A widow guides her family through grief by camping
by Amy Tomlinson • Photos by Chase Fountain
I didn’t grow up “outdoorsy.” The closest thing my family did to camping was pitching a tent in the backyard once a summer. Our version of campfire cooking was roasted marshmallows over our tomato-red Weber grill on the back porch. Full-on camping just wasn’t us.
But recently, I took my kids camping for the first time at Pedernales Falls State Park. Only an hour away from our home in Austin, Pedernales Falls seemed like the perfect getaway. A weekend to stop everything. No sports. No technology. No schoolwork. Just nature.
As a young mother, I became an expert on living room camping. I could build a fort with pillows and blankets, make some popcorn and watch a movie. I have been that mom.
So, what were we doing tent-camping at Pedernales Falls? If I look for a breadcrumb trail, it leads back to one thing. Stuart.
I met him when I was 38. I was divorced and had two kids, ages 2 and 4. Stuart quickly stepped in as an engaged co-parent and partner. Unlike me, he had grown up in the outdoors. His summers were spent at a family cottage in the woods, paddling a canoe, building fires and hiking over the hills “as the crow flies” to town for a burger. Nature was a way of life for him; it had been in his DNA for generations.
Over the next seven years, he showed us how to do all things outdoors properly. For example, he wanted to make sure we knew how to canoe. Not just pounding and splashing away mightily on both sides of the canoe, but with a graceful “J stroke” on one side. And when docking the canoe, rather than hurtling toward the dock and hoping for the best (my go-to strategy), he taught a casual glide toward the dock with a deft “draw.”
Hard things become easier, once you learn how.
One of his fortés was outdoor cooking. On a winter trip north, the kids built an elaborate snow fort. Stuart went to the hardware store and purchased an outdoor camping stove, set it up in the fort and made a grilled cheese lunch. I watched from a frosty window with coffee in hand and kept the kettle going for hot chocolate, for their upcoming our-gloves-are-wet-and-we’re-cold snow break.
Stuart showed us all how to build an outdoor fire. First, you wad up newspaper. Then, you carefully construct a Lincoln-log house around the paper with kindling. Light it, wait and, then at just the right time, add bigger pieces of wood once it gets going. If you add too soon, you risk smothering the fire. If you wait too long, it fizzles out. It is a delicate dance.
The most challenging part of fire building is, as the night wears on, knowing when to keep adding logs and when to stop, especially when there is company visiting. If you want them to stay longer, throw on another log or two. If you are ready to turn in, let the fire dim and it’s a sure signal to your guests that it’s time to go.
Over the years, Stuart and I used bonfires to mark special occasions. Gathering friends and family, or just the two of us.
And then fire, this ritual we loved so much, also broke our hearts. Three years ago, our house burned. Part of it went to the ground, and the rest sparked straight up to the sky.
And 11 months later, so did he. He went through cancer treatments for 15 months. During that time, his beloved outdoor adventures slowly changed to measured walks in the park, to a comfortable chair on the porch and finally to a hospital room arranged just-so, so he could see cloud formations by day and constellations by night.
After Stuart passed away, I felt I had to keep nature going for my family. Hiking, canoeing and fire rituals are our connections to him. But also, in walking through grief, nature can be our greatest healer.
In our outdoor adventures, Stuart always played the lead. I was his understudy, watching from the wings. And now I find myself in the lead role. Standing center stage, spotlight on, and searching for my lines as the curtain goes up. And all I can think of is, “We can do hard things, kids.” Something I have uttered over and over since Stuart got sick.
We can do hard things.
I was intimidated to take my kids camping, especially as a solo parent. But something told me that we needed this time together, under the clouds and the stars. From the moment we pulled into the visitor center at Pedernales Falls until the moment we left, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff was incredibly helpful. With the park ranger at the welcome center, we discussed trails to hike, fishing spots to hit and the park’s scheduled activities. On the way to our site, we picked up a few bundles of firewood from the wood guy, Dennis, and his dog Wrigley.
We found our expansive campsite, and my daughter and I unpacked and set up the tent and a hammock (note to self: bring one hammock per person next time). My son, age 10, got to work on the fire. I stood from a distance and watched, quietly noting that there was someone else now acting at center stage. I watched from the wings as his small hands carefully stacked the wood in log-cabin formation, around the spark.
My instinct was to jump in and help, but I hesitated. I could just feel Stuart grabbing my arm and whispering, “Babe. He’s got this.”
“You’ve got this, honey,” I told my son.
That night we sat around the fire for hours, putting another family fire ritual in the books. And, as with many fires, laughter and tears find a way. The soul releases with laughter, in the same way the soul releases with tears. It can be hard to tell them apart, and it is all so confusing, yet healing, to the heart.
The next two days we hiked, fished, played cards, met other camping families, swam in the river in our clothes on a whim and got plenty of hammock time. I discovered that a camping weekend was a microcosm of the way we are in our everyday lives. Nothing is ever perfect; nothing goes as planned. Life is messy sometimes. But good is always good enough.
We three went home feeling accomplished. From building fires, sleeping deeply under the stars, completing challenging hikes, encountering freaky spiders and persevering through frustrating fishing moments (tangled lines in trees).
As parents, one of our jobs is to let kids fall. Get back up. Try again. Get dirty. Practice. And the results that follow — the “I’ve got this!” attitude that kids feel in these moments in nature — tend to bleed into everything else. To the soccer field. To that math test over adding fractions. To challenging friendships. To enduring through loss.
And for the adult in this scenario: I’m no longer watching from the window, waiting in the wings. I’m center stage, and I’m here to tell you …
We can do hard things.
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