first person

Why I Let My 10-Year-Old Go Camping Unchaperoned

Photo: PAUL BIRIS/Getty Images

When I asked my son Jasper what he wanted for his 10th birthday, I expected to hear bowie knife, night-vision goggles, or survival straw that lets you drink your own pee. Instead, he asked me a question: “Did you ever want anything when you were my age that you didn’t get?”

I knew where this was going. Since he was 6, he’d wanted to go camping, by himself, NOT in the backyard. For years I answered, “All in good time,” my soft-maybe to everything my three boys ask that I have no intention of ever actually doing: getting an Xbox, going to Disneyland, or buying them a Big Mac. Yes, I am that mom.

While I’d never let my kids ingest a phthalate or nitrate, I’ve been feeding them a steady diet of award-winning children’s books in which kids run away to live in tree trunks, inhabit caves with badgers, and survive the perils of nature with nothing but a sharp pencil and animal guts. If I could leave Oakland for an Instagram-perfect life in the country, I would.

Still, Jasper’s question made me pause, and remember 10. Thirty years ago, at his age, I lived in a quiet, minivan-driving, affluent suburb of upstate New York. My family was Mormon, but I didn’t understand, back then, that I was living in an inherently sexist, repressive, and made-up religion that would take me decades to recover from. The only thing I understood at that age was that my church ran a kick-ass Boy Scout troop that I couldn’t join. Even non-Mormons signed their boys up for our church troop because it was just so shreddy — backpacking excursions, bike treks, and the infamous week of wilderness survival.

For my father and brother, wilderness survival involved taking a live chicken into the woods, killing it, not observing standard food-handling procedures, and afflicting 32 boys with salmonella. Still green and pukey a week later, they told stories of grit and triumph over the elements for days. I was insanely jealous. Despite being Mormon, a religion which bars women from holding leadership positions and from reaching heaven without being married to a man, my parents were modern and progressive. They told my sisters and me we could “do anything.” But our church didn’t have a Girl Scout troop, and somehow I knew not to ask my parents to help me find a group to do what I wanted: go into the forest, kill animals, eschew basic hygiene, explosively shit until my intestines prolapsed, and live to tell about it.

Remembering this, and a lifetime of things I never asked for and talked myself out of wanting, I told my son, “Yeah, there were things, lots actually, I wanted. But I didn’t even ask, because the things I wished for seemed impossible. But you should always ask — things get really messed up when you can’t even do that.”

It was the perfect setup. “Well, Mom,” he said, “I want to go camping, in the wilderness, not in a campground, without an adult. On my own. Out there, somewhere. And I don’t want to wait.”

“Your dad will never let you,” I told him, immediately feeling like crap for letting that come out of my mouth. Like many divorced parents, I struggle to protect my kid from my knee-jerk reaction — everything is his fault — to my ex.

“You’d have to bring a friend,” I added, thinking no way would any other parent even consider letting their kid do this. “And a phone.”

“Friend, yes. Phone, no,” said Jasper.

This is where I should have shut the whole thing down. Where the story should end. I say no to my kids all the time. I love the word “no” like I love a tampon. I’m very weary of having to use it, but thank fucking god for this tool to deal with what’s come out of my vagina.

But in that moment, I couldn’t be the progressive parent who says no — who protects her children from everything, yet somehow makes them gritty enough to tenaciously tackle anything. Part of me was still the kid eating ice cream in front of the TV, watching Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert bring my Little House on the Prairie fantasies to life. Wishing I could churn butter and lance my own boils. The problem then wasn’t that my parents weren’t trying to help me follow my interests. Or that I was a girl. Or even that I was Mormon. It was that I lived in a world where I wanted something that just … wasn’t done. And I couldn’t figure out how to ask for it. What the hell should I do, 30 years later, with my 10-year-old, who can?

“All right then,” I said. “Let’s try.” And then I started figuring out how the hell to make his camping trip happen.

