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How an Insane Backpacking Trip in the High Sierra Made Me a Better Dad

A father found his teenage daughter again — and his sense of purpose — in the great outdoors

Painting of a dramatic night sky with mountains
Dan McCarthy

Three hours into our two-day backpacking journey, my 13-year-old daughter looked up at the darkening sky. Thunderclaps sounded in the distance. We were little more than halfway to our final destination of Garnet Lake in the High Sierra.

We’d read the weather reports — a 70 percent chance of rain — but backpackers at the trailhead reassured us that the storm would be nothing but a sprinkle. 

The sprinkle soon turned into a heavy rain, and then a downpour. “The rain will absolutely stop soon,” I told Julianna unconvincingly.

As someone who’s lived most of his life with mental illness, I knew denial can make recovery impossible. As someone who has walked from Mexico to Canada on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, I also understood that overconfidence can be lethal in the wild. 

Yet I couldn’t stop trying to wish away the storm. Both of them — the one in the skies and the one in my head.

During the winter of 2021, the stresses of the pandemic caused a frightening relapse of my major depressive and anxiety disorder. After months of sleepless nights and panic attacks, my psychiatrist determined that I was a danger to myself, and I landed in a psychiatric hospital for nine days. 

After I was released, it took months of hard work to get myself back together. I went to weekly therapy sessions and started taking psychiatric medication for the first time in decades. But the one thing that didn’t return easily was my belief in myself as a father. The breakdown had snapped my resolve. 

I could tell it had done the same to Julianna. She struggled to understand what happened to her dad, and her confusion and anger were palpable. She watched me every day for signs of another breakdown. 

I was still feeling cautious when she asked me to take her on a two-day camping trip. Just the two of us, alone in the backcountry.

“Absolutely,” I said, hiding my fears that the campout would be a stress test I could no longer handle. 

Our journey began on a beautiful summer day. But by the time we hauled ourselves up the ridge overlooking Garnet Lake, the sky had broken open. The rain was blowing sideways, plastering Julianna’s rain poncho to her body.

To my surprise, a sense of calm came over me on the ridge above the lake. I went into default mode, my instincts as a camper and father taking over. 

“We need to get off this ridge,” I said. “The rocks are slippery. Watch every step.”

Julianna nodded, looking grim. We marched down that ridge and found a flat spot close to the lake. I put up the tent and hustled my daughter inside it. I tried to cook dinner, but the wind and rain overwhelmed my stove, waterlogging it.

We had nothing to eat but some cold, grim MREs [meals ready to eat], but I pretended they were exquisite entrées from the world’s finest restaurants.

“For your delectation, I bring you … vacuum-packed chicken in a foil packet!”

It made her laugh, which put us both at ease. Julianna gulped the disgusting food with gusto.

For our final haul to Agnew Meadows, Julianna asked if she should take the lead. “I’ve got it,” I assured her. Because that’s what I wanted to be — a parent who could guide her once again. Someone who could set an example. Someone she didn’t have to worry about all the time.

I knew it wasn’t going to be this easy. You don’t take one camping trip and suddenly everything is back to normal. Kids need to be coaxed back into a place where they can feel safe and trusting. And a grand gesture doesn’t do that. It takes time. You can’t just blurt out, “You can trust me again!” The best you can hope for is, “You can trust me today.

I cinched up my pack and guided my daughter out of the forest. It felt like life regained. In the hospital, I had been confined to pacing a ward that was only 70 giant steps long. Now I had thousands of steps before me. But like with parenting, you just have to take one step at a time, even if they’re sodden, steep and gooey with mud.