There's a point in a kid's life where the desire to discover new things kicks into overdrive and seems to suddenly "wake up." For me it didn't happen until I was 16, during my first trip to Colorado. Our church youth group hopped a plane and headed to Presbyterian Highlands Camp, nestled just outside Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness. I can remember I almost didn't go on that trip. All my pals were going but that summer I'd been saving my money for a new stereo cassette deck. Finally I asked my folks if it was OK to go and to my surprise they said yes. Prior to that my world consisted of the typical high-school kid stuff: sports, music, girls and on a good day, college. How could I have known anything outside my immediate realm existed?
For our first night in the wilderness it took 6 hours to hike 7 miles beneath 50-pound packs to reach our destination, a lake located at 10,350 feet above sea level. That night we lay on the shore trying to count stars through frosty breath as a fire burned nearby in its small, rock ring. To say that night at the lake made an impression on me would be an understatement. It changed my life forever.
This past weekend I had the privilege of taking my 11 year old son on his first backpacking trip. At dinner a few months prior we'd tossed out the idea, and my dear wife being who she is immediately grabbed a calendar to identify a date so the idea wouldn't get lost in the chaos of life. In the destination deliberation my friend Scott and I were trying to identify the best first experience; far enough removed that they felt like they'd actually accomplished something, but not too far they resented us dragging them along. Scott was bringing his daughter Sam, Matthew's best friend. We batted around a few options over e-mail and in the end he deferred to me. In my mind there was only one choice.
The next week was spent outfitting my son. In the years of backcountry travel following that first trip we've accumulated plenty of gear, and now the task was finding a pack that fit Matthew. My wife graciously volunteered her down bag and Thermarest pad and we had the essentials. Henry, our black lab, knew the sounds and smells of wool, nylon and polypro as we assembled our gear throughout the week, spreading it out on the kitchen table amidst lists and dinner. Most of the time Henry was found laying off to the side of the table pretending to be asleep, but, really ready to explode with one word. I hadn't the heart to tell him he wouldn't be joining us this trip. This weekend was about the kids.
Friday night rolled around, Scott and Sam showed up. We had a beer, did a final gear check and headed to bed, excited for tomorrow. The next morning Scott was up early fixing everyone breakfast and we were able to get an early start for the hour drive to the trail head. The kids were giddy as we hefted packs out of the truck and strapped them on for the first time for real. Water bottles, trail mix, bandanas, pocket knives, sunscreen and sunglasses were all adjusted and off we went.
The trail was long, but fairly level for the first 5 miles. The challenge was keeping the kids focused on continuing to move forward, and not on the sweet, salty trail mix and candy bars in their packs. We'd stop, rest, drink, take pictures of sweaty backs through t-shirts, then the packs would go back on for another hour or so, all the while encouraging them to keep going - we're getting closer with every step.
The last 2 miles of the trail were a bit more challenging. A river was crossed by an old, double log bridge with a primitive hand rail, and we finally started to gain some elevation. Pleas of "how much farther" began emerging, to which I'd reply truthfully, we're getting closer with each step... we're almost there. A strategic rest at the bottom of the final, steep climb provided an opportunity for a pep talk, some water and some sweets. This was the home stretch and in less than 20 minutes we'd be "there."
We arrived through the trees, tired, sweaty and sore, for a glimpse of the lake I'd spent my first night at 30 years prior. My son was tired, but his first words were, "this is so cool..." We spent the rest of the weekend with the kids, hiking, cooking meals in our high-alpine kitchen and sharing our knowledge and experience with them. We taught them why fires were no longer permitted and why it's important to camp at least 100 feet from a water source -and even discussed why other parties at the lake were ignoring these regulations. They learned how to handle a pocket knife, matches and light a recalcitrant backpacking stove; why it's important to keep your feet dry when you hike and a hat on when you sleep. We taught them how to hang the food so chipmunks and bears couldn't get it, they learned what biodegradable soap is, how to set up a tent and how to squish the air out of a Thermarest pad when you roll it up. Things that, after you do this sort of thing for a while, you just know. Their heads nodded and eyes opened as they awoke to this entirely new realm of things they'd never even considered.
As parents, we don't want to push or bully our kids into decisions we'd like to see them make in life. Still - sometimes we can't help wanting them to just naturally go where we think they should. Often times they don't. But sometimes they do, on their own volition. When this happens and you witness the beginning of new discovery - things that aren't easily described; there's simply no way to adequately communicate; that are wonderful and good - it's a fine thing in a parent's journey.
Often times during the weekend I had to turn away, choked up, as I watched my son transform from "Sponge Bob" addict to mountain adventurer, awakening at the very same place I awoke, 30 years before - glad he was beginning earlier than I had.
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