Stroll on wild side best thing for family
September 29, 1999
One time my husband, O’B, and I made a list of what we figured were the 20 best things we had done as parents. (Which is much more fun, and probably more useful, than dwelling on what we wish we had done differently.) The first item on the list was “Going backpacking six to eight weeks each summer.”
These enviously long trips were possible each year for a variety of reasons: O’B was a teacher and had summers off. For years I was a graduate student, and later I was able to take unpaid leave from my jobs. The kids weren’t involved in summer sports. We were living in small places, buying only secondhand clothing, and spending next to nothing on entertainment. The biggest single cost (ecological AND economic) was transportation: driving to southern Utah, Florida, Wyoming; flying to Norway, Hawaii, and India. But wherever and whenever we arrived, we walked.
As I carry a backpack for my 30th year this month, scenes from 25 of those summers with our children flash back. Josh, almost 2, hunkered down, astonished, in O’B’s backpack while Colorado hailstones pelt him from a previously friendly sky. Meanwhile, one-month-old John is nestled asleep, beneath my jacket. Josh, 3, walking across the Grand Canyon. John, 3, hiking nine miles cross-country one day in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Four year-old Josh dancing, canteen in hand, on a picnic table at Quitobaquito Spring, in the afternoon’s coolness, after hiking among saguaro cacti in 115-degree Arizona heat. Five-year-old John “swimming” half an hour with a snorkel, among colorful Hawaiian fish, though he couldn’t swim 10 seconds without a snorkel. Fourteen year-old John shouting down to me with triumphant glee, from a 17,000-foot pass in Ladakh, India, while I struggle up, my left foot dragging in that altitude. Twenty-year-old Josh, reading a Tony Hillerman mystery aloud while we rest in mid-day heat under a sandstone overhang along the Paria River in Arizona.
Fortunately, there are only a few moments of terror to remember: watching helplessly while John and Josh, then aged seven and nine, cross an enormous, roaring river 300 feet below us on a wet log, with backpacks, in Norway, during rain, because they have skipped on ahead. And John, 30 days paralyzed in an intensive care neurological ward in Slovenia, because he has been stricken somehow, somewhere, maybe in India a week earlier, with either viral encephalitis or toxic poisoning of the brain.
So why did we list these summer backpacking trips as the first on our list of our best efforts as parents? Because the hours and days spent on a trail together; silently watching dawns and sunsets, stars and rivers, talking as we lay side by side in sleeping bags, were like no other days in the year. No phone ringing; no radio; no snapshot conversations while rushing to a meeting or toward homework.
There was no better thing we ever did together and the kids agree. We were learning from the land and each other, and we were caring about it all. Each day, unforgettable events took place; and each day, the kids were amazingly resilient.
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Later, during high school, John ran away for six weeks. When he wanted to rejoin us, we were down in Los Angeles, visiting our parents for Christmas. He was 100 miles north, in Santa Barbara, so he walked to meet us. “One thing I learned when I was little,” he said to us when he reached L.A., “if you need to get somewhere, you can always walk.”
This day, as I write in Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains, I miss the kids. They would like having reached this ridge. They would like this lazy lunch break. I would probably want to ask them to tell me about all those summers we spent together.
Or maybe we’d just lie back and watch, or listen, or laugh together. (Mary O’Brien is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., http://www.hcn.org. She writes a monthly column for Eugene Weekly in Oregon.)