Thursday, February 14, 2013

John Muir Trail

Why would you want to hike more than 200 miles with your kids?  It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once when I tell people about my family’s plans to hike the John Muir Trail this summer.  And it’s a fair question.  200 miles is a long distance.  Kids whine sometimes.

But it’s been a hard question for me to answer—not because I don’t know the reasons, but because my reasons are so deeply intertwined in my own childhood wilderness experiences and the abstract ways those experiences shaped me.  Long before I could walk miles over rugged mountain trails, my own parents carried me into wild places on their backs.  As I grew older, we ventured higher onto mountain peaks and deeper into old-growth forests, and I’m so grateful for the things I found there—the smell of rain on unspoiled earth, the whispering of summer wind through aspen leaves, a sky so black and full of stars that it swallowed me… and, most importantly, deep feelings of peace, connectivity, and meaning that will stay with me forever.

I want my kids to know those things, not just on some superficial level but deep in their bones and in the mysterious recesses of their souls.  I want them to experience wildness for weeks on end, to become a part of it.  I want them to sit under the dripping branches of a pine tree while lightning tears across the sky and thunder shakes the ground beneath them.  I want them to stand on the highest mountain within a thousand miles and witness their amazing world stretching out before them with all its endless possibilities.  I want them to know the peacefulness and simplicity of sunshine spilling across a wildflower meadow.  I want them to understand that they’re a part of all that—small and fleeting but utterly and magnificently alive.

I agree that 200 miles is a heck of a hike, especially through the high Sierras where we’ll climb a combined total of 46,700 feet during the course of a month.  But I want my kids to know they can accomplish big things.  I have faith in them.  On some deep level down in my guts I know they can do it, and I know they’ll emerge as better human beings for the experience—more confident, more at peace with themselves, more certain of their connection to the world and their ability to navigate its uncertainties.

Sadly, when it comes to outdoor adventure and physical endurance, I think we often underestimate our kids.  We tend to set the bar incredibly low and then hold them back because we’re afraid of bears, boogiemen, and whining.  But kids are biologically designed to move and challenge their bodies.  We give them opportunities to do this for short periods through organized sports—which is great—but modern kids rarely have chances to push their physical limits for long periods of unstructured, outdoor adventure the way our ancestors did for thousands of generations.  Our ancestors moved, kids included, often covering several hundred miles each year—and our bodies are designed for it.  Walking long distances over difficult terrain is good for us.

Perhaps most importantly, I know there will only be this fleeting moment in my life when my sons are on that teetering edge between childhood and adolescence—old enough now to venture bravely into this magical world they inhabit, yet still young enough to hold my hand occasionally, to sit with their bodies snuggled against me and stare entranced at a sunset burning orange and red across alpine ridges… young enough still to want to spend a month in the mountains with their old mom and dad. 

I want to seize this time with them and do something big with it.  I don’t want to watch it slip quickly past, disappearing forever into the murky shadows of memory, without grabbing it fully in my two hands and charging into the beautiful briefness—my eyes wide open to every shift of light and color, my heart open to each and every one of life’s crazy, wonderful, mixed-up feelings.

An adventure will be good for all of us at this point in our lives.  I know I need one, and I think Pam does too.  Our lives are blessed, and we’re thankful for all the gifts we’ve been given, but more than a decade of careers, parenthood, and the inescapable routines that accompany them have numbed us somehow, or at least worn us out a little.  And I feel a deep need to do something large, something that will stir an old fire that still smolders somewhere in the marrow of my bones, something that will slow me down while waking me up, something to shake away patterns of living and enliven all my senses to the mysteries of being.  I want my kids to know that person—dive into an alpine lake with him, sleep uncovered beneath an endless, star-filled sky with him, stand on top of the world with him and shout because life is just so damn wonderful!

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived.”  Years later John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”  I want my kids to understand and appreciate the important scientific and environmental legacy of heroes like these, so I’m taking them walking.  They may whine.  In fact, I’ll be amazed if they don’t.  But I know for certain they will also find some new magic in living, and I can’t wait to share it with them.