We checked out this book from our library a few days ago- Little One Step, by Simon James. Admittedly, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a book like this, but the toddler grabbed it off the shelf and smacked me right across the face with it. So, instead of re-shelving it I stuffed it in our already overflowing bag of books. I read it to the kids last night, and it’s exactly the sort of book you’d imagine it to be based on the title.
A little duckling and his two older duckling brothers are lost in the woods, and must find their way back home to Mama duck. Littlest duckling is scared and tired and weak – he simply can’t make the journey. Then, brother ducklings teach him the simple trick of “One Step,” taking just one step. Then another, and another, and another, which he does. Until he fails. He grows all wobbly again and can’t go on. Brothers remind him of “One Step,” and he tries again. Step, step, step. But he keeps running into all these obstacles: tall trees and wide fields. The impossible. Brothers encourage him and keep reminding him of “One Step,” until he finally gets it, and marches past them all the way to Mama. And when he finally reaches Mama he tells her his new name, “Little One Step.” He ultimately internalized his brothers’ encouragement and it became his reality- a new identity even.
For some reason I started thinking about this book again today, and it felt like such a big thing. We’re all familiar with Lao Tzu’s quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So familiar with it that it’s become trite. [The cynic in me would appreciate a really clever Demotivational Poster based on that quote.]
But then I started thinking about it in a deeper way. My mind went back to the absolute most difficult, grueling hike I’ve ever done: Mt. Rosa, in Colorado Springs, CO. This was the mountain that Zebulon Pike (namesake of Pike’s Peak) is believed to have actually made it to before abandoning his attempt to summit the mountain that would later bear his name. It’s not the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed; its recorded height is only 11,499 ft., but it is the most significant for me.
My buddy Don and I decided to climb it in the month of March, though. In March, mind you, the Front Range of the Rockies is completely covered in snow and ice. Still, we were both up for a challenge and decided to go for it. We wore our crampons and got an early start, predawn. We hiked and hiked and…hiked. We climbed and struggled and sank up to our waists in snow at some points. We wandered off trail due to lack of visibility. We found our way back. We veered off trail again and had to bushwhack for a while. We ascended what felt like the steepest cliff I’d ever been on, hoisting ourselves up with the assistance of ice-covered saplings. Finally nearing the top, wet and freezing and spent, we saw the summit in the distance. Bolstered by the sight, we hustled up and pressed on, eager to claim victory over this mountain.
Our hopes were dashed, though, when we entered an open, sunny meadow and realized our error. A false summit. We hadn’t remembered reading about the false summit in the trail reports. False summits can have a devastating effect on the psyche, and I don’t know about Don, but I thought I would break. We set our packs down in the meadow, silently, and took a break to refuel with a snack. It was already late in the day. Hiking through the snow had considerably slowed our usual pace, and there were precious few hours of daylight left. We knew even then that we’d never make it off the mountain before dark.
Finally, we broke our long silence. “What should we do?” we asked each other. A few beats passed. “Keep going,” we replied. Fueled by granola and our male egos that really, really didn’t want to concede defeat in front of one another, we slid back into our packs and set off.
Our feet hurt. Our backs hurt. Our hands were stiff with cold. As we neared the actual summit, we realized what would normally be a 20-30 minute push to the top was going to take at least triple the time through chest-deep snow. We took turns leading, because each trail-blazing step was excruciating. [Did I mention we were both wearing shorts? Granted, we were each wearing a base layer under them, but they, and our legs, were torn to bits after trudging through snow and ice all day. I definitely should have planned this one better.]
We kept telling each other, “We’re almost there. Almost there. Keep going. We can do this.” Until we couldn’t. Our verbal expressions became more colorful. There was swearing. There were some shouts. Then, finally, there were only guttural utterances and groans. I reached the point that I really thought there was no way we’d actually make it to the top. And we just kept going. We literally pushed and pulled each other up along the way.
Finally, finally, we peaked. As we took those final steps to the top I felt strangely emotional. I’m not generally a crier, but I was close to welling up. This sudden wash of adrenaline-laced victory was too much. If my eyelashes weren’t literally stuck to my frozen tear ducts, tears may have come out. We stayed on the summit just long enough to take in the spectacular views, relish the moment, and snap a couple of pictures. Then, the reality of what still lay before us set in. We had to hike back down the mountain.
Descent felt eternal. It was brutal. There were parts we had to glissade down. Our legs wobbly, we tripped; we fell. We finally regained the ability to speak. Then the sun spectacularly set. Night came. We spent the last three or four hours hiking in the dark, without the use of our headlamps. Night vision is actually pretty amazing. Without any artificial light your eyes can adjust to the darkness and see an awful lot in just moonlight.
We made it back to flat ground, and as the adrenaline left my veins I realized just how tired and sore and spent I was. It was beautiful. I felt like I’d, no- we’d- pushed my body past everything I thought it was capable of. And as we neared our vehicles to go our separate ways we were already planning our next hike.
This experience became one of those mental signposts for me. Whenever I need a boost of confidence or stamina I go back to this hike and remember its significance: I couldn’t do it. There’s no way I could have completed that hike alone. No way. The terrain was too difficult, the psychological barriers too great. The dangers too real. It would have been a fool’s errand to try on my own. So that means I go back to this hike to check my ego as well.
I don’t buy the narrative of the self-made man. It’s as false a narrative as that false summit was on Rosa. None of us reaches success, however defined, completely on our own. There’s always someone to thank. I spent way too many years of life afraid to ask for help with anything. Afraid that would make me appear weak, incapable, insufficient– because for some reason we’ve particularly tangled the notions of self-sufficiency and masculinity in our culture. We think that is somehow virtuous. I believe that narrative is as dangerous as it is false, though. Teaching our sons that they have only themselves to thank for whatever successes they enjoy in life leads to entitled, egotistical jerks who think they deserve whatever they want, at the expense of exploiting others, because they’ve earned it.
I’m a white, hetero, Christian male- the most privileged demographic in society. The world is much more likely to say “yes” to me, to take a chance on me- it’s slanted to my favor much more so than my counterparts who don’t fit one or any of those descriptors. I want my sons to know that. To recognize their own privilege and use it for good- and not just their own good. So, I take them on hikes that are way too difficult for them. Hikes that make them tired, that make them whine, that are dangerous and sometimes not fun. I want them to have to ask for help. I want them to hear me offer help. To know what that sounds like. To realize that they shouldn’t and can’t do some things on their own. And that’s okay. It’s okay for all of us.
Just “One Step.”
Little one, just one step.
Thank you, Don.