I knew something was off in the first mile of our climb. I had a big breakfast in preparation of a lengthy summit, but I was well into my snacks before breaking the tree line, and still feeling wobbly. I assumed the mosquitoes had drained too much of my blood supply.
When my daughter was 6, she had climbed South Sister in the Oregon Cascades with me in a two-day effort motivated by Sour Patch Kids and the promise of a new Barbie. This is where I learned the power of bribery in the Great Outdoors, a useful parenting skill when the lure of achievement itself is not enough. At 14, it would take fewer dolls but more candy.
Volcanoes are often a good way to break a child of the are-we-there-yet habit. They can see right where they are the whole time. You’re there when you reach the top and then you can start your sun-baked descent into the cloud of ravenous mosquitoes below. What I love about being in the wilderness is the constant potential of discomfort.
It makes the Mediocre Indoors that much more delicious.
We brought my brother along for motivation. Any signs of weakness will be latched onto for years of ridiculing. As a matter of pride, I kept quiet about my growing desire to vomit on my feet. Altitude had never bothered me, but today it did. Even my lanky daughter, now taller than I, was comfortably making her way up the zigzag of loose rock, rattling off conservationist considerations.
I wonder if there comes a time when age catches up to us and we lose tolerance for suffering. This is likely what is generally referred to as “wisdom” amongst alumni. I trudged silently up the scree, heart racing, wondering when I could transition to a recumbent bike and those chair yoga classes. The writing was on the wall.
The summit that day was surrounded by thousands of butterflies, orange and brown, moving in patterns like flocks of tiny birds. They lifted off the pitted rocks and floated on the breeze, then landed again together on exposed stone between patches of snow. There were no flowers this high, nothing to bring them here except perhaps the view. I was glad to know we have something in common with butterflies.
I watched my daughter and brother converse as we made our way around the rim of the crater. He’s a father now, too, and it has brought a softness to him that is endearing and wonderful – a reminder that children can heal wounds we don’t know we have. They teach us empathy and playfulness and a thousand other things bludgeoned out of our brains by multiplication tables.
A few days later, I blazed down Interstate 84 toward the Sawtooths for another adventure, but I had not recovered from the climb. I had the growing sense that my body was no longer mine, but a vessel for another purpose. Perhaps the volcanoes and alpine trails were not its priority.
Because class and sophistication have long been bred out of my family line, I discovered the cause at a truck stop where I purchased the usual contraband (beef jerky, kombucha, chewing gum, a mealy red apple) with one exception – a pregnancy test.
Moments later I sat on the grass under a tree, Mack trucks blazing by with Amazon Prime deliveries, Brown Dog frolicking with stranger poodles, staring wide-eyed at my future.
When my trail runners hit the slopes of the Sawtooths, it was with a lighter load and at a slower pace. I packed more food. I promised self-compassion and stopped to linger over views, flowers, falls. I wore the kind of smile that comes from an overwhelming inner joy.
Though just a tiny embryo, it was already imparting the gifts that only children offer, a reminder that we are but a small part of something that began before us and extends long after us. We can merely hope we bring honor to our own brief moment.
And, of course, to raise carbon-neutral kids who have the same visceral familiarity with volcanoes, the smell of old-growth forests, and the soft sound of rich soil under their feet. If we are to have hope, it is found in them.
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