Holiday Survival

We made it. The boys went back to school today after being ignoring my need for personal space and being all up in my business out for holiday break for an eternity the past two weeks. I’m just thankful the current “bomb cyclone” isn’t dumping snow here and extending the break. While I love the special family time we’ve had over the holidays, our boys seem to do best with more structured days than what we have during breaks, and that one line from “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has never held so much truth. Really though, we had a sweet time together with only minor injuries sustained [by me: approximately 17 crotch shots, a twice busted lip, and a bloody nose. Those were probably my fault, though, since I decided this break was the perfect time to introduce them to Star Wars, and convinced my poor wife they were ready to watch them. All of them. There’s been lots of light saber battling. Positive note: even at only 3 and 6 years old they realize the supremacy of the original trilogy.].

Our three boys have seemingly boundless energy, and it takes some planning to give them enough ways to get it all out without destroying our home (and sanity). It was a Lego-heavy Christmas for our two oldest, so that provided them endless hours of calm engineering play my wife and me a combined 20+ hours of back-breaking Lego set assembly while they attentively looked on fought each other and trashed their rooms. Fun. The day after Christmas we decided a family hike was needed to release some of that energy. We drove up to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest between Cleveland and Helen to hike Yonah Mountain, which should be about a 2 hour car trip according to Google maps. Google maps doesn’t take into account added time, though, for say, a vomiting toddler. We had already left the house and gotten onto the Interstate when it began. Oh, it was bad. It was bad… And we’re at that point in our parenting where no one is currently being potty trained, so we don’t even think about packing extra clothes most of the time. Honestly, after bundling up the kids for a day in the mountains and loading our own packs with lunches, water, and first aid supplies, the toddler was lucky we remembered to grab a couple diapers and some wipes.

We thought maybe it was a fluke at first. You know, like maybe he found and drained one of the old bottles of milk he likes to stash under the sofas and beds and every other nook and cranny in our home. The volume suggested a one-and-done kind of deal. So, I exited, pulled into a gas station, and lovingly let my wife get some extra bonding time with him while she cleaned him up…

Wrong. We were so wrong. Repeat that scenario three times. Three more stops to clean up. We thought perhaps we should just call it a day and turn around and go back home… but, he seemed happy and done. And honestly, it was my own back on the line, not his. I would be the one wearing him in the hiking backpack all day, so I really wouldn’t have proceeded if we didn’t believe he was finally finished. We were already in the middle of nowhere, but finally at least found a Wal-Mart where we could stop and buy him a few changes of clothes; we weren’t taking any more chances on having only one more outfit for the day.

Wal-Mart. The day after Christmas. I lost track of how long my wife was in the store while I was in the car with all three boys, who were completely restless and car-weary by then. We passed the half-hour mark. The minutes kept passing. I began to think this was payback for having allowed her the privilege of cleaning up our son. Then, as a phoenix rising, she emerged from her own nightmare of retail hell with a bag of clothes. Finally cleaned and ready, we proceeded to go find the trailhead, a mere 4 hours since our journey began.

People sometimes get the impression that our kids naturally just love the outdoors like we do, but I’m here to dispel that myth. It can take a decent amount of cajoling to get their participation some days… especially on the day after Christmas, when they really just wanted to stay home and play with their new toys. So, we let them pick the trail activity. They made us play safari. Our oldest son created this elaborately tragic backstory of a family who disowned him after his evil sister spread nasty lies about him to his parents; he subsequently chartered a plane, en route to India, but the tail broke off while he was in the restroom, and when he came out he was sucked out of the plane, somewhere over Africa. Luckily, he landed softly in a lion’s den, and was adopted as one of their own. He learned to hunt and survive in the wild, and grew up to become a tour guide on the savanna. Our middle son just wanted to kill things, mostly snakes.

Finally, off we set on our hike (through the African savanna). The boys did great. It was a cold and windy day, but beautiful. Clear blue skies. Sunlight beamed through the bare December trees. We spotted glimmering icicles, and crunched through beautiful ice crystals in the mud. The boys turned the icicles into snacks… and then weapons. Thankfully no one put out my eye.

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About halfway up, a friendly (albeit obtuse) hiker on her way down questioned us as to our 3 year old’s ability to make it all the way to the top. He was incensed by her doubt, and determined to keep going and prove wrong the lady who dared to say his legs were too short. After the lady was out of earshot, our oldest said, “She doesn’t even know we’re Smallwoods; we always do our thing-thang.”

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The kids pressed on and made it to the summit- to the visual reward of hawks circling at eye level and a prime view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the main rock face. We played and ate and took in all the views before beginning our descent. When we finally finished the 4.5 mile trek and made it back to the trailhead parking lot, the boys were able to see and appreciate the scale of the mountain they had just climbed- all 3,166 feet of it, with approximately 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

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We rewarded them with a short ride over to Helen for dinner, where they loved seeing the Christmas lights and decorations. They each received a giant lollipop from the candy shop, and a $1.98 mystery box from the glass blower’s shop before making the 2 hour car trip home. Thankfully it really only took 2 hours this time.

We made lots more memories during the break, and even did a bit more hiking, but this day is one of my favorites. The day we did our thing-thang.

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Little One Step -or- Why I take my kids on hikes that are way too difficult for them.

 

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.

Little one step

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.