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Scene, Sunday, August 26, 2007

I’m happiest with a three-day growth of moss on my teeth, rubbing two sticks together in a blizzard.

But I have always failed miserably at teaching people to love the outdoors like I do. I’ve always wanted to mold me a mountain man, but I don’t exactly have the best success rate.

Why? Because I suffer from “Bad Dad” syndrome.

Bad Dad is the guy who drags his child up Mount Fuji by the collar. The guy who takes his 6-year-old on a 12-mile cross-country skiing trip, promising that the trek is almost over every slide of the way. The guy whose child entertains thoughts of bludgeoning his peppy “You can do it!” parent with a bicycle spoke, a snow ski or whatever implement might be in use during a “fun-filled” family activity.

Bad Dad, basically, is me. How can I suffer from this syndrome when I’m a woman without kids?

It’s easier than you think.

I’m proud of my outdoor prowess and once outside, Bad Dad tends to take over. Once, at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I forced my newfound hiking buddy on a 13-mile trek after he tried to get in his sleeping bag to hide from me and the pain I represented. He called me “Sir, yes sir!” for the rest of the week.

Another time, I tried camping with a fellow who didn’t even like to walk in sand because it got in his shoes. That was our first and last camping trip.

And even if my hiking buddies were up to the challenge of roughing it, I’d always try and figure a way to make the trip unnecessarily grueling just to out-macho them.

So when my boyfriend Michael told me he had no camping experience, save for a one-time tentout in his parents’ backyard as a 11-year-old, I thought, “Yes! This is my shot at redemption!” and made plans at Australia’s Blue Mountain National Park.

I swore that I’d go easy on him, so he’d like the experience of camping with me and actually want to go again. But Bad Dad habits are hard to break.

It started as soon as we started looking for a camp site.

Allison: “Hey, look at this great site, hanging over the precipice of this rock. It’s only a four-mile hike from the parking lot!”

Michael: “How about this one? We can park our car next to the tent!”

And so it was. We reached Blue Mountain National Park — just a short hop from Sydney — in the rainy Australian winter. Our first stop was the Glenbrook grocery store for foodstuffs.

I bit my tongue when Michael disappeared inside only to turn up at the register with a wild look in his eye, muttering something about “batteries” and carrying several bags of potato chips. Several large bags. Just in case, he said.

Hmmm. This could be insinuating that I can’t cook over a campfire. ME! But I held my pride at bay.

Michael also bought enough beer to drown an army, enough ice to build an igloo and $70 worth of firewood — just in case. Hmmm. Again, was he hinting that I can’t scavenge for wood or find a way to keep beer cold? But I checked my ego for his comfort’s sake. No Bad Dad here.

But when Michael started acting cool and distant, I started plotting revenge.

Little did I know, Michael was “positioning himself for survival” in the Great Unknown. The emotional distance was just in case he had to resort to cannibalism, which actually showed some forethought and initiative compared to campers past.

But I still wanted vengeance, and a chance to flex my muscles. So after I put up the tent, started the campfire AND made dinner under his critical gaze, I suggested a night hike. No flashlights.

Earlier, the friendly forest ranger informed us that we were the only two people camping in the park.

“We lock the gates at 6 p.m. so you won’t be able to leave,” she said, adding, “No worries, there’s no one here for 50 miles.”

I knew this prospect struck fear and visions of a dingo-ravaged death in the heart of the out-of-his- element Michael, but it delighted me.

And while we were the only two bipeds around, the woods teemed with quadruped, winged and marsupial life. Cockatoos and kookaburras screamed in the trees. The woods snapped with sounds of browsing kangaroos. High-pitched yips sounded in the distance. Maybe they were dingos.

And so we began our dark walk. Michael squirmed, but went along with it on one condition: We Stay On The Path. But after a while — you guessed it — I split into the dark tangle of woods, leaving him alone.

Allison: “Follow me! It’s cool in here!”

Michael: “No way. I’m staying on the path. The path is concrete, it’s safe and it’s home.”

But he gamely took a few steps forward, and I dragged him the rest of the way into the undergrowth, tripping him into the untamed world of submerged tree roots and mysterious scuttles underfoot. We got out of there quickly, but for a few minutes there, we were in wild kingdom.

I had made my point.

The rest of the night was glorious, with a campfire big enough to keep the chill off and occasional cloud-swept glimpses of the Southern Cross. We took turns telling stories about the mysterious hiking boots found in our campground. And we unzipped the tent in the foggy morning to find a mom and baby kangaroo munching grass in our camp site.

Michael survived. Moreover, he now claims camping fever and has since purchased a tent and a sleeping bag and is planning an attack on the Appalachian Trail with his son.

And Bad Dad, having met his match, has hung up his hiking boots.


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