Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 12 — Reds Meadow to Deer Creek

Our campsite at Red’s Meadow was located about half a mile from the Mule House Café, and when I woke my mind was already preoccupied with eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and coffee.  We packed our gear in the cool morning air then set out on a narrow trail that wound to the restaurant through a grove of aspen trees.  A soft breeze played against the dangling leaves, causing them to rustle and whisper with a familiar voice that stopped me in my tracks.  I knew that voice.  It was like receiving an unexpected call from an old friend and mentor whom I hadn’t spoken with in too many years.

As a child, I lived for several years on five semi-rural acres in Colorado’s Rampart Range.  Behind our lot the Pike National Forest seemed to stretch endlessly, its ponderosa pine forests freckled everywhere by the most wonderful aspen groves.  I spent hours amongst those trees, climbing their branches, daydreaming in their shade and sharing timeless afternoons with friends.

Now, as I stood beneath those whispering trees in Red’s Meadow I looked up through the leaves and let their voices carry me back.  The leaves of those trees were paper-thin and fragile-looking; the breeze was gentle, but together they stirred feelings and memories so powerfully inside me.

“Do you hear that?” I asked the boys.

They stopped and looked up.

“That’s the sound of my childhood,” I said.  “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

They nodded politely and went on, and as I watched them go I wondered what the sounds of their childhood would be.  What unexpected whisperings would someday freeze them, take them back to summer afternoons that seemed to last ages, remind them of their inherent innocence, their essence, their beginnings?

I had a momentary fear that maybe the life I had provided them wouldn’t have any such whisperings.  They’d lived the bulk of their childhoods in a large Southern California city.  Their homes had always been situated on small lots, fenced from the neighbors.  What if they never found their own version of my aspen trees, some graceful and powerful symbol of their place in the world, some part of nature that rooted them, connected them to everything larger than themselves?

But then I smiled.  Their childhoods had been full of beauty too—oases in the desert, waves during a red tide that lit the night like electricity, fresh berries from our garden, sand between their toes, the racket of wild parrots outside their bedroom windows.  I couldn’t guess exactly what it would be, but they’d find their aspen trees.

As I started walking again, a grasshopper jumped onto my shirtfront and hitched a ride for several hundred yards.

We ate a huge breakfast then enjoyed long, lingering, hot showers before finally hitting the trail in the late morning.  We passed the scorched carcasses of countless trees before reaching a hill and climbing steadily southeast into a dry, forested area called Red Cones.  We ate lunch beside Boundary Creek, making jokes and laughing.  I walked ahead throughout the afternoon, and when I reached Upper Crater Meadow I sat beside the trail and waited for the others.  The air was calm and wildflowers scattered the meadow like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Birds flew in the sky above, butterflies floated carelessly all around and a bumblebee gathered pollen from a nearby larkspur blossom.

When we arrived at camp I dug a nylon frisbee out of my pack, and the boys and I played catch.  After a while it turned into a game of monkey in the middle, which grew wilder and more exciting until the frisbee suddenly got stuck in the branch of a tall tree.

“Oh no!” Noah shouted.

“We can get it,” I told him, and that became our new game, throwing sticks and rocks into the tree, trying to knock the frisbee loose.  It turned out to be just as fun as throwing the frisbee itself, and the challenge of it felt so familiar to me.  I realized it was something I’d done a thousand times as a kid, and I wondered how many countless things my friends and I had gotten stuck in treetops when we were young.

We finally rescued the frisbee just before dinner, and as we sat eating quietly in the late afternoon sun Pam and I looked at each other.  We’d talked earlier in the day about the boys and how they were holding up.  Were they having fun?  Had the trip been too grueling for them?  Already they seemed so much stronger to me, but they’d understandably struggled to get to this point.  The days of hiking had been long and difficult, especially with the smoke, and we hadn’t had as much down time for relaxing at camp as all of us had imaged.  It had been a tough trip, and Pam and I both felt it was important to give Noah and Kai a chance to speak freely about how they were feeling, whether or not they were enjoying the journey, whether or not they even wanted to keep going.

“So what do you guys think about the hike so far?” Pam asked.

They both looked at us a little uncertainly.  “Good,” they said then went back to eating.

“No really,” I said.  “I know it’s been hard.  Tell us what you’re feeling.  Are you having fun?  Does it feel like too much?”

They both looked a little uncomfortable.  Noah spoke first.  “I really like being out here.”  He looked around at the trees and you could see he meant it.  “But walking every day is kind of hard.”  He hesitated, and I could see the cogs turning in his head.  He wanted to say more but he didn’t want to disappoint me or hurt my feelings.  He had always been especially careful in that way.  “A month might seem like kind of a long time, but I still want to do it.”

I translated that to mean it felt like too much, and Kai echoed the sentiment by saying, “It’s just walking and walking and there’s not really a point.”

