Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trail Children

I was hiking purposefully on the John Muir Trail one early morning last August, not purposefully because I had anywhere in particular to be (I didn't), but because the wind was blowing relentlessly. I did not mind the wind and actually felt it was warranted, given that I was on my way home after a failed hike. I had been intending to leave it all on the trail but was returning home early, miles short, so any hardships faced at this point were well deserved and would be absorbed without flinching.

I had camped near Marie Lakes and was now headed northeast towards Donohue Pass. Like everything on the trail, the night had been a mix of discomfort and a sort of simple bliss. I had trembled violently in my bag, barely sleeping as the winds whipped through my campsite, yet I had reveled in it as I wondered when I would next be back in this place, feeling bitterly cold but also achingly, vividly alive. It would not be soon enough.

As I was descending Donohue Pass half-frozen, I came across a family of four just coming out of their tent. They looked tentative but agreeable enough and amply prepared for a morning of hiking, but what surprised me was the size and relative youth of the two children. The oldest looked smaller than my youngest, who was 5. As I talked with the parents, I learned that the children were 3 and 4.

I imagined having my own two children out in those surroundings. The idea baffled and astounded me, seemed outrageous and foreign. Yet, I could see how it was doable. The parents told me how they had huddled in their tent for warmth and that the night had not been easy, but they had survived. They were excited for the opportunity to get out of their tent now and look around. They were headed to Tolumane Meadows, about 10 miles away. This was a simple enough downhill hike and the canyons and streams made for idyllic views, but as I once again thought of my own kids in that situation, I marveled at the distance.

I pulled ahead of them after a short while but got enough of a glimpse to see all four family members moving steadily and making good progress down the trail. I even had to hurry and stay organized at some junctions to make sure they didn't catch me, much to my mortification.

My family is not like that family, but I like thinking about that family as a reminder of how it can be when you introduce your children to the trail at a very early age. My kids got started at a much older age, and I still struggle to involve them in camping and trail running, truth be told. I recognize there is no forcing it. We have certainly had our share of spectacularly unsuccessful attempts.

There was the one time I tried to take the kids hiking at a popular local spot known as Chantry Flats. We got off to a late start, so had to park further from the trail as the parking lot was full and all the closer spots were taken. We parked the car and started hiking towards the trail head, but it was a hot day and a winding asphalt road, and by the time we had actually reached the starting point, both children were threatening a mutiny the likes of which I had never seen. At one point Caden (then 4-5 years old) actually sat on the wall and refused to go any further, which I responded to by saying a few things I wasn't proud of - suffice it to say, it was not my most graceful morning.

I thought it was best for all involved that we give up the attempt (still without ever even making it to the trail head), head back to the car, and live to hike another day - but it was a pretty discouraging first try.

Then there was the time I tried to get the kids to hike up the Echo Mountain Trail. My thinking was that they would love the views of the city if only I could manage to get them on higher ground... but there was the rub. The "getting them on higher ground" - well, they just weren't interested. We went perhaps an eighth of a mile before their whining and complaining got the better of me, and I relented - and as they ran back to the car, they went fast enough to look like trail runners, I can tell you that much. Oddly enough, I didn't find that comforting.

Despite these defeats and others, we stuck at it, and we did make progress. I figured if I kept exposing the kids to trails, hiking, and running, something would have to catch. At some point there would be a feeling. There would be an acceleration. There would be a relaxation, a quickening, or an understanding. There would be an experience. And it would be a good one.

And we have had those experiences. When we expose ourselves to trail running and being outdoors, even fleetingly, I see my kids having those moments. It happens when they charge up the hills so they can run madly back down, or zoom down a single track because they like the way it feels like a roller coaster. When we determine that we will reach a certain tree or a certain hilltop so we can see what's on the other side, or simply so we can hoot that we conquered that incline.

And what has been our mileage? Nothing to write home about, not anywhere close to 10 miles, surely. Maybe 2 or 3 on our longest hikes. More often, they are less than a mile. But they are happening willingly.

Our latest outing was this weekend, taking my boyfriend's dog to the park. I didn't utter the words "let's go hiking." I didn't set out with a plan, other than to get the kids and the dog in the general vicinity of a trail, then see what happened. Then I gave it a simple, "Hey, let's go up there."

"Ok," the kids said. Quick as a wink, they were up the trail. Running. Climbing. Hiking. Running some more. When my daughter tired, I handed the dog over to her, as I could feel he was pulling - he did the same with her, making it easier (and more fun) for her to climb the trail. My son clambered ahead. He was barefoot, which is what finally slowed him down - when he reached a section on the trail that was strewn with tiny pebbles, that gave me a chance to catch up to him.

"We could climb Mount Everest," he said by way of casual conversation.
"That would be amazing," I said.
"Mount Everest is the tallest mountain, and it always will be - that's why they call it ever-est. Because it will be that way forever."
I think of the recent earthquake in Nepal, and how this reportedly caused the mountain shrink by one inch. I decide this is not worth introducing. "Yes, there is none taller."

Caden is silent, focused on his climbing. Then he speaks. "I'm 49 pounds."

This is the extent of the conversation. Throughout it all, there was not one word of complaint. The day was warm, the trails were steep, but not one time did I have to force participation. And there was spontaneous, joyous running.

Those are the associations I am trying for here, these are the memories I am trying to make. We don't need to move or conquer mountains, do 10, 5, or even 2-3 miles in a single day. But we should be enjoying ourselves.

Caden this weekend - up, up, up
More up
Sevilla and Willie heading down

If I can keep getting my kids outside on the trail, keep building these positive associations, the minutes and mileage will follow. They will naturally want to go or climb further. Or maybe they won't. But at least I will have exposed them to a world and a pastime that is of value and they will remember, even if it's later when they are older and looking for ways to fill their time or capture their focus.

Positive associations, not big miles. The miles will follow. For now we will focus on the smiles, and the sheer joy of running.

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