I have been trying to get my daughter to hike since before she could walk.
I hauled her through countrysides in a backpack, then watched her toddle along like squawking cougar bait for some years. I eventually watched her lanky legs (which made up approximately 80% of her body for an awkward few years) make their own way up the trails.
We’ve had limited success, and most successes have been the result of significant bribery on my part. Which is why it looks like the Dollar Store vomited in her bedroom. I have used everything from candy to toys to encourage a positive trail attitude and merely developed a pathological association between achievement and new dolls for the kid.
As a single mother, I don’t know if it was about her exposure to the mountains, but rather my desperate need to be in them at whatever cost. Sometimes, she wouldn’t hate it. There was an age where she understood that camp coffee in the stillness of alpine terrain was when her mother knit the neurological fibers that heal decades of wounds. And that hot chocolate sipped while still in a sleeping bag does the same thing for kids.
There was often kicking and screaming (mostly on my part). Trails were too long. Shoes were too tight. Legs too tired. I had not learned that “positive experiences” reinforce an actual desire to repeat the thing. I grew up with a different version of doing the things: They are joyful mostly because you don’t die and are so relieved when they are over. We must earn our summits and deserve our reprieve. And that is largely achieved through lengthy suffering, minimal whining, threats and a bizarre genetic toughness attributed to Viking warriors.
When “B” and I hit the trail this week, she sets the pace. I carry a heavy pack while she schleps all the good snacks and some strawberry lemonade electrolytes – the secret to hydrating any kid up a hill. I watch her little calves flex in front of me, animal socks pulled up nearly to her knees, oversized T-shirt hanging off her body. She hasn’t started caring about clothes yet, but the appearance means she at least won’t be mistaken for wildlife. She tells me stories about a book she is reading – in fact, I think she is basically a live Audible of all the books she’s read. Every fantasy book ever written.
There is a moment she waivers. She tells me her toe is sprained, she has a headache and this will all be too far. We’re a mile into an 8-mile day. She sits on a rock, buries her face in her hands. This usually is the part where things get ugly and I feel obliged to note that her injuries are not real, we have far to go, she’s just slowing down the process and she’ll be fine.
But the mountains – and a team of qualified therapists – have taught me a new narrative. It is one of compassion and acknowledgment, of the validity of one’s own experience and needs. And dare I say, empathy.
We sit on the rock together and breathe in the mountain air. I offer her something for her headache and toe. We make sure it’s moving fine. We eat a snack. We suggest slowing down on those steep sections. She identifies a few wildflowers she’s never seen. What she doesn’t say, but I know, is that she is leaving to spend the summer with her father and will miss me. She leans on me and I hold her up, offer her a gummy.
Then she stands up and carries on. The story of dragon slaying continues. She declares that if she were a creature, she’d be a winged mountain goat. Unicorns are the imaginary pets of city girls. The elusive winged mountain goat is much more our style. She chats up a deer she sees. She laughs at the false summit and sings “The Sound of Music” as we cross expansive fields of wild flowers. She asks if we can run on the way down.
And I see that the medicine of the mountains is just as potent for our children. It is even a salve for the injuries we may have caused each other, an opportunity to repair our own story. As we make our way down through the rhododendron-rich forest, heart swelling with gratitude and peace, I am reminded that children are medicine, too.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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