I felt a little sick inside, like an egg had broken somewhere in my chest and was oozing down through my lungs.  I felt like I was failing.  I wanted so badly for my boys to be having the adventure of a lifetime.  I wanted them to love every moment.  I wanted to feel like we were sharing some perfectly magical experience.

But I knew better.  I had wound my way through other adventures in my lifetime—hiking other long trails, traveling through foreign countries, diving headlong into marriage and fatherhood—and I knew that sometimes the perfect adventure can feel like a total drag.  It can be grueling.  It can make you want to quit.

I nodded.  “I hear you.”

And then Pam said the words I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say.  “Do you want to quit?”

The broken egg gunk oozed down into my stomach.  I didn’t want to quit.  I wanted to make this thing work.  I wanted my boys to walk away from this summer with the knowledge that they’d hiked the entire John Muir Trail.  I wanted to stay out in these mountains, swimming in the playful rivers, sleeping beneath the stars… pretending as long as I could that there wasn’t a cubicle with a computer and ten thousand e-mails waiting for me back in San Diego.

But I knew it would only truly be their adventure, their accomplishment, if it was something they wanted, something they felt some ownership and control over.  It wouldn’t be their adventure of a lifetime if it felt like a chore imposed by Dad with his calloused hands and leather whip.

“If you guys really want to quit, we will.  But I just want you to understand that if we go home, get back in our routine, and then you decide you miss this and want to come back, we won’t be able to.  I’ll have to work.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this much time off work again for a long time.  This really is our chance to hike this trail.”

Pam kept her eyes on me while we talked, making sure I didn’t push too hard to sway their decision.  “But you guys get to be honest.  You tell us how you really feel.”

One thing I love about being a dad is knowing my sons so well that I can read their faces, and in that moment there was a lot to read.  They were both torn.  You could really see it.  They did like being out in the wilderness, spending time together as a family every day.  They loved going to bed and waking up all together in the tent.  They liked drinking hot chocolate in the sun every morning.  Kai loved catching frogs, Noah loved finding peaceful places to read in the afternoons, and they both loved having free time to dream and play.  But hiking day in and day out sometimes felt like a drag.  It was hard.

“I really miss my guitar sometimes,” Noah said.  “I’m afraid when I get back I won’t be any good at it.”

“You’ll be just as good,” I said.  “You haven’t lost anything.”  But he didn’t look convinced.

“I miss my skateboard,” Kai added.

I wanted to tell him that he had his whole darn life to ride his skateboard, but we’d never have this chance to hike a long trail as a young family again.   But I bit my tongue.  The skateboard mattered to him.  It was real.

“Think about it, okay?  Really think about it, and we can decide when we get to Edison Lake.”  We planned to spend a couple nights at a place called Vermillion Valley Resort when we reached the lake, sleeping in real beds, eating real food and taking real showers.  “If you guys really want to quit when we get there, we can.  But think about how you’ll feel when you get home.  Will you wish you could come back?  Will you be bummed that we didn’t finish our goal and climb Mount Whitney?  Really think about it.”

I wanted to push harder but Pam was looking at me, so I quit.

A short while later while I was washing dishes a hiker named Brian we’d met earlier in the day walked into our camp carrying a bag of trail mix and several granola bars.  We greeted each other and he held the food out.  “I decided I can get by without this stuff, and I want your boys to have it.  We’ve got to keep their muscles growing."

The boys’ eyes widened.  There were a lot of M&Ms in the trail mix, and bars were their favorite things for snacking and lunch.  “Thanks!”

“I just think it’s really cool what you guys are doing.  I love seeing the kids out here.  It’s something they’re going to remember their whole lives.”  He looked at the boys.  “You guys are amazing, and you’re really going to thank your parents for this someday.”

I couldn’t believe his timing.  After the talk we’d just had, for him to come and give the kids a boost.  You could see the pride on their faces when he told them how impressed he was that they were hiking the whole trail—and I could have hugged him for it!

We talked for a while and learned that Brian had been a school superintendent in Santa Barbara before retiring.  He had grown kids of his own.  “The best memories I have are from the trips I took with them.  We went to India a couple times, and I tried to teach them that you can pack light.  You don’t always need all the stuff you think you do.  You feel free when you let go of a lot, and you experience more too.”

That night as we lay in the tent, I thought about the conversation we’d had with the kids.  What could I do to emphasize the parts of our trip they were enjoying and minimize some of the drudgery?  I decided it would help if I let go of my preconceived notions of what our camp routing should be.  I could let them play a little more in the mornings without getting frustrated when we started hiking later than I’d planned.  We could linger a little more at lunch, relaxing and soaking in the peaceful moments, and in the evenings I could do a better job of making time to share fun things with them.  They’d loved throwing the Frisbee, and we could explore a little more, just wander around without our packs and discover things together.

I closed my eyes and tried to send thoughts to Noah and Kai, as if I was Obi-Wan Kenobi telepathically telling Luke Skywalker to use the force.  “You can do this guys.  You’ll feel so good if you make it all the way.  I promise.”

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer