Can camping heal four fractured lives? After her marriage ended in New York City, Lisa Wood Shapiro headed to Maine to find out.
My children were miserable in that way kids are when you make them hike hungry in the rain the day after they learn of their parents’ divorce. It was just after five o’clock in the afternoon. We were 10 minutes into a three-mile hike to the Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, a remote Maine sporting camp, when I looked at the three of them—the girl and two boys, ages 13, 11, and 8—and thought, This is my first official day as a single mom, and I overloaded their backpacks with box wine.
We’d already walked right past the trail registry, where I had forgotten to sign us in. Those stories you hear about camping trips that go tragically wrong? This is how they begin.
The fact is, nothing had gone right that day. The plan had been to start on the trail by noon, but clearing out our summer rental took a lot longer now that I was a solo act. Then the rain turned our six-mile drive on a gravel road inside the park into a plodding half-hour ordeal. My kids kept asking, “Are we really going camping?” I could tell they thought that this was an elaborate hoax, that at any moment I’d be pulling up to a hotel.
Before we’d set out on the trail, I’d pulled plastic ponchos over my kids’ heads, tearing each one in the process. I could feel them looking at me, wondering if we were going to be OK. They knew me as the killer of houseplants and the mother with a fast-filling swear jar. Having married young and spent my entire adult life in New York City, I didn’t know how to pump my own gas. All summer my mortified children watched as I coerced nice strangers into helping me fill my tank.
I’d come up with the camping plan the month before, while back in Brooklyn, the morning after I had filed for divorce. I wish I could say the idea had been to walk my children into primeval America like Thoreau, but in truth I had wanted to escape my own news. Also, if I could take three kids into the Maine woods for five days and survive, perhaps I could handle being a single mom in Cobble Hill.
The Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, established in 1885, are located in Maine’s Baxter State Park, which is also home to Maine’s highest peak—Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Staying at the camps offers the advantages of a stove, lights, and a cabin that locks. My fantasy included bonfires, canoeing, and trout fishing. To prepare, I watched dozens of “how to gut a trout” videos on YouTube. They always start the same way: with a man, a knife, and a line like “I don’t know what other videos you’ve seen about gutting a trout, but this is the right way to do it.”’
I’d first visited the park in my 20s. My husband and I had hit an early rough patch, and we believed climbing Katahdin together would help, and it did. At the time, I imagined that it would be the start of lifelong camping trips all around the world, but we made it back to Baxter just once, when our daughter was a toddler. I kept thinking we would return one day, but somehow, as with so many other things, we never made that trip.
Now it was nearly eight o’clock in the evening, my kids and I were into our third hour of trekking, and my 11-year-old son turned to me and said, “You’re old. I’m worried you’re going to be all alone.” He’s the romantic of my children, and this unexpected departure from our family story, the college sweethearts who live happily ever after, had been especially devastating for him.
“What are you talking about? I’m still hot!” It was a shallow, knee-jerk response, especially ironic coming from a divorcÃ©e covered in mud and bug bites. My kids didn’t know it, but among our essentials, I had packed an eyelash curler and lip gloss.
A few days before we left for our Maine trip, I had found a photo, a candid shot from a preschool party. The kids were little, and all five of us look happy, so sure of us, maybe even proud. I believed we were building something and going somewhere. Maybe that photo captured the last time we were really us. I wondered if I would feel happy like that again.
My first morning at the camps, I woke up panicked; for a moment, I didn’t know where I was. I peered out of our cabin’s screen door at Mount Katahdin’s craggy-edge peak and watched the morning vapor burn off the lawn. The kids were still asleep in their Ralph Lauren–like bunk beds. I was new to my singleness and had an odd thought standing there. I wondered if I would end up a hermit. Maybe someday the camps would look for a new caretaker and I would take the position. I kept thinking about that line in Bon Iver’s song “Skinny Love”: “Who will love you?”
As awful as the hike in had been, the following days fell into a miraculous rhythm. We swam, canoed, and fished. It was unlike me not to press my kids into service with dinner or cleanup, but I did it all. While I couldn’t blunt the pain they felt, at least I could feed them well. And for a brief moment, I hatched a business plan to create a Sporting Camp for DivorcÃ©es.
Over the next few days, my daughter’s scowl softened. There were new inside jokes about her fishing skills and how we all studied the camp’s pamphlet on what to do in a bear encounter. My youngest, worn out from the day’s activities and the excitement of removing an engorged leech from his leg, loosened his grip when he hugged me. My 11-year-old seemed less worried about me and more mature with each passing day. Although they asked questions about the logistics of their new life, their focus shifted to playing with the other kids at the camps. And I noticed that the raw feeling I had carried with me for months, heavier than any backpack, had given way to something else. The truth was, there in the Maine wilderness, with my three grieving children, I felt less alone than I had in years.
The morning we left, I went into the main lodge to say good-bye. I signed the camp’s guest book. One of the camp’s employees was straightening up the dining room. She was a stranger, but I needed to tell her something—something I couldn’t put in the guest book. I needed a witness.
“This is our first trip since I told my kids I am getting divorced,” I blurted out. And if it made her feel awkward, she didn’t let on. Instead she offered to take a family picture. I look at that photo from last summer every once in a while, the new version of us. We look disheveled but happy. I wonder if someday my children, all grown up, will come across that photo. I hope they remember that bittersweet trip to the woods when we all realized we would be OK.