Small Wonders: Continuing Dad's traditions

Chapstick. Classic flavor Chapstick.

It's one of those things that transports me back to an exact moment in life. When I smell it, I am a wide-eyed child, uneasy and excited — curious about the man giving it to me, comforted because he was my father. It was the flavor I always remember him carrying in his pocket.

I had some in my pocket last weekend as we made the long drive to Sequoia National Park, where we were taking Thing 1 and Thing 2 for their first camping trip. When I applied that waxy moisturizing protection to my lips, I was a 10-year-old sitting in the passenger seat as my father drove us on one of our camping trips — Simon and Garfunkel softly singing in the background of a bygone time as we made our way up steep mountainous grades in his heavily laden truck.

Much like my truck now.

He always had a can of smoked almonds or beer nuts handy for those yawning drives. More flavors that take me back. I like a jar of trail mix with M&Ms for these trips. I take a handful and hand it to the back seat. When they hand it back, it's just plain trail mix.

Up the winding, nauseating road we go; moans emanate from behind me, and I wonder: Did I complain so gratingly? Fight with my brother so snidely? Probably. Yet one more reason to apologize to my parents now.

Campgrounds carpeted with dust and pine needles, ash-filled fire pits awaiting the night's blaze provide more scents, more memories. Did I ever offer to help set up the tent or the campsite? I don't recall. But Thing 2 offered. And though the task took twice as long, I was glad for her assistance, proud of her selflessness in the face of a forest to scavenge, kids to play with and a river to explore.

Rivers. I've always loved mountain rivers — Sierra snowmelt turning them into treacherous, wondrous flows over boulders and fallen trees. I could sit and stare at running water for hours with no desire to change the channel.

We followed a trail up that river to the great waterfall at its source. And the whole way I was looking for the perfect spot to drop a line, that one calm and accessible pool advertising good fishing. I could hear my dad's reluctant voice though: “Too rough,” “too shallow,” “no room to cast.” And he was right.

It was on hikes like this with him that I’d inevitably suffer painful blisters on my untested, city-kid feet; sores he'd treat with moleskin and a touch of annoyance. Though they grumbled, the girls made it to those majestic falls and back relatively unscarred and free of blisters.

I’m still nursing one a week later.

Perhaps the only thing as hypnotizing as a rushing river is a blazing campfire, the centerpiece of every camping trip. As a kid, I liked being the fire keeper, a job that meant getting as dirty as possible. It’s a job my girls didn’t seem terribly interested in, and that’s fine. It gave me the chance to let my inner boy out for some much-needed fire play.

Dinner and breakfast over that open fire, everything cooked in cast-iron frying pans. It was at a campground somewhere in these mountains that my father introduced me to the enduring beauty of this cookware by banging it on a large boulder as loudly as he could to demonstrate its integrity.

“Nothing better than cast-iron pans!” he proclaimed, jolting me from some momentary complacency.

By that fire at night, Thing 1 whittled a stick into a spear with the pocketknife she talked us into buying for her; a bandage covered the cut thumb she suffered five minutes after she first opened it. It's the unwanted lessons that offer greater value than any gained by being overly careful. Camping is no place for timidity.

In our whispering tent we huddled against the cold and quiet, a contented, tired family; the dim lamplight shining over us, keeping us together, holding back the dark of night.

Hello darkness, my old friend

I've come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

What takes you back to that moment when everything seemed pure and unscathed? Before the snow melted and the season's rains washed away the veil?

Find them. Keep them close. Like trail-weary boots, bang them together to get the dust and caked dirt off. They are the only defense you have against a world of harsh realities.

I wonder what seemingly meaningless things I do that will provide such enduring meaning for my daughters. I’ve got a few new mental snapshots of them that remind me of how lucky I am to be their father.

Thanks, girls.

And thanks, Dad.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the book “Crooked Little Birdhouse.” He may be reached on Facebook, at and

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