Roger Thompson’s We Stood Upon Stars is my favorite type of travel writing. Each of the book’s 31 essays details a physical landscape and relates a sense of place to the inner landscape of the author. The collection comes together as a whole to address what it means to be a man in our time/place when it is not always readily apparent what that entails, exactly.
No wonder Thompson opens the book with a tale of his grandfather heading out west on a motorcycle back in a time when the very act of traveling west and exploring and settling were a true but challenging route to manhood.
In the absence of those clear challenges for men of our generation — where exploring can be done by wiggling a mouse around on Google Earth without ever leaving your chair — the one place on the map that is unchartered territory for most men and ripe for proving our worthiness is what it means to be a good dad. Not a friend to your kids. That’s easy. But the kind of father that realizes that parenting is hard work and requires sacrifices. Thompson writes:
“What my boys want, what all boys want, is to know how to be a man and what the world will be like once they become one. They want to know what they are capable of, how far they can push things. Though they don’t know how to say it, they want to know how to abandon the fear that keeps them from trying to achieve something great. They want to know how to believe they can become someone great. Though we don’t know how to say it either, as men we still want the same things.”
In part to help answer the question of what it means to be great — as a person, as a man and as a dad, Thompson turns to travel. Specifically outdoors wandering and camping in a VW Vanagon. As a dad who regularly drives his family out to the middle of the woods to sleep in our own VW camper, this is an approach that I warm to easily.
Thompson turns to the outdoors as a resource for shaping his sons and his relationship with them. Similarly, I believe that as parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to convey the wonder and awe of the natural world to our kids. A lot of other things just sort of fall into line once your kids are regularly wowed by the natural world. The best way to convey that wonder is to have our children witness us as parents be awed by the natural world.
Thompson doesn’t veer too uncomfortably far into religion, though it clearly play a huge roll in his life. Your run of the mill agnostic or maybe even Transcendentalist will find nothing here that is offensive or overly full of religious hocus-pocus. By way of example, in one of the most overtly religious passages Thompson writes:
“The voice of the Creator was with me as I cast a line deep below walls of a half-lit canyon. He spoke with assurances that I am more than I think I am. I was assured I’m the hero my boys needs. The heroic sacrifice needed is my time, even if it’s spent along the shoulder of the highway.”
Thompson’s boys and my own sons are of similar ages. I share his feeling that there is only so much time when they are the right ages for traveling. For me, every weekend without a trip somewhere in the Vanagon feels like it has somehow been spent unwisely. As Thompson writes, “The opportunities would soon pass. If I wasn’t careful, memories of things we did would be eclipsed by regrets of things we didn’t”
Thompson’s honesty about how difficult this is when we are all connected to devices is brilliant. So many outdoorsy websites seem to want to shame parents and kids into getting into the outdoors. But Thompson writes that he allows his boys to play video games while he squeezes in a few more hours of work. And that he texts at the dinner table.
While he is complicit in his kids’ use of technology, he is also aware of where these devices can keep us from paying witness to the awe and wonder that can shape parents and kids alike. In one of my favorite passages about the relationship between technology and nature he writes, “We are shaped by what we commit ourselves to. We can look up and be shaped by mountains and sunsets. Or we can look down and be shaped by devices and yet another selfie. I longed for my boys to be shaped by all the wild that remains. I stood at the edge of the wilderness and looked up.”
In as much as our circumstances and approach to being dads are so similar, some of Thompson’s descriptions of events make it really clear how different — and frankly challenging — it is for us to be pursuing these outdoor adventures with a son with developmental delays.
Thompson writes vividly about shooting some rapids in a boat with his kids and how the kids are having a blast in part because they are all in just a little over their heads. He witnesses the kids pushing their comfort zone a bit. He gives them some guidance. They follow it. Their confidence grows and his confidence in them grows as well. This is all as it should be.
But with our youngest son, it is very difficult to know as his parent when I am pushing him past his comfort zone and when I am frankly just putting him in danger. As there are many times where he seems to not comprehend warnings or instructions, I’m always just a bit more cautious about when he pushes his boundaries.
I am always wondering weather or not physically or cognitively he’s simply not understanding what I am saying. At that point as a dad I think I am just putting him in danger and not necessarily helping him push his comfort zone.
Still, for our whole family, pushing ourselves just a tiny bit past our comfort level in the outdoors is key to how we come to know what we’re capable of. Last spring’s bike camping trip with my older son came to mind as I read Thompson’s passage:
“Before they are plagued with doubts about what they can’t do, a good adventure shows them what they can. . . . On the play ground they wonder if they have the superpowers to overcome their fears, a good adventure will prove to them that they do.”
Thompson is especially articulate in writing about his relationship with the engine in the back of his Vanagon. In fact I would argue that Thompson’s perspective on Vanagon ownership is more enlightened and enlightening than 10,000 #vanlife-tagged Instagram posts. But I don’t want to spoil your fun, so you’ll have to buy the book and read those chapters on your own.