Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Take a Hike

Getting geared up, literally, for my 8-year-old's Campout birthday party last Friday, I hit the five-and-dimes. I am all about the theme and I have learned to start late in order to spend less. Given weeks of planning, I could spend thousands, picking up anything that might fit in and be fun. It's a problem. I'm sure there is a group therapy session for this kind of thing, maybe Themaholics Anonymous?

As it was, I did pretty well, restraining myself somewhat, mostly out of sheer time constraint. It was two hours til party time. We had turned our living room into a campground, my trusty husband putting his summer camp skills to work pitching the tent the kids would sleep in with gift ribbon from the rafters. We had picked up cool camoflauge canvas hats for partygoers online, along with little plastic bug catchers for our trip into Prospect Park after school. I picked up some fanny packs to fill with trail snacks and a flashlight, and bought some water bottles the kids could sling across themselves for hydration on the hot spring day. Hot dogs, Doritos and S'more fixins would suffice for our cookout.

Having broken our camera some time back, I decided to spring for a new one and jumped into Radio Shack in a hurry. Chatting with the staff, giving out gold stars to them for their help, I mentioned I was going on a hike with my son and some of his friends for his birthday, and one young guy noted, with sheer sadness in his eyes, "I've never been on a hike." I went with my immediate, crazy instinct: "Come with us!" I said. I could actually have used the help. He didn't bat an eye, "Aaah, bummer. I have to work." He sounded seriously disappointed.

"Another time, then," I said. "Give me your name and number and I'll call can help me corral the boys, bring some of your friends," I said. Sometimes I think people will look at me strangely, balk at my enthusiasm for them when they don't even know me. But it rarely happens. Mostly, people are psyched to get the attention, to think that someone actually cares, if only a little bit. In this case, truly, as in others, I cared a lot. Radio Shack Wannabe Ranger quickly dashed off his name and number with the full expectation that I will call, and I will. I've even thought there must be some way to rig a slapdash summer program that pairs these older urban teens with my kids and their friends, some barter deal that would benefit everyone. I'm going to work on it. There are so many urban kids who never get off the streets and onto a dirt path in their everyday, who never get lost in the woods, even those minutes away in Prospect Park. It is a crying shame. I know this to be true, but even more so after the success of my son's party.

Those 10 crazy boys bonded in those urban woods, all wearing their uniform of hat, fanny pack and water bottle. It was, truly, like a military operation. I was shocked. I knew I had to corral them somehow, but I never thought that putting them in formation to gather their gear, suiting them up and heading out in a line would really work. I guess the military is on to something, who knew? I've always been anti-uniform myself, but I may be a convert after this. My hubby and I both donned the silly hats too as we headed down the sidewalk toward the park, singing army tunes and catching stares and smiles, not caring.

"Isn't this kind of embarrassing?" one kid asked. "Nope," said my husband. The kids loved running through the fields to catch butterflies, walking up the tree-lined path to its end, where they found a stick structure they were convinced was built by Indians. There they spent a good long while digging under logs to find bugs. They also had to find the perfect sticks to roast marshmallows. We explored out-of-the-way areas where you couldn't even tell you were in an urban park. Apparently, you can camp overnight in Prospect Park, but we'd already pitched the tent inside. Instead, we found an open barbecue, lit up the coals and made hot dogs as the kids explored the hidden forest nearby.

It was like Lord of the Flies when they returned from their adventure, having gone further than we realized and loved it. Each boy was dirtier than the next. It was awesome. They felt free. Woods are magical, dark and deep, Robert Frost reminds us of that. We have to remind ourselves of this often in the city. We have to get off the streets and play in nature, even close in. Inward Bound, my husband calls my new camp idea. I love it.

The beauty, too, is that after five hours in the park and a quick locker-room-style shower, even a pack of 8-year-old boys have little fight left in them. One swift threat around 11:15 that parents would be called to pull their sons out of the tent and home did the trick. They were out, doubtless dreaming of those delicious s'mores. Note to city dwellers: gas stoves work just fine for roasting marshmallows, in a pinch. Better, though, to do it outside, if you can.

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