a talkative extrovert like me, you end up having a series of episodic conversations with 6 different people in 4 hours.

I love everything about that. Particularly because every single person in this group is well worth bending ears and chewing the fat with. I savored the chance to casually interview each of my fellow Falcon alums and glean wisdom from their varying perspectives as fellow dads, husbands, citizens, and human beings.

I learned about everyone’s kids — Chris’ 1, Nate’s 2, George’s 2, Rodney’s 3, Josh’s 4, and Matt’s 6 (plus 2 grandkids!). And as is the case every year, I derived inspiration for my own fatherly journey from these men who also deeply relish the job of raising small human beings.

After piling back into Rodney’s minivan, while masked since Delta is still alive and well, we headed back to the campsite for another sumptuous dinner and hours upon hours of further animated conversation.

We discussed fatherhood, music, elections, football, job transitions, pre-mid-life crises, antidepressants, and our ever-present scrapbook of college memories from 20 years ago. And in honor of the just-released Dune, we talked about sci-fi novels and movies since 57-71% of the group are thoughtful sci-fi buffs.

On a side note, I have now learned that my entry point into sci-fi literature, if I find time to enter it, should definitely be Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

What about the food, you might ask? (Were you asking about that, or am I just a huge fan of that topic?) The first night, we ate burgers with all the fixins and fire-encrusted sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar. The second night, we ate steak (or veggie sausage) fajitas with yellow rice and beans. We all agreed it was a bang-up culinary job by Chef Rodney, filling in this year for Chef Josh. Gordon Ramsey would have been proud — no, scratch that, he’s a jerk, and nothing like either of our camp chefs. Bobby Flay would have been proud.

After eating our campfire-marinated delicacies, we marinated our mildly creaky 40-year-old bodies in the hot tub at the adjacent Canaan Valley resort. Hopefully the sight of 7 mostly bearded dudes climbing into a hot tub on Halloween week didn’t spook the kids and parents who were already there. We more than doubled the jacuzzian population in one fell swoop (and quadrupled the beard quotient).

For posterity, I will add that one of us, a great guy who will remain unnamed, accidentally splashed a woman who was roughly our age and then warmly assured her, “Don’t worry, I’m a nice young man!”

I’d like to think that we’re all fairly nice young men. (Well, fairly nice at least.)

Here’s to many more years of epic autumn camping trips as we all grow older and our kids all eventually go off to college. Heck, maybe once that happens we’ll have time to make these trips 3- or 4-day affairs instead of our usual 1.5 to 2!

But whether or not we can ever swing more than 2 days out of 365, I’m just grateful that I know 6 guys (from 2 decades ago) whom I would gladly spend a few days and nights in the wilderness with.

Thanks for the memories, fellas. See you next year.

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