My son knew one kid whose parents might be as crazy as me. She’s a lawyer; he’s a firefighter. That they had to call Search and Rescue to find their kid once seemed like a good sign — they were willing to let their child out of sight long enough for him to get lost. Apparently, camping without adults was their son’s dream too — with a little convincing, they agreed. My ex-husband shocked me by saying yes too. This is a guy so anxious that he couldn’t even watch our kids take swimming lessons because he was constantly on the verge of jumping in the pool to save them from drowning. His permission came as a total mind-fuck — I couldn’t blame this one on him.

But where could I send kids camping for the night that was close enough to home, but far enough away from the Bay Area busy-bodies who would report two unchaperoned children to the authorities? I knew of one place this misguided plan might work.

That the Marin Headlands exists as open space in which a scofflaw mother could let loose two 10-year-old city boys is something of a miracle. The Marin Headlands began the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area: thousands of acres of grassland, protected coastline, and animal sanctuary smack in the middle of San Francisco and Marin counties — the third- and fourth-most expensive real-estate markets in the entire United States. The park (about the size of Queens and the Bronx combined) encompasses 82,000 acres of protected open space, historic landmarks, 53 species of mammals (including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and raccoons), 250 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians. And, on a Friday evening in August of 2014, the bodies of two very small and defenseless 10-year-old boys.

By the time I dropped them off at the trailhead, I had given up on the idea of a phone; there was no reception anyway. Remembering how I remained a virgin until I was 27 because it was pounded into me, starting when I was my son’s age, that sex outside of marriage was the worst thing a person could do next to cold-blooded murder, I scared the bejesus out of those two about forest fires. “YOU WILL LITERALLY SUFFER IN ANGUISHED GUILT FOREVER.” (The whites of their eyes told me I had actually learned something useful from the Mormon Church.) They agreed to meet me back the next day at 12 noon, not a minute later. Then they headed up the trail.

“What if we see a park ranger who wants to know what we’re doing up here?” they called back. “Or where our parents are?” This was a problem I hadn’t solved. I told them to tell the truth: that they were camping alone, and to give the park ranger my cell-phone number. I watched them disappear up the dirt trail, and remained calm for about an hour.

But I had just over 19 hours to kill, and I was starting to get nervous. I stopped at a bar for a drink and like the responsible, single mother of three that I am, absentmindedly drank an entire glass of wine on an empty stomach. That’s when I really lost it. Though I’m 40, I started drinking late in life. After one glass of wine, I handle my true emotions about as well as a teenage girl crying in the bathroom at a middle-school dance.

I sobbed for my dumb parenting. For telling myself the camping trip was for Jasper, when really it was hugely about me: I said yes to this because it’s what I wanted as a kid. I felt like shit for telling Jasper’s younger brother he couldn’t attend computer coding camp just because I personally loathe all things tech (except the ten TV shows I’m secretly addicted to). I tried telling myself everything would be fine, but all I could think about was rapists and kidnappers roaming the hills. I pictured the police knocking at my door, or almost as bad, a visit from Child Protective Services. The only thing keeping me from getting in my car, driving back to the Marin Headlands, and throwing myself at the mercy of the Park Service was that I was drunk. A total DUI waiting to happen.

I spent the next 18 hours FREAKING OUT. I couldn’t drive so I walked to the movies and cried through the entire Brian Wilson Beach Boys story. When I finally lay down for the night, I promised myself that if my son made it back, I would buy an Xbox and let my kids play that thing in the car on a road trip to Disneyland, procuring calories only at McDonald’s drive-thus..

The next day I arrived to pick the boys up 62 minutes early; watching and waiting for them was the longest hour of my life. Promptly at noon, my son and his friend appeared on the trail, alive and unscathed. No Christmas morning, school project, or possession has ever produced the excitement and pride I saw on Jasper’s face that day. Their solo trip brought no run-ins with authorities or threats of any kind. Just a moonless night and a light rain that left their matches wet, forcing them to eat rolled oats with cold water for breakfast.

After that trip, my son set his sights on swimming to Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. And because I really don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, I’m going to let him try. The only thing I know for certain is that parenting is a wilderness. Maybe all we can hope for is that our children find a path where the thorns don’t cut them too deep. A way through the pitfalls and perils we try to steer them around, past all the mirages we urge them toward. And hope our kids forgive us later, when they find out we had no map.

Why I Let My 10-Year-Old Go Camping Unchaperoned