published Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

First Things First: Dads and sons bond

Julie Baumgardner

"My family has always camped," said Dan Venable. "Whenever [the] family gathers, stories come up from our many expeditions usually followed by a lot of laughter. This intrigued my wife, whose family did not camp. [Many times] we discussed the importance of doing something like this with our kids to create great memories."

As the Venable boys moved into their formative years, the dads, Bob, Dan and Sam Venable, came together to plan an adventure for their sons. One thing led to another, and the decision was made to try to conquer the Appalachian Trail.

"The first year, it was three dads and our four boys ranging in age from 8 to 13," said Sam Venable. "We went for four days and nights. It was a great way to spend time with our sons away from all the distractions in life. Before we knew it, we had been doing this with our kids for eight years."

Sam and Dan laughed recalling the time they all met at Unicoi State Park ready to head out for their four days.

"We weren't very far down the trail when we ran into a Boy Scout troop," said Dan. "We asked where they were coming from and they said, 'We started here and turned around because there is a tropical storm headed this direction with 8-12 inches of rain.' The Scout master emphatically told us we needed to turn around as well, but we said we were set to go and we weren't turning back. After trying to convince us not to go out, the Scoutmaster gave up, but insisted on taking our picture. We figured it was so they could identify us after the fact."

The Venable men and boys did get the rain, all 8 inches. One son said there was more water in his boots than on the ground. They all lived to tell about the experience and have some pretty funny shared memories.

"I recently asked my youngest son if these trips formed him into the young man he is today," said Dan. "When you are away from technology and all of life's distractions, you have a lot of time for deep conversations about things like relationships, struggles and God, and you have time to ponder who you are as a person. My son said that he didn't think the trips necessarily formed him, but they helped him figure out who he is as a person."

Now, one son has graduated from college, another is preparing to graduate, and the youngest begins college in the fall. As the dads reminisced about their time on the trail, they said they wouldn't trade the opportunity they had to bond with their boys and create lifetime memories.

"It was physically challenging for all of us," said Sam. "We worked together to come up with a plan. Everybody had to participate. All of us had 30- to 40-pound packs, and we had to figure out how to make the water and food supply last."

These men have given their sons a gift money can't buy: their time, the depth of relationship with their fathers, uncles and cousins and stories they will tell their future families about their treks on the Appalachian Trail.

Email Julie Baumgardner at

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