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An Ode to Outdoorsy Dads

May we know them, may we love them, and may we soak up every second with them.

“Mom, dad—I’m backpacking the Smokies next weekend!” I called as I opened the front door. I was home for the night from college, craving both my mom’s cooking and my dad’s adventure advice.

I was two months into my freshman year at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and, while the rest of my peers were navigating sorority rushes or intramural leagues, I’d joined the university’s Outdoor Adventure Club (OAC). Only after signing up for the club’s Great Smoky Mountains backpacking trip did I recall a slight problem. I had no gear, and I’d never backpacked overnight in my life. I knew my dad would have a solution—he’s the reason I signed up in the first place.

Throughout my childhood, dad had shared and spread his spirit of adventure, not just through his actions, like our weekend camping and fishing trips, but through his stories. He raised me on the lore of his expeditions, from the many slideshow afternoons spent reliving his 1978 Mount Kilimanjaro climb to the wild misadventure of a honeymoon he and my mom plotted to Timbuktu—a journey that left them on a train, with no food but Lifesavers, for 48 hours.

These daring sagas delighted me as a kid. They also informed the person I am today: an adventure journalist and author sharing stories from around the world—a person I so wished my dad could be here to see.

Outdoorsy dads, like my own, are a gift to this world. They inspire curiosity, connection with nature, and the tenacity to leap head-first into a life of adventure. And eventually, as tough as it may be, they find the courage to let their outdoorsy kids run free.

For me, that initial independent adventure was the three-day Smoky Mountains backpacking trip with total strangers. I was 18, and it was my first time taking an adventure-centered trip without my dad and family. It’s like he knew this day would come.

 “I kept my old gear in the basement,” he’d shared after learning about my upcoming OAC escapade. While dad hadn’t backpacked in years, he’d kept his vintage backpack, sleeping bag, and trekking poles in a downstairs closet just in case my brother or I would one day need it.

I felt honored to use his beat-up kit on that first trek; it was like a passing of the baton. That freshman-year trip was just the beginning of me living out my dad’s legacy. It was also the start of dad’s eternal fatherhood dilemma: being proud of who I was becoming, and fearful for the unknown he knew I’d explore.

Few moments illustrated this inner turmoil like my sophomore college summer in Tanzania. Like my dad—and really because of my dad—I felt drawn to Tanzania at an early age. After hearing his stories of Mount Kilimanjaro, of meeting locals and seeing wildlife on multiple trips, I knew I had to go. I followed his footsteps a bit too much for his liking.

During the getaway, a friend and I decided to climb Mount Meru, the second highest peak in Tanzania (topped only by Kilimanjaro, Africa’s contribution to the Seven Summits). I emailed my dad the update on a Thursday night, then began the trek the next morning. Only later, once I’d bagged the nearly 15,000-foot peak after three days of climbing—my first introduction to high altitude—did I learn my dad had climbed Mount Meru back in the 1970s. Or, he’d tried. He and a friend had nearly died on the summit attempt when a pop-up storm swooped in. He spent the entire weekend of my trek biting his fingernails raw, fearing I would face the same fate.

I laughed off his over-the-top worrying, but when he came to visit for a safari later that month, his greeting hug felt extra tight. Dad’s emotional seesaw had become palpable. His eyes lit up when I shared my new adventure stories; they then formed tears when he set off to fly home without me.

I moved away from Ohio after college in 2011, with graduate school stints in London and Boston, and, eventually, a public relations job in the New York City area with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Frank. I knew quickly that the 9-to-5 life wasn’t for me, but since I couldn’t find an alternative, I endured office life and stoked my adventure spirit with weekend trips to the Catskills and Adirondacks in upstate New York.

I left myself dream during those weekend mountain hikes. I thought of my dad, of all the outdoor fun he’d pursued, the wild journeys he’d enjoyed, and the stories that had come from it. I wanted a life rich with adventure memories, too.

Yet the future I craved wasn’t possible on a status quo path. If I wanted a life like my dad, I’d have to live like my dad. That meant I had to be brave. On one aha-moment-filled hike in the Catskills, after hours traversing rock-strewn trails with inspiring peak views, I made a decision. It was time to pursue the travel writing career I’d once dreamed of as a child—a career that NYC networking had shown me was possible.

I thought this new career path would excite my dad, yet where I visualized endless adventure and a flexible schedule, he saw danger. Quitting my job to pursue a far-fetched dream required a road riddled with struggle and instability—all things he couldn’t protect me from. And by this point, protection had become his priority. One year prior, in 2014, he’d been diagnosed with cancer; the diagnosis gave him roughly five years.

He saw these fleeting years as a last ditch chance to protect me, to ensure I would be OK even after he was gone. Yet for me, this diagnosis was a wake-up call. Life is short, I would tell him on near-daily catch-up calls, trying to convince him my risky travel-writing leap was worth it. If not now, when?

Things came to a head in 2018. Progressing cancer turned the future we’d avoided into a reality. To make the most of the health he had left, dad and I concocted a big trip to his favorite country, Tanzania. The itinerary was like an ode to his life: Frank, his brother, and I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro in October 2018, the 40th anniversary of dad’s climb. He, my mom, and brother would meet us at the bottom for a celebration, then safari.

Dad and I spent long hours on the phone plotting this final adventure—the journey of me following in his footsteps, something I’d been doing since that first OAC trek. Knowing I’d wear some of dad’s old gear on this trek, like his stretched-out wool hat, felt even more symbolic.

Then cancer screwed it all up. In July 2018, dad’s cancer had accelerated. Complications put him in the hospital in mid-July; he passed away two weeks later. My world fell apart.

I spent weeks and weeks on the couch, my hopelessness growing with each tear drop. I didn’t know how to live without him—let alone how to travel to Tanzania without him. It had been our trip, the one we planned for months. Yet through that thick haze of tears and sorrow, I’d overlooked a clear sign. He wanted me to go.

When I stopped home between hospital visits, I’d noticed a beat-up box on my bed. I peeked inside, found his Kilimanjaro slides, with his vintage Kili sweatshirt and maple-leaf climbing hat—the one he’d worn on his own climb—folded on my desk. At first, these mementos crippled me. He thought we’d still had time, I told myself. But then, largely through deep conversations with Frank, I accepted that dad knew Kilimanjaro wasn’t in the cards for him. He’d struggled on our previous year’s trip to South Africa; since then, his cancer had only worsened.

Instead, I finally realized, he set those belongings out as a sign for me: Go.

And this wasn’t just for Kilimanjaro. He knew that, if I took the trip, I’d likely have to quit my job and give my travel-writing career a go. I didn’t have nearly enough vacation days for our 2.5-week journey—a fact I ignored during our initial planning as a problem for future me. Since I’d yet to solve the vacation-day dilemma by autumn, I quit my job then flew halfway around the world to climb Africa’s highest peak, then begin my new life—a life dedicated to making memories, collecting stories, and seeing the world, just like my favorite adventure buddy of all time: my outdoorsy dad.

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